Tuesday 25 October 2016

Phantom of the political opera can hide – but real issue now is survival

Taoiseach who likes to bask in the imagined love of the citizenry has been sent stark message

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

Justice Minister Alan Shatter
Justice Minister Alan Shatter

Even by the Coalition's current Tales of the Twilight Zone-style standards, it was strange to see Enda Kenny sitting lonely as a thunder cloud in the Dail, scowling as Sinn Fein, Clare Daly, Fianna Fail and Mick Wallace pirouetted on the high moral ground over the establishment of the Fennelly Commission of Inquiry.

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It goes without saying that for those of a Fine Gael hue the spectacle of that quartet being on the side of the angels on the law and order front would be curious enough indeed. But what was even more intriguing was the isolated state of the Dear Leader.

Normally, Taoisigh in a Dail chamber are surrounded by back-benchers in the manner that a limping antelope on the Serengeti is joined by chuckling hyenas. Opportunities to remind a Dear Leader of your name and existence or to be merely seen sitting beside him on the news are rare.

Such, however, is the sense now of political unease surrounding anything to do with Alan Shatter that the Taoiseach was left all on his own and looking none too happy about it either.

The plus side, though not perhaps for Mr Shatter, is that Taoisigh who are left on their own have plenty of time to think.

And the one sure thing after today's Millward Brown poll is that the Taoiseach will be thinking a great deal more about Mr Shatter.

The Coalition may, at a terrible cost of political capital (particularly for Labour), have given Mr Shatter a vote of confidence recently.

However, the public have delivered an emphatic repudiation of every aspect of Mr Shatter's handling of the various garda controversies and of the minister himself.

Even before factoring in the unique sensitivities of the Justice post, no minister who only has the support of barely more than a fifth of the public is politically sustainable in the long term.

Critically in the wake of last month's poll which named Mr Shatter as one of our worst performing ministers, he is now with James Reilly and Phil Hogan – who in fairness were given political sink-holes – firmly established in the public mind as being one of the bête noirs of the cabinet.

This is not personal either, for the collapse of public support for Mr Shatter is all about policy, with over 56 per cent of the voters saying he should resign over the whistle-blower controversy and 54 per cent stating that he should go over the garda recording furore.

When it comes to independent oversight of the gardai – a matter on which Mr Shatter has been chilly – 69 per cent of the voters support such a move, whilst 68 per cent are in favour of GSOC having access to Pulse.

However, whilst the public's difficulties with Mr Shatter are over policy not personality, the 53 per cent support for his sacking as against 22 per cent for his retention sends a stark message to a Taoiseach who likes to bask in the imagined love of the citizenry.

And an even starker message is sent by the fact that in none of these questions does Mr Shatter break the 50 per cent threshold when it comes to support for his actions amongst Fine Gael voters.

Mr Kenny, if he is of a mind to think about these things, will know all too well from the precedent set by Nora Owen that no government can thrive where the Justice Minister is seen as a weak link in the cabinet.

Supporters of the Justice Minister have of course claimed he is the unlucky inheritor of problems devised by others. But Mr Shatter has been sustained by no small amount of good luck either.

Nothing epitomises this more than the lamentable performance of the Justice Committee in shadowing the minister.

Some would argue that not even the political warmth of the Taoiseach would sustain Mr Shatter were he faced by a PAC-style Justice Committee containing personnel such as John McGuinness and Kieran O'Donnell. The problem with luck though, as both punters and politicians know, is that it is a perishable commodity and as faithless as a Hollywood housewife.

For now the government has decided to deal with the Shatter problem by turning him into the political equivalent of the Disappeared.

However, as the Dear Leader Mr Kenny sat on his own in the Dail chamber last week even before today's tsunami of support for GSOC and the whistle-blowers, the Taoiseach would be well entitled to fret over the inherent difficulties of keeping as flamboyant a flamingo as Mr Shatter out of the public eye.

After today's Millward Brown poll those who are hungry for his job will be wondering just how long the kindliness of boss-man Enda will last when it comes to a minister who requires the expenditure of so much political treasure to facilitate his ongoing political survival.

He may for now continue to carry on as the cabinet equivalent of the Phantom of the Political Opera whose presence in the news is an ongoing source of terror to Labour and FG backbenchers.

But it is hard not to suspect that no matter how invisible he tries to be the ministerial career of Mr Shatter is entering its own equivalent of the Twilight Zone.

Sunday Independent

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