Thursday 25 December 2014

Like the scorpion in the fable, Shatter just can't help himself

Published 21/02/2014 | 02:30

WATCHING Alan Shatter in action these past few weeks draws to mind the famous fable of the scorpion and the frog.

In that story, the frog, despite his fears, is persuaded by the scorpion to carry him across the river after the scorpion points out that if he stings the frog, they'll both drown. However, half-way across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. Just before they sink, the frog cries: "Why?" The scorpion replies simply: "It's in my nature."

And so it seems, at times, with Alan Shatter. He just can't help himself.

All of the Justice Minister's current problems are of his own making and, like the scorpion, down to "his nature".

That nature – brilliant, confrontational, prickly, individualistic and unafraid of being unpopular – is what makes him potentially one of the best ministers for justice since Charlie Haughey 50 years ago. It is his biggest strength.

It may also prove his biggest weakness and could undermine all the good work he has done, and can still do, in Justice.

For Shatter, the best form of defence is attack; admitting error is a sign of weakness.

The story of the potential bugging of GSOC's offices shouldn't have been a problem for the Government.

Yet the Justice Minister's dogged refusal to accept that there could have been an issue and his unnecessarily tough line with the Garda Ombudsman dragged him right into the centre of the controversy.

Belatedly, a decision was made to appoint a retired High Court judge to look into the issue. But after 11 days of front-page headlines, by the time Shatter stopped digging a hole for himself, the opposition scented blood.

And now the controversy has widened into Shatter's handling of the very serious claims made by Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

The minister stands accused of failing to act on the information provided by Garda McCabe. The opposition also say he completely undermined Garda McCabe and former garda John Wilson when he pointedly spoke in the Dail of whistleblowers having "responsibilities", adding: "Their concerns must be real and genuine and based on evidence rather than conjecture."

Few in Leinster House would suggest that the comments were out of character. Shatter's nature is to take no prisoners in debate. You're either 'with him or agin him'.

You can get away with such certainty and that confrontational approach if backed up by the facts. The problem for Shatter is that many people think he is simply wrong on the GSOC surveillance issue. Or at least, that he shouldn't, or couldn't, be as certain as he is being.

And what we know of the complaints made by the whistleblowers – whether it's to do with penalty points or the more serious cases raised by Micheal Martin – seems very compelling. At least two of Shatter's cabinet colleagues are on the record asserting their confidence in Maurice McCabe's credibility.

Both the GSOC and the whistleblower controversies suggest Shatter has a significant blindspot in relation to the gardai and that that blindspot – compounded by a refusal to even countenance that he may be wrong – has landed him in some serious difficulty.

SENIOR Fine Gael figures dismiss out of hand suggestions that Shatter's position is under threat. As of now, they're right. For starters, he is bloody good at his job. Shatter's close political alliance with the Taoiseach also helps hugely. Unlike many of the front bench, Shatter was there for Enda Kenny back in 2010 when his leadership was on the line. That won't be forgotten.

But he is weakened. Not least by the hugely embarrassing revelation of comments about Shatter attributed to the former Confidential Recipient Oliver Connolly in a conversation with McCabe. That line – "If Shatter thinks you're screwing him, you're finished; he'll go after you" – is going to stick, fair or not.

Connolly's position may have become untenable, but Shatter is going to have to issue a detailed statement about that transcript and his reasons for sacking him.

But the bigger problem for the Justice Minister may come from former Judge John Cooke's inquiry. What if it finds that there was a genuine possibility that GSOC was bugged? That would raise questions about Shatter's handling of the affair.

However, even more worrying for the minister is the possibility that the inquiry might be widened – or a new one established – to examine the issues raised by the whistleblowers. There will be huge pressure for that to happen. Joan Burton didn't exactly close the door on that in the Dail yesterday, but Shatter will strongly resist.

If that happens – still a big 'if' – and if an inquiry finds the whisteblower's allegations to be credible, then where would that leave the Justice Minister?

In a whole heap of political trouble – trouble that could so easily have been avoided. Then again, that's just not in Shatter's nature.

SHANE COLEMAN IS THE PRESENTER OF THE 'SUNDAY SHOW' ON NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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