Wednesday 21 February 2018

Shatter doesn't pull any punches in election dogfight

Former justice minister defends garda station closure on doorsteps

Alan Shatter talks to Clare Connell, with her dog Coco, as he canvasses in south Dublin. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Alan Shatter talks to Clare Connell, with her dog Coco, as he canvasses in south Dublin. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Alan Shatter gives a long, dry chuckle when I ask how his relations are with Enda Kenny. "Enda Kenny? Professional," he replies, bursting into merry laughter.

The former justice minister has just completed his most difficult canvass to date in this General Election campaign.

Within the large sprawling estate of The Gallops in Leopardstown, South County Dublin, Shatter and his team were up against the significant obstacle of the closure of Stepaside garda station - and the recent crime spate.

Resident Clare Connell tells him how five family cars have been stolen from the estate within the last six months.

Another woman tells him of burglaries, another still speaks of anti-social behaviour at the nearby Luas stop.

Shatter is probably his own worst enemy on the doorsteps in these situations because of his dogged honesty; he lacks sweet talk and doesn't pull any punches.

He casts doubt on the assertion that reopening Stepaside garda station would have any impact on crime - since burglars have easy and swift access to and from the area via motorway - as is happening in countless other areas nationally.

The squad car is the same squad car - it doesn't matter where it returns to at night and having two gardaí sitting in Stepaside station would make no difference, he tells them.

He reminds the woman who spoke of the Luas stop that people in the areas were "clamouring" for the Luas to be brought to the areas.

"Oh, I know," she tells him.

He's not getting an easy ride and he ruefully tells us we picked the worst day to come out with him.

The previous evening's canvass in Marley Grange had been much more welcoming, he claims.

Others, however, appreciate Shatter's slightly abrasive form of honesty.

Aidan and Audrey Gordon tackle him extensively on Stepaside, telling him that the estate has its own app to discuss local issues and that "every second day there are house break-ins", which locals are convinced are linked with the closure of the station.

But Shatter stubbornly sticks to his guns, contending the closure was for the best.

"I think he handled it well," said Aidan afterwards.

"At least he was honest."

There are other issues - a mother of three bursts into tears on her doorstep when she tells how her family are about to lose the roof over their head because the landlord has to hand the house over to the bank. She can't afford the €1,900 rent being sought for another house in the estate and in any case they don't accept rent allowance.

She needs to stay locally because she is helping to care for her father, who is gravely ill.

Shatter insists that she get in touch with him as soon as possible so that he can figure out a way to help her.

Several householders raise the health crisis and he agrees that the situation is dire.

We are seated in his car after the canvass, when a teenage girl in school uniform knocks on the window, mid-interview.

"Why did you shut down Stepaside?" she demands in a quavering voice, full of emotion. "It's just that I'm in school and I just want to understand it more."

Shatter is startled and starts to tell her how it had been a decision by the Garda Commissioner to get more gardaí out from their desks and doing real police work.

"No offence, like, but is there anything out of your mouth that isn't bulls**t?" she asks.

Recognising that she is on the brink of tears, Shatter gently asks her not to be abusive and explains the situation at length. She leaves, apologising politely for the interruption.

The former justice minister is scathing of fellow constituent Shane Ross for "deliberately ratcheting up" the Stepaside row, "who I believe is genuinely misleading people".

Shatter voices serious concerns over Independents who, he claims, have a track record of voting with Sinn Féin.

"I have a genuine concern that we're at risk of sleep-walking our way into a Sinn Féin government supported by a group of desperate Independents," he says.

The South County Dublin constituency is a "dogfight" this time round - down from a five seater to a three and Shatter is by no means complacent that he will make it this time round. He had to give very serious consideration as to whether he would run again - and says that some of his friends and relations think he is "completely insane" to put himself forward.

However he has a "streak of idealism" that is "probably bordering on nonsensical at my age", he says.

When forced to resign as justice minister on May 7, 2014, after months of controversy over gardaí - including unproven allegations that the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) were bugged, it left incomplete the agenda he would like to have seen fulfilled - including victims' rights legislation, the whole issue of surrogacy and a unified system of family courts superior to the current system.

He says little of the current GSOC controversy on snooping on journalists' phones, only saying that it was "interesting" how some of those who were critical of comments on the grounds that they "undermined" GSOC have been "swift to attack GSOC".

Before we part ways, he confesses that he often wishes that he had gone down a different route and opted for the world of stand-up comedy rather than politics.

Some 15 years ago, he penned a book that was "rather funny" and it's been sitting there ever since because he feared that if published, he would not be taken seriously in his career. "Maybe if this doesn't work out," he muses, almost sadly, at the prospect.

Irish Independent

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