Think again, Shatter – we respect the Gardai, but they must be scrutinised
Published 18/02/2014 | 02:30
BASED on former British Labour Party spindoctor Alastair Campbell's supposed 'golden rule' of politics – that a minister or a government is in serious trouble if a story remains front-page news for 11 days – the Coalition has until tomorrow to sort out the GSOC mess.
And mess is undoubtedly what it is. The Government's handling of the issue has been not just utterly inept, but also deeply troubling.
There have been so many errors of judgment, it's difficult to know where to begin – though the Taoiseach twice misquoting legislation in relation to GSOC is probably as good a place as any.
But even that is overshadowed by Justice Minister Alan Shatter's astonishing performance in the Dail last Tuesday night. It's open to debate if Fianna Fail is right when it asserts Shatter misled the house. But it's inarguable that the Justice Minister omitted key pieces of information in his 'nothing to see here' speech.
He failed to mention that GSOC last year had launched a public interest investigation into the gardai in relation to the suspicions of surveillance. Also absent was the British security company's assertion that the chances of a benign explanation for a positive test on GSOC's conference phone was "virtually zero".
The inclusion of both those key pieces of information would have put an entirely different complexion on Shatter's address.
Labour's silence on this and on the Government's consistent undermining of GSOC over the past week has been surprising. Imagine the party's reaction if it were still in opposition – there would have been no limits to Eamon Gilmore's angry rhetoric.
Consider also how Labour, in the days when Dick Spring was Tanaiste, would have responded. Of course, Labour is in coalition with Fine Gael and a public hissy fit from the party wouldn't be conducive to good government. But it needed to make it clear behind the scenes that Shatter and Fine Gael's take on this story was, and remains, all wrong. That doesn't seem to have happened.
Talking to Fine Gael TDs, their thinking seems to be that the public trust and respect the gardai – and therefore politically, it will pay for the Government to unconditionally back the force regardless.
That seriously underestimates the public. Yes, they respect and trust the force – hugely so. But that doesn't mean that they don't want the gardai to be properly scrutinised.
The public, like the Government, GSOC or the Garda Commissioner, don't know for certain what happened last year. But many will be deeply suspicious about the "anomalies" discovered at GSOC's offices.
Notwithstanding our story today that an internal GSOC report found last November that there was an innocent explanation for both the Wi Fi 'anomaly' and the UK mobile phone traffic, Alan Shatter was far to quick to declare there was nothing to see.
Simply telling people that this is "completely baseless innuendo" won't wash. And, contrary to what Fine Gael TDs think, there will only be one winner in any 'Government versus the Garda Ombudsman'-type stand-off.
The lessons from history are there for Fine Gael and Labour.
Back in 1976, the two parties closed ranks around Defence Minister Paddy Donegan after he described President Cearbhall O Dalaigh as a "thundering disgrace".
O Dalaigh's resignation – to protect the independence of the presidency – was a PR disaster for the government and certainly a factor in its subsequent general election annihilation.
And if there are any further doubts about the dangers involved for this Government, ministers should lean across the cabinet table and consult with Finance Minister Michael Noonan. Back in 1996, Noonan had the political misfortune to be Minister for Health as the Hepatitis C scandal unfolded.
The State's handling of compensation claims by the victims, particularly the case of the late Brigid McCole, infuriated the public and would undermine Noonan's subsequent leadership of Fine Gael.
Noonan later admitted he had handled it badly, saying he relied on legal advice, rather than political advice.
Some sound political advice is long overdue on the GSOC issue. Of course, the Garda Ombudsman won't engender the same public sympathy as the tragic Hep C victims.
But it does have the respect of the public and if the view takes hold that the Government is undermining an independent office, then the Coalition will be in trouble. Fine Gael, and Alan Shatter in particular, need to shift their mindset. We'll never know for certain if the Ombudsman's offices were bugged, but it's obvious from the past few weeks that GSOC's powers need to be beefed up and the imbalance in its relationship with An Garda Siochana addressed. The appointment of a figure of substance – a former senior judge or someone of the stature of Nuala O'Loan – to examine the legislation and powers underpinning GSOC and come up with recommendations to strengthen the office would be a real sign of intent from the Government.
Alan Shatter has probably been the most reforming minister in the Cabinet over the past three years. It would be a genuine shame if it all was undermined by one blindspot in relation to the gardai and the Garda Ombudsman.
SHANE COLEMAN IS THE PRESENTER OF THE SUNDAY SHOW ON NEWSTALK 106-108FM.