Monday 22 December 2014

Kenny's credibility on the line as damaged Shatter runs out of road

Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30

For how much longer can Enda Kenny stand by his embattled justice minister? Picture: Steve Humphreys
For how much longer can Enda Kenny stand by his embattled justice minister? Picture: Steve Humphreys
An angry protester on the corner of Molesworth St and Kildare St. who was shouting language aimed at Minister Alan Shatter being restrained by Gardai with the help of builders who were working nearby yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke
Alan Shatter

IT was Elizabeth Taylor who once said you find out who your real friends are when you're involved in a scandal. On that basis, Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter must be best buddies – for now, anyway.

The Taoiseach has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect his Justice Minister in recent days. But for how long can he continue to do so and at what cost to his Government?

Shatter's apology – presumably insisted upon by Kenny and Labour – meant he lived to fight another day. Without it, he was gone. But he remains hugely damaged. Even if nothing else of significance emerges, there are real doubts over whether Shatter can continue in the position beyond a cabinet reshuffle later this year.

The Taoiseach aside, what friends has he left? Civil servants can hardly be thrilled at how they were left to carry the can for the Government's failure to act earlier on garda telephone taping and the fact that Shatter didn't read the all-important letter from Martin Callinan for over two weeks.

And senior gardai must surely feel their boss has been sacrificed to save the Justice Minister. Callinan made a serious error of judgment with his "disgusting" comment. But the claims yesterday he had been advised by the Department of Justice not to withdraw the remark are potentially devastating, adding fuel to the theory that the Garda Commissioner was the fall guy.

It will also gall many in the force that it was the recording of phone calls in garda stations that led to him being effectively "sacked", to use Micheal Martin's phrase. Callinan, after all, put an end to the practice last November and alerted the Government to it.

Shatter must also be running out of road with angry cabinet colleagues. Overall, it's doubtful whether such a clearly isolated minister has the political clout to oversee serious reforms such as the establishment of an Independent Garda Authority.

And that's assuming there are no further landmines ahead.

Major credibility issues surround the Department of Justice's response (or lack thereof) to the GSOC report into the Waterford garda station case.

That should have set alarm bells ringing, but didn't.

It's so easy to pick holes in the official version of events between the Attorney General's office being notified in November and the Taoiseach finding out last Sunday night. Not least the fact that Callinan briefed senior officials in the Department of Justice about the matter a day after he sent his March 10 letter to the minister. Yet the first Shatter heard about it all was on Monday last.

Then there are the three reports to come from Judge Cooke, barrister Sean Guerin and GSOC – all bring potential problems for Shatter. If Judge Cooke was to find that in all probability the GSOC offices were bugged; or if Mr Guerin finds the Maurice McCabe dossier into garda malpractice warrants a Commission of Inquiry, Shatter would be back in the mire.

Notwithstanding the Taoiseach's loyalty to Shatter, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the ties of friendship will have to be cut. We know clearly from the events of last Monday night, and Commissioner Callinan's "retirement", that Kenny will do what has to be done.

He and Labour may come to regret not moving against the Justice Minister earlier. There are defining events in every government's tenure and there is a

real sense the Coalition is in the midst of one right now. Looking

back, Fianna Fail was never going to win the general election that followed the Arms Crisis – ditto Fine Gael/Labour and 'the thundering disgrace' controversy of 1976 and the GUBU Fianna Fail administration of 1982.

Will the same be said one day of the current mess? Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar aside, will now be seen by many voters as no different from Fianna Fail. And sections of Labour's middle-class support will be horrified that, despite all, Shatter is still in office. "Dick Spring would never have stood for it," they will say.

Four months ago, following the exit of the Troika, re-election of the Coalition looked inevitable.

The odds on that are only going one way at the moment.

Perhaps the only consolation is that Fianna Fail has failed to capitalise on the Government's woes. There may be solid grounds for its determination to avoid politicising the Garda Commissioner's office, but they will be lost on voters who will see Fianna Fail's response as timid and out of touch.

However, if the Government continues to implode then it mightn't matter too much. For the first time since assuming office, the credibility of the Taoiseach is seriously on the line. He needs to stem the crisis – and fast. Whether he can do so and keep his friend Shatter in his job is a moot point.

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

Irish Independent

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