Sunday 23 November 2014

It's not an easy job, but minister made it even more difficult

Published 08/05/2014 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren

SO the party of law and order has lost its minister for law and order. With apologies to the great Oscar Wilde, we can conclude that it would be deemed unfortunate for a Fine Gael Taoiseach to lose a government minister. But to lose a Minister for Justice does smack of carelessness.

Alan Shatter's departure as Justice Minister is a body blow to Enda Kenny, below, and Fine Gael just two weeks from polling in already difficult mid-term elections. And it does not help Labour, who had also stood by the minister through months of rolling controversies, one whit either.

Just hours earlier, heavy-hitters in both coalition parties were lining up to defend Mr Shatter as he brushed aside the latest in a long series of controversies to bedevil him. Nobody was expecting the bombshell dropped by the Taoiseach shortly after 4.35 yesterday afternoon in the Dail chamber.

Enda Kenny had made a big political investment in Alan Shatter. It all goes back to June 2010 when the Fine Gael leader was boxing off the ropes against a leadership heave.

Alan Shatter was among a group of Dublin TDs to stick with their beleaguered leader. The leadership struggle was seen as "the boarding school" versus "the technical school" wings of the party and Shatter, a lawyer from south Dublin, gave Enda's defence team "a bit of posh".

"It was the first time, in all the heaves, that Shatter had ever called it right. And it paid handsome dividends," one party stalwart recalled shortly afterwards.

The Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan made a wrong call and joined the anti-Kenny wing. Among the post-heave changes was the promotion of Shatter to Flanagan's job.

That appointment held good after Fine Gael-Labour won the election. And on March 9, 2011, Alan Shatter became Justice and Defence Minister almost 30 years since he was first elected to Dail Eireann.

Nobody doubted his legal brilliance and his huge work-rate which made him ideal for this pivotal government job. If anyone felt that his head-strong and sometimes abrasive personal traits would be a bugbear, they did not voice those reservations.

"Ah we've all suffered at times from Alan's brusque manner. But sure that's Alan," one senior official summed up rather acceptingly, just six weeks ago, as another wave of garda controversies engulfed the Government via the Justice Minister.

The job of Justice Minister has not often been an easy one. There are frequently fractious relationships with various sections of An Garda Siochana, the prison services and other staff organisations. There has long been a tangled relationship with Republican and other subversives which has carried legacy issues.

There are periodic calls for "something to be done" about various crime and other problems. These issues very often enmesh with the demands of the various staff interest groups.

"The home phone rings almost every morning before 7am and you prepare yourself for the worst as you go to answer it," one former Justice Minister recalled privately some years ago for this writer.

Most of Mr Shatter's predecessors got through by keeping the head down and carefully and sparingly picking their battles. But Mr Shatter appeared to draw controversy like a magnet attracts iron filings.

By yesterday afternoon the score sheet looked like this. There were many public confrontations with the various garda representative groups. The rank-and-file Garda Representative Association did not invite him to their annual conference and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors expressed their "disappointment" that he did not attend their gathering.

It was on his watch that the garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly resigned. And it was the first time in 30 years that a serving Garda Commissioner stood down from his post.

Alan Shatter is entitled to argue that the extraordinary events surrounding the alleged bugging of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, and garda whistleblower controversies, were legacy issues and not at all of his making. There are grounds for saying he had more than his share of bad luck along the way.

But against that the essential job of a government minister is about handling such difficulties. There was also the latest little detail of being deemed to have broken the law by announcing personal information about Independent TD Mick Wallace on live television.

For Fine Gael and Labour, Alan Shatter has involved them in 18 months of difficulty and political attrition. It has been particularly intense since last January, a period after exiting the EU-IMF bailout, when the Government had hoped to be telling good news stories about job creation and economic recovery.

As the Taoiseach announced he was accepting the resignation yesterday afternoon, many on the coalition backbenches felt it should have happened much sooner.

Irish Independent

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