Monday 24 November 2014

A whiff of previous scandals hung in the air. After all, GUBU spelled backwards is UBUG

Published 27/03/2014 | 02:30

IT WAS almost surreal. Enda was solemnly revealing to the Dail that he had phoned the Attorney General Maire Whelan on Sunday, and she told him that she needed to speak to him. But she "was not prepared to talk to me on the phone at this time", he explained.

There was a moment's silence. Then incredulous laughter. How many more twists could this bizarre tale take?

Who knew what, when? This was the day's mantra. Shane Ross sure as heck wasn't any wiser than anyone else in Leinster House who was struggling to follow a fiendishly complicated plot involving bugged garda stations, the shock resignation of the Garda Commissioner, the panicked setting-up of a government inquiry, the controversial quashing of penalty points, wronged whistleblowers and a stray letter.

But Shane had his suspicions. "There's something fairly rotten in the state of the Department of Justice," he concluded to the minister listening semi-attentively across the Dail chamber.

But unlike Shakespeare's Danish prince, Alan Shatter appeared to be beset by no doubts at all as he stood centre-stage in the political arena, caught once more in the spotlight of speculation.

After the twin bombshells of the previous day, the aftermath saw everyone pick their way out of the smoking rubble, wondering what the hell had just happened. The revelations about widespread electronic surveillance gave off a whiff of old sulphur of previous scandals – after all, GUBU spelled backwards is UBUG.

Almost the entirety of yesterday's Dail business was put aside to deal with the two Shatter-related issues – the morning session would deal with events leading up to the announcement of the statutory inquiry into bugging in garda stations, and the afternoon would focus on the Garda Inspectorate report into the penalty points system.

And despite his nonchalant demeanour as he strolled into the chamber, nobody was under the illusion that the surface beneath the Justice Minister's feet was anything but very, very thin ice indeed.

For no minister – not even one protected by the unstinting loyalty of a Taoiseach whose role in this drama is to play Laertes to Alan's Hamlet – can survive indefinitely an endless wave of controversies and the resulting blizzard of negative publicity.

He methodically went through an explanation. But it raised as many questions as it answered. Nobody was any the wiser at the end of his statement as to precisely why a crucial letter from Martin Callinan had floated about his department unread by him for over two weeks.

The opposition had been chomping at the bit for ages to get stuck into Alan, and they let fly. A scathing Clare Daly borrowed from Oscar Wilde. "To mishandle one case might be regarded as unfortunate, and to mishandle two may look like carelessness, but after mishandling six or seven serious scenarios, it's time for the minister to go," she charged.

Alan sat impassively, soaking up the criticism. He left the chamber for Leaders' Questions, and so missed the Taoiseach assuring the House that "Minister Shatter isn't liked by the judiciary, he isn't liked by the legal profession, and he isn't liked by the gardai – he may not be liked by a lot of people but he has the courage to deal with the truth".

However, as the day trickled on, and no more bombshells detonated on the Department of Justice's bunker, it became clear that Alan Shatter was going nowhere.

It has evidently been made crystal clear to the minister that he was expected to cough up a long overdue apology to the two garda whistleblowers, John Wilson and Maurice McCabe, for his allegations that the pair had not co-operated with investigations into their allegations.

"I believe it is appropriate that I apologise to both and withdraw the statements made," he said.

But he can only do humility in small doses, and before he had finished his speech, he had read out the list of allegations made by the whistleblowers, including garda corruption, adding that he would be "remiss" not to point out that "there has, as yet, been no finding to show that these allegations are correct".

Inevitably the opposition were unimpressed. Fianna Fail's Niall Collins declared – not unreasonably – that the minister had been dragged "kicking and screaming" into the chamber to offer an apology.

By the end of the long day, Alan was still standing.

He may have survived the day, but many ghosts in this tangled tale haven't been put to rest and any one of them could yet rise again to strike the fatal blow to the minister.

Irish Independent

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