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'Shatter Omnishambles' is bigger than one man – the minister should go

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Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter is going nowhere. Not yet anyway. Such is his standing in Taoiseach Kenny's eyes, at times it feels as if he would survive the political equivalent of a nuclear winter.

In my view, he should have resigned last May.

That was when Shatter, during a live television debate, declared that Independent TD Mick Wallace had escaped penalty points.

Wallace was in fact given a friendly warning by gardai – he was not physically stopped or officially cautioned at a checkpoint – about using his mobile phone.

It subsequently emerged that Mr Shatter was informed of the Mick Wallace incident by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan during a briefing about the cancellation of penalty points.

Here was a government minister in control of two of the most sensitive intelligence portfolios (justice and defence) receiving information about a private citizen, albeit one holding public office.

All ministers, as part of their day job, receive confidential information on a regular basis.

But here was a minister deploying confidential information against a political opponent, ostensibly in the public interest, to illustrate the discretionary nature of penalty points.

Had the private citizen been anyone other than Mick Wallace, Shatter would not have lasted another day in office.

The perception that Mr Shatter was too close for comfort to garda top brass, even if not borne out in fact, damaged him.

But the workhorse lawyer brushed the incident aside with the safety net of an Oireachtas majority and that supercilious aplomb we Shatter-watchers have become accustomed to.

Things are different now.

We have entered into a third week of allegations; denials, briefings and smears as an initial row over the possible bugging of the garda ombudsman's office (GSOC) snowballed into a major crisis over public confidence in the administration of justice.

The Government sought to subdue the public outcry over GSOC by setting up a short, sharp, informal review to be led by retired High Court judge Mr Justice John Cooke.

Now it must decide whether a more robust, statutory inquiry is required to deal with dossiers, existing and emerging, of alleged garda misconduct and the political handling of same.

As more and more whistleblowers emerge from the shadows into the light of the defamation proof privilege enjoyed by politicians' utterances in Leinster House, the government response must be swift, serious and above politics.

What are the options?

A tribunal of inquiry, with its capacity to run for 10 years or more, is not a realistic option for politicians or the electorate.

Nor, I imagine, is an ad hoc, expanded informal inquiry.

Even with the most esteemed chairperson, such as Judge Cooke, an informal inquiry is subject to the perception that it is toothless because it has no real powers.

We often complain about inquiries.

But the Irish public like to know that an inquiry has a legal basis.

We also draw comfort from the independence of judges or senior lawyers acting as honest-broker chairmen, knowing our rights (we hope) will be protected, as if in a court setting.

The trial-style rights we enjoy in all manner of inquiries stems from abuses of those rights in political settings – see Abbeylara and the Haughey case, for example.

That is why a commission of investigation may be required to cauterise the current crisis.

Bestowed with High Court powers of compellability of witnesses and discovery – as well as rules about handling sensitive issues such as immunities – commissions conduct most, if not all, of their work in private.

The current claims of garda misconduct, unproven as they are, cut to the heart of sensitive issues of security and public trust in policing.

The gardai should be demanding such an inquiry, if nothing else to protect the force and sensitive matters with the shield of judicial oversight, as we have in the operation of our surveillance laws.

Mothballing the issue or waiting to see how the political winds will shift is not an option.

Whatever the ultimate merits of what has become known as the Shatter Omnishambles, this crisis is bigger than one man or one party.

We cannot play politics with the constitutional integrity of the State.

Irish Independent