Wednesday 26 November 2014

Shatter's loss a waste but he tied himself up in knots over treatment of two whistleblowers

Published 08/05/2014 | 02:30

The point of no return as a minister was finally passed by Alan Shatter yesterday – although many believed he had overshot it long ago, his feet pedalling vainly in mid-air like cartoon character Wile E Coyote chasing over a cliff.

It is impossible to defy gravity indefinitely. Nor is it possible to withstand a tidal wave of controversy, especially when it is mostly whipped up by the politician at the centre of it.

Throughout his career as Justice Minister, the deputy was a human wave-maker – from his reaction to the alleged bugging of the office of the GSOC (garda ombudsman), to his data protection breach. Yet somehow he always managed to drag himself out of choppy waters and dry off.

That is, until barrister Sean Guerin's report into the handling of the histleblowers' complaints. Mr Shatter was in grave error having consistently minimised their allegations.

No doubt, Sgt Maurice McCabe and his retired colleague John Wilson allowed themselves a wry smile when news of his resignation broke. Presumably, the same applies to Garda Confidential Recipient Oliver Connolly, sacked after telling Sgt McCabe: "If Shatter thinks you're screwing him you're finished." Maybe Martin Callinan, too, sees it as poetic justice.

In short, wry smiles all round. Strange how, having battled so tenaciously in one dogfight after another, the fight went out of Mr Shatter at last. He had defied so many short odds before.

Perhaps, in his heart, he agreed with the Guerin report where it highlighted his statutory failure. His 'Dear Enda' letter seems to suggest as much. Like him or loathe him, he had integrity. His blind spots were the problem, and in the main, they centred on the whistleblowers.

Calls for Mr Shatter's resignation have been commonplace in his three years in office, yet the sight of any Irish minister falling on his sword is an extraordinary turn of events.

No wonder occupants of the Government benches looked sombre as the Taoiseach answered questions in the Dail yesterday. A shiver must have passed from seat to seat. His colleagues viewed him as indestructible.

Just a few weeks ago, Fine Gael and Labour TDs sturdily voted unqualified confidence in the Justice Minister. He survived two no-confidence votes. Until yesterday, senior ministers were downplaying the data protection breach which, by rights, ought to have precipitated his immediate resignation.

Nevertheless, Mr Shatter has raised legitimate concerns about the Guerin report – in particular, the fact that the barrister reached his conclusions without examining any of the garda ombudsman's files. It is also a little odd that he decided not to interview the minister.

In his letter to Mr Kenny, Mr Shatter suggested Mr Guerin ought to have agreed to the "not unreasonable" safeguards GSOC wanted before releasing files, and considered the documentation before making his report.

Most reasonable people would be inclined to agree – some speed would have been sacrificed, but couldn't Mr Guerin have applied for an extension? The Commission of Inquiry, to which Mr Kenny has agreed, will have the job now of sifting through those GSOC files. Obviously, those in political circles find GSOC's stance peculiar.

There were repeated references to it during Dail questioning of the Taoiseach.

GSOC was another of the former minister's bugbears. He had responsibility for it and the gardai, yet he seemed to side with the gardai against the ombudsman's office.

Not only did he question whether GSOC was bugged, he criticised it for not informing him of its suspicions.

He claimed the gardai had been subjected to "baseless innuendo" and rather unconvincingly suggested a wifi signal from a nearby cafe could have given rise to various anomalies which raised bugging concerns.

In the final analysis, however, what brought his galloping career to a crashing conclusion is the contemptuous way he treated the whistleblowers. It was indefensible.

These men are heroes, yet he painted them otherwise.

Mr Shatter pushed Sgt McCabe too far with his false claim that he failed to co-operate with internal garda investigations into the quashing of penalty points.

His apology followed intensive pressure, and was far from wholehearted: "I acknowledge this statement was incorrect," the still somewhat defiant minister said belatedly. His bete rose, Mick Wallace – resplendent in green rather than his trademark pink yesterday – said Mr Shatter had a "tendency to diminish and resist" valid concerns raised by the whistleblowers.

The minister and the Independent TD had many a run-in over them, as did Independent Clare Daly, while Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin handed over a file on alleged abuses within the gardai to Mr Kenny.

The whistleblowers' approaches to politicians outside government parties tell their own story.

Meanwhile, Sgt McCabe continues to serve, and has recently reported bullying by colleagues, if that is proven to be the case, he's still being isolated, diminished and punished. I'd like to call it unbelievable – I'll have to settle for objectionable and unacceptable.

All the same, the loss of Mr Shatter from Cabinet is a waste. It seems a pity his talents could not have been used, with his failings controlled. Reformers are not so common that they can be disposed of lightly.

It is plain from the plethora of shell-shocked expressions in Leinster House that Fine Gael is experiencing difficulties in the wake of this resignation. However, they pale in comparison with what the garda whistleblowers have suffered, and what Sgt McCabe continues to experience. Personally, I'd pin the Scott Medal for bravery on both men.

Irish Independent

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