Wednesday 17 December 2014

Alan Shatter doomed by tsunami of whistleblower revelations

Gerard O'Regan

Published 10/05/2014 | 02:30

Alan Shatter. Photo: Collins
Alan Shatter. Photo: Collins

It was mid-Wednesday afternoon in Blackrock village – the south Dublin heartland of Mary Hanafin's local election bid – and there she was on Main Street complete with a very distinctive Margaret Thatcher-style handbag. She wasn't canvassing. But what's canvassing anyway for somebody so often round the political whirligig as is the case with Mary. However, she was definitely out and about.

Given that she is one of the best- known figures in Irish politics, not to mention all the brouhaha as to whether she should, or should not, run again, she could scarcely move more than a few feet without getting some sort of reaction. It might be the incidental cold stare, but if the truth be told, more usually a handshake of recognition.

But last Wednesday now seems, politically speaking, eons ago. Former Minister Hanafin, and indeed anybody else, could scarcely have imagined the political timebomb that would erupt in the ensuing 24 hours. The resignation of Alan Shatter would send shock waves through the system. Suddenly an internal Fianna Fail constituency spat didn't seem to amount to a great hill of beans.

With regard to Shatter, much has been made of his alleged personality traits, most notably a perceived "arrogance'' and how this did for him in the end. But it is hard not to conclude there is too much retrospective certainty in the grandstanding condemnation of the Justice Minister.

Whether he had an exalted opinion of himself in relation to the great mass of humanity is neither here nor there. That in itself should be no bad thing. This country desperately needs politicians of strong conviction, with the self-belief to drive forward change. Even his opponents accept this is something Shatter had in spades, and our entire legal and justice system is all the better for it.

The hope must be his successor will not turn out to be just a time server where realpolitik will dominate all. It will be unfortunate if the reforming zeal of the Shatter era will be no more, and that a crippling sense of caution becomes the order of the day. Thankfully, the departed minister stoked so many fires which continue to burn, that a hear no evil see no evil approach may prove impossible.

The danger also is that Enda Kenny and his inner cabal, after all the buffetings of recent weeks, may be showing signs of a bunker mentality, particularly with 'electionitis' in the air. Time will tell if Frances Fitzgerald was a better appointment than say Leo Varadkar.

From Shatter's viewpoint, the one essential fact which led to his downfall is that he believed, as did so many others, in the traditional idea of the Garda Siochana. This has been handed down as a kind of homespun truth over the decades. Essentially it could be summed up in a certitude that, despite blips here and there, the force was essentially sound. Central to this canon was a conviction that the gardai, in the interests of discipline and morale, should in essence be allowed police themselves.

It was an organisation,where hierarchy and discipline meant that any criticism of the status quo would internally be viewed with deep suspicion. In the old days "what happened in Vegas largely stayed in Vegas''. But in an era of greater transparency and accountability this could be no more. Shatter's tragedy is that he came into the job at a time of unstoppable and unprecedented transition for our police force.

The arrival of the whistleblower concept was suddenly centre stage. Yet if the truth be told many people until quite recently would have equated whistleblower with troublemaker. This permeated the higher echelons of the force, the Department of Justice, and the minister's own thinking. But everything changed for one overwhelming reason. As accusation followed accusation, the moral force behind the whistleblowers went from strength to strength. The primary reason for this is that the Garda Siochana have a plethora of serious issues to answer.

Shatter operated on the basis that the Garda authorities would be able to see off the various whistleblower charges while he concentrated on his legal reforms. Placing his trust in third parties was to prove his undoing. The Guerin report yesterday was the ultimate confirmation of a ministerial strategy that came seriously unstuck.

When Shatter found his approach was leading to political disaster, it was too late for him to get out of the bind in which he had become ensnared. The whistleblower tsunami proved all-powerful.

Shatter has learned that sometimes things happen which are outside human control, no matter how early one gets into the office of a morning. It's the story of politics. It's the story of life.

Irish Independent

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