Sunday 17 November 2019

This crisis isn't being spun, it is spinning rapidly out of control

"For the last number of months, the politics of policing has been to the fore of national debate without anyone in Government successfully taking control of the situation."

Mandy Johnston

The Government is enveloped in a kaleidoscope of confusion which it tried to bring an end to yesterday as Alan Shatter finally said the word "sorry". By doing so, he saved himself and probably his Labour colleague the Attorney-General. He would not have enjoyed the public admission but compromise is the nature of survival in coalition government.

"Disgusting". The word that wouldn't go away. It was the use of that word by former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan that started this political scandal. The remarks were subsequently qualified, if not clarified, but that failed to satisfy some ministers, or the Opposition and the media. And so a political football spiralled out of control and is still rolling down a very steep hill, last stop Blamesville. Seriously intellectual policy-forming stuff of high office, don't you think?

For the last number of months, the politics of policing has been to the fore of national debate without anyone in Government successfully taking control of the situation. Meanwhile, Mr Shatter fulfilled his international duties in Mexico like some Celtic Speedy Gonzalez, a sombrero-clad leprechaun on speed as his cabinet colleagues waxed lyrical into every live microphone about their views on the matter. On Tuesday, most commentators were rendered speechless by the departure of a serving Garda Commissioner.

Film aficionados will be aware that Alfred Hitchcock often used a technique in his thrillers called the 'McGuffin'. It is a term used within the film industry to describe a powerful plot diversion to distract the viewer temporarily. There are suspicions abroad that perhaps the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into electronic surveillance at garda stations could be the biggest political McGuffin of all time. Whilst this is a nice idea for conspiracy theorists, quite frankly I do not think this Government is that clever.

As the story unfolded, it became patently obvious to any observer that this is not being spun as much as it is spinning out of control. It now seems that what really brought this issue to the public's attention was a completely independent Order of Discovery in relation to a court case. Therefore, the alacrity with which the State has established a Commission of Inquiry was born out of necessity rather than desire. The concern is that the revelations may point to an appalling vista in An Garda Siochana in terms of secrecy and surveillance.

But it is the institutional awareness of what has been happening behind closed doors in relation to garda surveillance, and this Government's knowledge of these practices, that should really concern us now. The failure to pass on vital information within Government and government departments is truly shocking. The systems failure in both the Department of Justice and the Attorney General's office is incomprehensible at the most basic levels of administration, never mind the most important government departments. One would imagine that a message from a Garda Commissioner, directed towards the Minister for Justice, with an explicit direction that the minister should see it, should have been treated as a problem with flashing neon signs with the words "danger" on it. Yet he doesn't see it for 16 days.

Collectively the Department of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General preside over our judicial system and form the basis for our Government's legal advice. The calamity of errors requires a completely transparent analysis of the systemic system failure on a personal level at Government and at a systems level in government departments and agencies of the State and that is why we now have a new Commission of Inquiry.

The term "openness, transparency and accountability" was coined by Pat Rabbitte in the aftermath of the Brendan Smyth controversy and its initials are used within the civil service sometimes as "the Goddess OTA". The term is just a very parliamentary way of describing another less palatable word. And that word is secrecy.

In recent weeks, we celebrated our Irishness at home and abroad, the Government, leading from the front with a portrayal of Ireland as a nation of a very welcoming, open and friendly society. But behind this evergreen façade, despite everything we have gone through as a nation, socially and economically, secrecy still remains a driving factor in many engines of our State. This Government has done little or nothing to improve the situation. Secrecy is an anathema to any open society.

When it comes to crisis management, this Government has not covered itself in glory. While the immediate political implications at this stage for the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste are still fluid, their longer-term ability to deal with situations like this has an eroding effect on the electorate. Consciously or subconsciously it causes the public to worry about their ability to deliver on important national issues. I, for one, am beginning to miss the troika.

The Government parties need to have a serious post-crisis sit down about their crisis-management strategic approach. If it gets very heated and anyone of the Cabinet "goes postal", never fear, help is at hand. Just call your local garda station. Careful though, you might be on tape.

Now that is disgusting.

Irish Independent

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