| 13.9°C Dublin

Dearbhail McDonald: Minister's belief in his own opinions may yet be his downfall

IT is almost 20 years since the Albert Reynolds-led Fianna Fail/Labour coalition fell on the sword of the extradition of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

Reynolds's government had struggled to deal with the fallout of the delay, by the Office of the Attorney General, to extradite one of the most deviant child sex abusers in Irish history.

In 1994, the Government stood accused of protecting Harry Whelehan, the attorney general, and of delaying Smyth's extradition, ostensibly because it may have exposed serious accountability failures within the Catholic hierarchy.

Labour pulled the plug when Reynolds appointed Whelehan as president of the High Court, the second highest judicial office in the State.

Whelehan resigned in less than a week, hours after Reynolds resigned as Taoiseach.

Though the subject matter is entirely different, there are some extraordinary parallels between the underlying trajectories of the Smyth/Whelehan affair which led to Reynolds's downfall and the GSOC/ whistleblower saga engulfing Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

This is not least because of the corrosive, cumulative effect of ongoing revelations and Mr Shatter's reactions to them.

Like Reynolds, Mr Shatter stands accused of protecting a powerful institution, in this case An Garda Siochana and its occasionally fractious Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Like Reynolds, he appears to be holding on to power at all costs.

It remains to be seen what facts may ultimately emerge out of the suspected bugging of the headquarters of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

In one sense, it doesn't matter if its fears turn out to be groundless.

What matters is the Justice Minister's derision in the face of them.

Mr Shatter's dismissal, bordering on contempt, of the ombudsman's concerns, is not befitting of a minister who – uncharacteristically in a modern democracy – is in control of both the gardai and the defence forces, and the intelligence they gather.

This concentration of power places him in an extraordinarily powerful position vis-a-vis the citizen and the State.

The GSOC crisis was compounded by Mr Shatter's decision to act as a summary judge, jury and executioner, pointing the finger of blame at the ombudsman and all who stood up for it whilst defending the gardai to the hilt.

As the controversy deepened, Mr Shatter added insult to injury by establishing an ad hoc, non-statutory inquiry into the GSOC affair.

Mr Shatter was then forced to sack Oliver Connolly, a campaign donor he appointed in 2011 to act as Confidential Recipient of information from garda whistleblowers.

"If Shatter thinks you're screwing him, you're finished," Mr Connolly is alleged to have told garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe in transcripts read into the Dail record.

Last Wednesday, when the political heat intensified on Mr Shatter, Mr Connolly, whose side of the story we haven't heard, got the sack.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny received a dossier of allegations of garda misconduct.

Last night Mr Kenny said the leaked documents given to him by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin were "extremely serious".

But not serious enough, it seems, for Mr Shatter to have progressed the dossier when he received the allegations two years ago.

Mr Shatter's allies and adversaries alike agree that he is one of the cleverest and most astute operators in government.

He has a prolific work ethic and a singular focus that has seen him pass progressive legislation and overcome many political challenges.

But Minister Shatter's political blind spot lies in his near messianic belief in his own opinions.

This, coupled with a dismissiveness towards anyone who challenges his consensus, could yet be his Achilles Heel.

Irish Independent