Wednesday 26 June 2019

Book review: Pugilistic Shatter brings old enemies to book

Memoir

Frenzy And Betrayal

Alan Shatter

Merrion Press, €19.95

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank McGrath
Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank McGrath

Eilis O'Hanlon

The philosopher Francis Bacon said that a man who takes revenge on his enemies only gets even with them, whereas leaving all thoughts of vengeance behind will make him their superior. Muhammad Ali took a different approach. "If you lose a big fight," he once said, "it will plague you - until you get your revenge".

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter is clearly of the pugilistic, rather than philosophical, persuasion, and unleashes it to magnificent effect in this new account of the events leading up to his resignation in May 2014, following what he calls a "category-five hurricane which destroyed my reputation" and brought his 30-year political career to an undignified end on what were later proven to be utterly false premises.

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Picking it up could induce a sense of dread. It's a big book. Is there really enough in those few brief months to justify 400 pages of detailed retelling?

There is. Part of the reason is because Shatter is such a terrific writer. He's produced fiction and memoir before, and knows how to tell a compelling story and command attention.

The other thing that makes it such a great read is that it tells the reader so much about Irish politics and media at this uneasy point in time.

It all began when a story appeared in The Sunday Times on February 9, 2014, alleging that the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) office had come under "high-tech surveillance" by "Government level technology".

"There were no ifs, buts or maybes about this report," Shatter recalls. "Its content was presented as absolute, sensational fact." Rogue gardai were quickly suspected of spying on GSOC, and anyone who dared suggest it might not be that simple or sinister were accused of a cover up.

The "media commentators bought into it all - hook, line and sinker", as did opposition TDs. Soon the air was alive with "hysteria, venom and accusation", all centred on a "GSOC good, gardai evil, minister more evil" narrative.

There follows an almost day-by-day account of how events spiralled out of the minister's control, to the point where he was forced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to offer his resignation.

Much attention will be paid to Shatter's criticisms of those he holds responsible for his demise, both in the media and in his own party. He has strong words for Enda Kenny, who he accuses of having "a casual self- serving relationship with the truth", and whose abandonment of him clearly still hurts and baffles his ex-Cabinet colleague; and for Kenny's successor as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is charged with having "no concept of collegiality" and of preferring to talk at colleagues "through a public media megaphone".

His fellow ministers' aim throughout was to cover their own backs. He's equally scathing about opposition deputies, who threw out wild accusations and never withdrew them from the Dail record, even when his reputation was wholly vindicated.

Shatter's account of his resignation, and his subsequent freezing out from Fine Gael after giving the party 30 years' service, is poignant. To lose your seat, as he did at the 2016 election, and not have old friends even call to commiserate, must be uniquely painful. He probably fails to take account of how he concentrated too much on dry procedure during the GSOC and whistleblower crises, rather than paying attention to how it was playing out before the Irish public, who were rightly concerned about Garda malpractice. The politicians he criticises may have handled events wrongly in his eyes, but they're still here, and, well, he isn't. Perceptions matter.

The main issue, though, is how this record of a "uniquely Irish political coup" works as a book, and it does that splendidly, as Shatter takes aim at those who brought about his downfall, as if they were coconuts at the fairground, and knocks them down one by one.

Political memoirs can be worthy, but they're often dull. This one, subtitled The Anatomy Of A Political Assassination, certainly isn't. It's exhilarating, even fun, whilst also being deeply serious. In an age of fake news, Alan Shatter has trained a timely spotlight on the excesses of Irish political and media life.

Sunday Independent

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