Sunday 18 August 2019

'Every time I told the truth, I was vilified for telling lies or covering something up'

Alan Shatter tells Barry Egan about his betrayal by Fine Gael, being plamased by Kenny and worse by Varadkar

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter at his home in Dundrum with Barry Egan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter at his home in Dundrum with Barry Egan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It's like an episode of House of Cards, shot in a former minister for justice's house in Dundrum. Sitting with a cup of coffee, a denim-clad Alan Shatter says we live in a world where truth and fake news are seen through a different prism because of Donald Trump.

Without missing a beat, he adds: "Well, I found my good self confronted with issues of this nature two years before Trump emerged as president.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

"His version of fake news seemed to be to accuse people of telling falsities when they are in fact telling the truth. It is a way of deriding his opponents and undermining the credibility of the media. My problem of fake news was people asserting as facts things I knew to be untrue and asserting as lies the truths I was telling."

Shatter was elected to the Dail in 1981. He has since questioned whether he should have gone into politics or joined Fine Gael. "I have been part of the Fine Gael family for 39 years. I don't think anyone should be treated by a political party the way I was treated by the Fine Gael party."

Is Shatter's new book, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, about settling scores or revenge? "I have no interest in that. That's not what it is about. I have absolutely no doubt that someone will depict it that way.

"They are fantastic people in the Fine Gael party throughout the country," he adds. His problem is with the leadership.

"The way people are treated by those in charge of the Fine Gael party. The manner in which issues are dealt with in Fine Gael headquarters. I believe that people aren't treated as human beings. They are just seen as pawns on a chess board to be moved around for electoral purposes. This is a lack of humanity in all of that. And, of course, for public view of addressing issues, there is a pretence of humanity and concern."

Our two-hour conversation is never dull. Asked about Maria Bailey, Shatter responds: "This isn't Iran. We are not going to put Maria Bailey in a hole and throw stones at her.

"She made mistakes. I don't know the full story behind it any more than I suspect a lot of people do... I don't want to get involved it because I have no role in any of it. I just think that when you've had the extent of media attention that has happened over the last 10 days, there is a moment in time when there is a need to recognise that if she made mistakes she doesn't deserve to be publicly pilloried.

"I have no doubt that whatever she is being subjected to on social media is horrific and I would hope that she simply stops looking at it.

"I think there is a moment where perhaps those in government who find what she did embarrassing stopped perceiving that attacking her was politically advantageous to the Government. You have to be careful, I think, of the psychological well-being of someone."

How have the past five years affected his mental health? "The truthful answer is that the last five years have been extraordinarily unpleasant."

Shatter resigned as minister for justice on May 7, 2014, following receipt of the report by Sean Guerin into allegations made by Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Asked how the time since has been for his wife, Carol, he says: "Horrendous. Both my children," he adds, of Kelly and Dylan, "were adults at that stage, but they were conscious of what was going on.

"My son was in Australia and he was following it from there. I think my daughter got very upset. She was in Dublin... She found the whole thing very stressful."

A short time after his resignation, he was having lunch with his daughter in what used to be Pasta Fresca on Chatham Street. A photographer took photos when they left and followed them down Grafton Street. "He was literally stalking us. My daughter was very stressed. I told him in the end to 'f**k off.' He thought that was very amusing. And he took more photographs.

"People often forget that politicians themselves are human beings. And their families are human beings. And because you are in politics and you are used to the rough and tumble of politics, it doesn't mean that you are not emotionally impacted by events that take place.

"Every time I told the truth about an issue, I was then vilified for telling lies or covering something up. It is an extraordinarily difficult position in which to find yourself."

Then he was accused of arrogance. "So all of this affected me personally. I tried to cover up the extent to which it was affecting me but it certainly caused a great deal of upset to Carol and to my children.

"But the ultimate climax to all this was the Sean Guerin report where I was condemned without any hearing, without knowing what his concerns were, and who reached a whole series of negative conclusions about my engagement with issues that had been raised by Maurice McCabe.

"And here we are five years later where I have only just concluded court proceedings, where it has been established irrevocably that he has no remit, jurisdiction, terms of reference, whatever you want to call it, to condemn me, or condemn anyone, and that he didn't remotely afford me a fair hearing.

"Mr Guerin was given a job by government to independently conduct a preliminary inquiry. He wasn't asked to reach conclusions. He wasn't asked to condemn anybody. He did both of those things. And they have had a profound impact on my life.

Shatter claims: "The Fine Gael party has a vested political interest in looking the other way... my colleagues looked the other way. There is a vested interest in the Dail in silence."

He says later that even though he has been vindicated, no member of the Oireachtas has acknowledged any mistake. "There is something wrong with our politics. It is right that people are held to account if there are issues of concern. They can be raised in the Dail. But when people make allegations that are proved to be entirely wrong and when those allegations effectively destroy the reputation of someone..."

