Thursday 27 October 2016

Fine Gael hopes Kenny's reply will finally banish the ghost of Shatter

The O'Higgins report has emboldened the former Justice Minister's fight for record to be set straight

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

On a mission: Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter wants the Dail record corrected and for it to state that he acted “professionally, promptly, appropriately and truthfully” with regard to whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe’s allegations. Photo: Julien Behal
On a mission: Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter wants the Dail record corrected and for it to state that he acted “professionally, promptly, appropriately and truthfully” with regard to whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe’s allegations. Photo: Julien Behal

Is Alan Shatter Enda Kenny's Banquo - the ghost who appears at the feast unseen to everybody but Macbeth?

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It's probably a bit of a stretch to say the political apparition of the deposed Minister for Justice is haunting Kenny. But Shatter certainly is making life uncomfortable for him at a time when he should be basking in his return as Taoiseach.

Just as actors avoid saying the name Macbeth when in the theatre - for superstitious reasons, they call it "the Scottish play" - Fine Gael ministers don't like talking about Alan. They just wish he'd go away.

"'Why are we talking about Alan Shatter again?' A lot of people, in particular ordinary people, are asking that," one frustrated senior Fine Gael figure said this weekend.

"Alan needs to realise that it's time to move on. To take comfort from the O'Higgins Report and get on with his life," said another figure generally sympathetic to Shatter.

But it seems Alan isn't going anywhere until he gets what he feels is his entitlement. He says he, more than anyone, wants to put this behind him and get on with life. But he is not walking away just yet. He feels wronged and aggrieved. There are two different reports, he says - Guerin and O'Higgins - with incompatible conclusions and he wants the record corrected.

He made this crystal clear in a series of interviews on Friday and, of course, in his letter to Kenny last week. In true Shatter fashion, his correspondence with the Taoiseach got straight to the point. "The conclusions of the O'Higgins Commission totally contradict, and are incompatible with, the adverse findings made against me in the Guerin Report. I am surprised that neither you nor Frances Fitzgerald acknowledged that in your comments yesterday. On such a serious issue affecting a former colleague in government, I expected this would be acknowledged," he wrote.

He further sought that the Taoiseach "correct the Dail record" and acknowledge in the Dail that the O'Higgins Report "clearly and unambiguously" concludes that he dealt "professionally, promptly, appropriately and truthfully" with whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe's allegations and that contrary opinions and conclusions contained in the Guerin report are in error.

Shatter also took issue with Kenny's line to the Dail, on the day of his resignation two years ago, that the outgoing minister "took responsibility" for the "inadequacy of the action" taken by him in responding to McCabe's allegations. Shatter said no such acceptance of responsibility was expressed by him. Now, following the O'Higgins Report, there is no question of the action taken by him being adequate. He asked the Taoiseach, on that basis, to correct the Dail record.

The former justice minister's intervention caused a fair degree of flapping behind the scenes in Government, but not on the part of the Taoiseach.

Informed sources say it would be wrong to think Kenny was unmoved by what Shatter had to say. He is personally sympathetic towards him. And, at a number of private meetings, he made it clear that he was happy for Shatter that O'Higgins had arrived at the conclusions he had. But he was sanguine about it all. The Taoiseach is a stubborn man and he certainly wasn't going to rush into any response.

Fine Gael senior figures say the issue is also far more complex than is being portrayed by Shatter and, because of that, the Taoiseach is under very little political pressure.

Shatter, never the most clubbable of Leinster House characters, wouldn't have many allies in the parliamentary party and sources say that some of his "barbed comments" towards his successor Frances Fitzgerald didn't help in that regard.

"While he can be arrogant, he's not a bad person by any means, and he certainly wasn't a bad minister. But maybe he wasn't a great politician," was one verdict.

It's a common theme when talking to Fine Gael TDs - the view that while Shatter was perhaps unlucky, he brought a lot of it on himself by his handling of various controversial issues. The Guerin report was merely the final straw. His handling of the penalty points controversy was politically disastrous. In particular, when he disclosed during a television debate with Mick Wallace that the Wexford TD been cautioned by gardai for using a mobile phone while driving. Many felt at the time, and still feel, that he was lucky to survive that error of judgement.

There were also his comments in the Dail wrongly claiming that the two garda whistleblowers had not co-operated with the garda inquiry into penalty points. He finally apologised for that after coming under extensive pressure to do so within government.

It could certainly also be argued that his very robust handling of the GSOC offices bugging controversy only added fuel to the fire. Many believe that issue - and in particular when Enda Kenny was embarrassingly caught out misquoting the section of the Garda Siochana Act about GSOC's requirement to inform the minister about the matter - marked the point where the Taoiseach's absolute loyalty to Shatter began to waver.

By the time the AG was informing Kenny about the recordings of phone calls in garda stations - the issue which resulted in Martin Callinan going as Garda Commissioner - it was noticeable that Shatter had been left out of the loop by the Taoiseach. Rightly or wrongly - fairly or otherwise - he had become a political liability.

"What else could the Taoiseach have done?" one senior FG politician asked this weekend about Shatter being effectively pushed from his ministry. "The Commissioner had gone. There was constant undermining of the gardai. You had penalty points. Whistleblowers. Clare Daly in the Dail every day. Then Guerin came out. Ok, it was only a preliminary or scoping report, but it was pretty scathing. We were in the middle of the local and Euro elections. His position was completely untenable."

He added that Shatter himself knows this. Government sources claim this was effectively acknowledged by Shatter himself in his resignation letter when he said he didn't want the controversy arising from the Guerin report to "distract from the important work of government" and that the "only way in which such controversy can be avoided is by offering you my resignation from Cabinet".

They also note that Shatter specifically sought to have the section in the Guerin report, referring to him, excluded from the O'Higgins Commission of Investigation's term of reference.

Not unsurprisingly, Fine Gael ministers and their advisors are anxious to draw a line under all this. They dismiss any comparisons with a quarter of a century ago when the revelations of a former justice minister from an earlier time were enough to bring down a Taoiseach. To be fair, they're not wrong about that - Alan Shatter is certainly not Sean Doherty and Enda Kenny is definitely no Charlie Haughey. There is no smoking gun, it seems.

They're also unanimous in their assessment of the reasons behind Enda Kenny's reappointment of Maire Whelan as Attorney General. Given she was initially seen as a Labour nominee, her reappointment raised eyebrows in Leinster House. Whelan's handling of the garda recording of phone calls issue came under intense focus and she did not come out of the interim Fennelly Commission report particularly well.

The move is regarded partly as an olive branch to Labour. But ministers also say that Kenny is very close to Whelan. The relationship between a Taoiseach and an AG is one of the most important at government level with daily meetings and sources say Kenny trusts Whelan absolutely: "You won't find a minister who doesn't have huge regard for her. They are all full of praise for her and she is very close to the Taoiseach."

Not so Alan Shatter obviously, though once that was also the case. Ministers believe, though, that the relationship need not be toxic. They stress that Shatter was measured and balanced in his radio interviews - he certainly cut a relaxed and calm figure on Friday. "He can take vindication from O'Higgins," one minister said.

Speculation that Shatter might be in line for a Taoiseach's nomination to the Seanad is being played down (though he would undoubtedly make the upper house a more interesting place). But the word is that Kenny will give a full reply to Shatter when he has had time to give his letter due consideration.

The hope in Government is that this will finally draw a line under the issue. "There's no appetite for going back," one insider said this weekend, insisting that the public, in particular, had moved on. The coming days, and the nature of Kenny's response, will reveal whether Alan Shatter has, too.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

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