Saturday 24 February 2018

Difficult to deal with, but Shatter gets the job done

Minister has battled with judges and bishops

NO-NONSENSE: Justice Minister Alan Shatter admits speaking his mind has got him into trouble. Photo: Tony Gavin
NO-NONSENSE: Justice Minister Alan Shatter admits speaking his mind has got him into trouble. Photo: Tony Gavin

DANIEL McCONNELL, Chief Reporter

He can be difficult, aloof, pompous, unpopular even among his own party, and he seems to like fighting with everybody. Undoubtedly talented, intelligent and willing to make hard decisions and ruffle feathers, is Justice Minister Alan Shatter the kind of minister Ireland needs at this time of great crisis?

Since taking office in March, Mr Shatter has had pops at the media, judges and bishops, and even Seanad colleagues within his own party.

The Sunday Independent sat down with Mr Shatter last Thursday in his office in St Stephen's Green, and found him warm, engaging yet utterly unrepentant about the decisions he has taken, or the numerous spats he has had.

His most high-profile row was with the members of the judiciary, over his plans to hold a referendum to reduce their pay. Three weeks ago, under the direction of the then Chief Justice but still Supreme Court Judge, John L Murray, a memo in opposition to the manner in which the pay reduction was to be implemented was placed on the courts service website.

In an unprecedented attack by a sitting minister of a member of the Supreme Court bench, Mr Shatter described that move by Judge Murray as "highly inappropriate".

He said: "I certainly thought it was inappropriate that a document be placed [on] the courts service website, a website of which funding is provided by this department and which is intended to be used to communicate information about the functioning of the court system and about judgements being delivered and about court sittings. I thought it was particularly unusual that that would occur."

Mr Shatter said he was also "very surprised" that briefings on the row were being given to the media, and said that such leaks were not coming from him or the Government.

"I was surprised at what occurred in the context of briefings seen to be given to the newspapers, there wasn't anything leaked from the government side on this issue," he added.

Mr Shatter also sought to praise Judge Murray's replacement, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, who immediately on being appointed voluntarily took a reduction in her salary.

"I personally was just anxious to ensure what the Government was doing was understood and anxious that it wasn't perceived in any shape or form that the judiciary were engaging in the political process because I think that's inappropriate," he added.

So I asked him was the row between himself and Judge Murray a result of any personal animosity.

"There'd be no reason for any animosity between myself and John Murray. I wouldn't know John Murray particularly well. But of course I have a great respect for the judiciary," he said.

Mr Shatter has also had to deny claims of government interference in the work of the Smithwick tribunal, set up to investigate allegations of garda collusion in the IRA killings of two senior RUC officers.

His denial followed strong criticism by tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Peter Smithwick, that statements made by Mr Shatter and his desire to impose a deadline of finality on the tribunal had a deeply negative impact on its work at a crucial stage.

In his response, Mr Shatter strongly defended his decision to seek transparency and progress from a tribunal that had so far cost €8m and had been in existence since 2005. He said he was perfectly justified to insist on such transparency and rejected Mr Justice Smithwick's criticisms.

"Over €8m had been spent, public money on the workings of that tribunal over a period of six years and I believed it was important that there'd be some transparency as to what was occurring," he said.

"Well I think I'm afraid that he and I will have to agree to disagree. I think it is important when €8m of taxpayers' money is being spent, the tribunal sat in private for six years, that the people of this country and indeed members of the Houses of the Oireachtas have some transparencies to where matters stand.

"I think perhaps the passage of time has proved me correct because the reality is the passage of the motion did not create any difficulty in the commencement of the hearings in the tribunal, the tribunal has continued to hold its hearings through the month of June, into the month of July," he added.

Describing his first four months in office as "challenging, busy, hectic, yet a fantastic opportunity to implement a lot of reform", Mr Shatter passed three separate pieces of legislation through the Seanad the day previously.

Included in those was the new Criminal Justice Bill Amendment aimed at aiding the gardai in tackling white-collar crime, including the ongoing investigations into Anglo Irish Bank.

"On taking office, I immediately took the decision that [I] will introduce a new criminal justice measure to address problems with white-collar investigations."

He said as a result, it was now a criminal offence to knowingly withhold information, and said that the new powers would significantly aid the gardai in bringing this two-and-a-half year investigation to a close.

"It's very important that any individual who to date has not co-operated with the gardai in the investigation into banking matters and who has information that they know would assist the gardai, it's very important that they realise that . . . if they continue to withhold information they're liable to criminal charge."

When we spoke about the public anger, we then came across the topic of former Irish Nationwide boss Michael Fingleton, for whom he spared little compassion.

I asked him should Mr Fingleton give back his bonus?

"The answer is yes he should give back his bonus. I find it difficult to understand an individual who has acquired substantial wealth out of running a financial institution into the ground and imposing huge and enormous and utterly unacceptable costs at taxpayers, who having promised to return a bonus of €1m can wake up in the morning, look at himself in the mirror and still refuse to make the payment he's promised to make," he said.

His willingness to speak his mind, he says, often gets him into trouble, but Mr Shatter, who prefers to be called Alan and not minister by his staff, is clearly very capable and even his opponents have said he was in strong command of his brief.

"He is a polished performer, is brilliant on detail and is without question a leading legislator. It's just he can be difficult to deal with," said one senior party colleague.

Given their obvious differences, it would be surprising to think of himself and the Taoiseach being close, but in Mr Shatter, Enda Kenny knows he has a smart, tough operator who isn't afraid to be hated to get the job done.

It is as if Mr Shatter revels in being unpopular, and doesn't mind if he fights with everyone. His difficult manner and his willingness to have rows, I suspect, will make him a very effective minister. Mr Shatter, who turned 60 this year, and like many at the cabinet table was in opposition for a long time, isn't likely to be around for much longer than one term and is keen to get something done.

If he can keep his arrogance under control, and can hone his talents to justifiable targets, there is no question Mr Shatter can end up being a star performer in Government.

Sunday Independent

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