Sunday 28 December 2014

Shane Coleman: Shatter's a good justice minister, but should steer clear of the cheap shot

Published 14/11/2013 | 02:00

Justice Minister Alan Shatter made some weak comments after the alleged attack on Bertie Ahern.  Frank McGrath
Justice Minister Alan Shatter made some weak comments after the alleged attack on Bertie Ahern. Frank McGrath

IF the coalition parties are wondering why they're not as popular as they think they should be, perhaps they should remember the old adage about nobody liking a smart alec.

In very difficult circumstances, Fine Gael and Labour have done a decent, competent job in Government.

But some of its members, on the front and back benches, can't help but wear their superiority complex as 'saviours of the nation' on their sleeves.

And, in their dismissive dealings with both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, they call to mind the old line about Lloyd George not being able to see a belt without hitting below it.

The latest example of that came from Justice Minister Alan Shatter and his comments in relation to Bertie Ahern, who was allegedly attacked by a man wielding a crutch in a Dublin pub last Friday.

The reported comment from the minister, who is responsible for law and order, that he "would not in any circumstances condone anyone engaging in violence towards a former Taoiseach or a former minister", seemed particularly weak. Why not use one word, "condemn", instead of two, "not condone"?

His line that he could understand there were people out there who are angry and upset by decisions made by Ahern and his government also seemed off. Why the need for context? There are no mitigating circumstances.

Barely a day goes by without some member of the Coalition reminding the nation of Fianna Fail's legacy (conveniently ignoring their own championing of exactly the same policies from the opposition benches).

On this occasion, Shatter shouldn't have done so.

Nor did he need to add that there were former Taoisigh receiving very substantial sums of money from the State and if they wanted a driver or additional security, it was up to them to decide. It was a cheap shot.

Ahern indeed gets a substantial pension, around €135,000 a year. That pension (along with the remuneration to other former and current politicians) is too high.

But what relevance did it have to the alleged assault on Ahern other than to score a petty political point?

An income of €135,000 is certainly high, but it's hardly sufficient to pay for personal security.

The abuse that Ahern is receiving – there were reports this week of him receiving a rope in the post – is unpleasant and pernicious.

That is not to say that he should be free from criticism and close scrutiny. Even leaving aside the damning findings of the Mahon Tribunal, Bertie Ahern was a poor Taoiseach.

His role in the peace process, not least his sacrifice in going straight from his mother's funeral to help negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, is to his credit.

But, always with an eye on the next general election, he oversaw irresponsible and unsustainable spending increases and tax cuts.

As the Nyberg report into the crash argued, it is utterly simplistic to blame one person for the crisis that hit the country. But there is no question that, as Taoiseach for over a decade, he has to take his share of responsibility for the mess the economy is in.

It's also fair to point out that – unlike, for example, Brian Cowen – Ahern has to date largely failed to do that.

But he's not a monster. Nor was he a dictator who sent people to the gulags.

He is, let's not forget, a politician who was elected Taoiseach three times by the electorate. And he should be entitled to go for a drink without fearing for his personal safety – end of story.

Government ministers and deputies, meanwhile, should focus on the still-considerable job in hand.

The electorate will judge the Coalition on its actions, not on its daily denunciations of the previous crowd, which sound increasingly hollow.

Alan Shatter, the botched handling of his row with Mick Wallace aside, has actually been a good Justice Minister.

But the national interest would be better served by him concentrating on delivering on legislation such as the bill to shake up an uncompetitive legal profession, which has been in abeyance for the past year.

A record of reform has a far better chance of delivering at the polls for the Coalition than mere recrimination.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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