Does he think he has done reputational damage to Leo Varadkar by claiming in the book that Varadkar betrayed him to further his leadership bid for Fine Gael?

"I'm not intent on doing reputational damage to anybody. I didn't actually say that. That's not what the book says. What the book details is his opportunistically pursuing certain issues in circumstances, where if he was genuine about them as a colleague, Leo could have sat down and discussed them way before he felt the need to make a public comment."

Frances Fitzgerald resigned as Tanaiste in November 2017 in similar circumstances to Shatter's resignation in May of that year. They were both vindicated. Last week, Fitzgerald was elected as an MEP while his political career is over.

"The difference is very simply explained. Frances was, I believe, treated badly. She was also the subject of a media frenzy and condemnation that she did not deserve. But she was out of government at the beginning of December 2017 and within six weeks, January 2018, the issue she had been given grief over was being addressed in the Charleton Tribunal and it was quite clear from the evidence that she had been wrongly condemned.

"So within two months she merged out of that. I had two years from the time of the Guerin Report being published until the O'Higgins Commission report was published, during that time I was under a continuous shadow and regularly vilified in the media. Any Garda issue remotely related to my time and articles would reprise the events that I was condemned for. So Frances was able to emerge out of that in a way that I couldn't. And by the time I had been fully vindicated, the election was over and I had lost my seat. I also believe that it wasn't appreciated that I contradicted the evidence of Enda Kenny before the Fennelly Commission. So, I have, I'm afraid a belief that you tell the truth."

Did he believe he was left to hang in the wind? "Yes. Essentially so."

Shatter writes in Frenzy and Betrayal that former Taoiseach Enda Kenny had "a self-serving relationship with the truth". Did he think Enda sacrificed him to save his own skin in 2014?

"Firstly, that wouldn't have been my perception of Enda in all the years I was working with him. But events that happened subsequent to my forced resignation from government gave me some new insights about how he deals with issues."

Did he feel abandoned by Enda as Taoiseach? "At the time when the Guerin Report was furnished to him and he gave it to me, I explained to him that I was being condemned without any hearing, and that Mr Guerin's conclusions were wrong. I engaged with him. I understood from my engagement with him that these were serious issues that he was going to follow up. I discovered in the end that he was just plamasing me by meeting with me and that he never seriously pursued those issues. So, I'm afraid at that point I started getting a greater insight into his character."

Did Carol ever say, 'Let it go, we've been through enough?' "No. Carol was very supportive. She took the view that I had spent 36 years as a lawyer battling on behalf of other people and that I had an entitlement to set the record straight. But, listen, I am not under any illusions. There are people still today wedded to a false narrative."

Does his book not perpetuate the 'frenzy' a bit? And might Enda and Leo say he had a "self-serving relationship with the truth"?

"I don't think Enda has ever said that about me. I hope Enda has some thoughts about how he dealt with this issue and recognises the mistakes he made.

"I had great admiration and affection for Enda Kenny; and when others were critical of him I saw him as a person who was very committed to the job."

He and Enda haven't spoken since two weeks before the 2016 General Election. "He contributed in a very substantial way to my not retaining my seat. Despite all the grief I had, I might well have retained my seat if he hadn't interfered in that election," Shatter says.

"And he never had the decency or courage to make any contact with me after that election."

Asked what the biggest misconception people have about him, he says: "I am not going to get into other people's heads." How would his wife describe him? "She puts up with me! We are 46 years' married. She obviously thinks I'm okay."

There must have been dark nights of the soul? "There were a lot of sleepless nights, I think is the best way to describe it. I found myself in a space I never wanted to be. I never wanted to be engaged in ligation.

"I believed I had to be. I never expected that I would be giving evidence in two separate commissions of investigation. I never expected that relationships that I had, that I believed were close with Fine Gael colleagues, such as Frances Fitzgerald, would disintegrate."

Does he believe she was told to stop talking to him? "We had been friends for a lot of years before we were in government. And I did whatever I could to be of assistance to her when she was children's minister because I was children's spokesperson at some stage.

"You know I can't understand why she failed to even respond, let alone take seriously, to what I had to say on June 19, 2014, about the Guerin Report. It has all now been established to be true. She didn't even give me the decency of a response."

Asked whether some people don't like him, Shatter says he is beyond caring. "I think it is really important in a constitutional democracy that the rule of law prevails, that people aren't condemned without a fair hearing and that there is some value attached to truth, as opposed to seductive exciting narratives that may generate attention."

But he must have known putting that claim about Leo in the book was going to generate frenzy and attention.

"The Leo issue was very simple and straight-forward. All I'm doing is documenting events as they occurred and the background to those events and the complexities that either at the time weren't known or people didn't want to know. It is no more complicated than that."

Did he have any friends in politics? "I had a few closet friends who would quietly wish me well."

But not publicly? Alan Shatter shakes his head. "No. I am not sure who I recognise as a friend in politics in the context of Leinster House."

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section