Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Justice Minister has brought this on himself: now Cabinet faces crucial decision

Published 25/02/2014 | 02:30

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter

TODAY'S cabinet meeting might just be the most important in the lifetime of this Government.

It's true there have been huge economic and financial decisions made by ministers over the past three years – the Prom note deal springs to mind immediately.

But what's at stake this morning goes to the very heart of what any government should stand for and, more importantly, won't stand for.

There will be a lot of very smart, politically astute people gathered around the cabinet table. But, in relation to the GSOC surveillance and whistleblower controversies, there has been little sign of that.

Alan Shatter has landed himself in an almighty mess entirely – repeat, entirely – of his own making. There's been no "smear." The Justice Minister has brought this on himself. And his cabinet colleagues have looked on, either unwilling or unable to stop him.

There's been precious little sign of the "humility" promised in the Programme for Government. Arrogance more like it – and not just from Alan Shatter. This is a Government that doesn't like being questioned or criticised. In the Dail, opposition figures are shouted down and ridiculed by a throng of coalition deputies. There's no respect for the opposition. They're irritants getting in the way of the Coalition's mission to rescue the nation.

That narrative is writ large in the response to genuine concerns about possible surveillance of GSOC and the handling of serious complaints by two garda whistleblowers. "We know best. Nothing to see here."

On Friday, Michael Noonan – the undoubted star of the Government to date – waded into the controversy with an intervention so ill-judged that it beggared belief.

First, there was a blatantly political attempt to muddy the waters with his assertion that these issues occurred when Fianna Fail was in office – a line the Government continues to peddle rather than taking responsibility for its own actions (or inactions).

But far worse was his seeming dismissal of the serious questions surrounding the case of murdered mother-of-two Sylvia Roche-Kelly. Mr Noonan either didn't know, or totally ignored, the key point – the allegation that her murderer, Jerry McGrath, wouldn't have been at large if gardai had properly handled a previous brutal attack by McGrath on Cavan woman Mary Lynch.

The image being presented is of a government that really doesn't get, or want to get, how serious this all is. The line coming from ministers publicly and privately is that Alan Shatter's position is rock solid. It's nonsense. His position is seriously shaky.

Mr Shatter has been accused of failing to act on hugely serious allegations of garda incompetence and malpractice. Accused, it should be stressed. The reality is we don't yet know if that opposition accusation is justified. But until it is established that Mr Shatter did all in his power as Justice Minister to deal with those complaints, he is under serious pressure. And if it emerges that he didn't, his position would likely be untenable.

However, the Government seems to be blissfully unaware of this. For all the public utterances of the allegations being treated with the utmost gravity, there's little sense of urgency or alarm.

It's right and proper that ministers have loyalty to their colleague and put his case. Mr Shatter has been a very good Justice Minister.

But, for the sake of the Government and, far more importantly, the people it governs, that loyalty cannot be absolute. Serious questions have been raised about the handling of the whistleblower allegations. Public confidence in the gardai and in the Justice Minister demands that those questions are answered.

THE review of correspondence in the department will not suffice. Nor will it be enough for Alan Shatter to state that the issues at stake have already been investigated. They need to be independently investigated – either by extending Judge John Cooke's existing inquiry into surveillance at GSOC or, more likely, by establishing a new investigation. The undermining of whistleblower Maurice McCabe also needs to be addressed.

Given how Alan Shatter has handled these issues to date, it seems unlikely the initiative for this will come from him. It's time for the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and his cabinet colleagues to step up to the plate. Beginning this morning.

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

Irish Independent

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