Thursday 12 December 2019

Dail never lets pesky principles get in way of saving politician's skin

Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Colette Brown

Government representatives will get to their feet in the Dail today and proclaim their absolute faith in Alan "reforming minister" Shatter before they comfortably defeat Fianna Fail's no-confidence motion.

However, ministers' purported revulsion at calls for Shatter's resignation belie their former enthusiasm for seeking ministerial heads on plates when they were sitting on the opposition benches.

According to, the word "resign" has been used in the Dail 2,253 times since 2004.

Among the government benches, the TDs who used the word most in that time were, in descending order, Eamon Gilmore, Enda Kenny, Pat Rabbitte and Alan Shatter.

In 2007, Mr Gilmore wondered "how bad must matters get" before a minster deigns to resign, concluding: "No matter what a minister of this country does or how badly he screws up there is never any question of a resignation."

In opposition, Kenny was equally perturbed by the failure of ministers to accept responsibility for scandals and resign. "It is a great honour and privilege to be appointed a minister but with this privilege comes responsibility and accountability. These are set out in section 3 of the Public Service Management Act 1997, which states clearly that a minister of the Government is responsible for the performance of the functions that are assigned to his department. Nothing could be clearer. The political buck stops with the minister, not the secretary general, assistant secretary or the minister's special adviser," he said in 2005.

At the time, the Dail was debating the Travers Report into the illegal charging of nursing home residents over 28 years.

Mr Kenny wanted former Health Minister Micheal Martin, who claimed not to have been briefed on the issue despite senior civil servants and advisers in his department being aware of it, to fall on his sword.

He decried the then government's attempts to portray Martin as "some sort of poor innocent soul, cut off from his department and denied access to crucial information" and stated "the minister must take responsibility for . . . system failure".

Fast forward nine years, and Mr Kenny has adopted the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil defence of former Fianna Fail ministers while the Soldiers of Destiny have a new-fangled concern for ministerial accountability, which was strangely absent during their tenure in office.

Back in 2004, Pat Rabbitte wondered if there was "any incompetence, bungling, administration or abuse of public funds that would cause a minister in this government to resign".

Judging by his support for Shatter, one would have to say the answer to that question is no.

While Mr Rabbitte, and his ministerial colleagues, seem to accept that Mr Shatter had no knowledge of the garda practice of bugging phone calls until late last week, he was less credulous when a Fianna Fail minister was the one claiming ignorance.

"When the minister says that he knows nothing about this, does he not accept that he is taking the people for fools . . . does he believe it is credible to ask people to believe that? Does he think we are all fools?" he said, when Mr Martin's head was the one on the block.

As late as 2010, Alan Shatter was lamenting the fact that Irish ministers don't do resignations.

He deplored the ethos in Leinster House, which, he said, was "to batten down the hatches, protect one's position and not to regard oneself as accountable".

He added: "The general public has lost faith in the capacity of this House to fully hold people accountable . . . we do not do accountability. It is time we in this parliament did accountability."

Alas, this crusading zeal for accountability seems to have dissipated since Shatter attained high office. Government TDs have complained that Fianna Fail's motion is cynical and it is. Martin refused to resign after the Travers scandal, so how can he credibly ask for Shatter's resignation today?

But government TDs are equally cynical, having abandoned their obsession with political probity in favour of political expediency since they entered office in 2011.

Judged on their previous statements and actions, TDs on both sides of Leinster House clearly don't mean a word of what they will say today; they're simply performing a role mandated by their position in either government or opposition.

They will happily read whatever script is given to them, whether that involves lambasting Shatter or defending him to the hilt.

When principles, ethics and convictions are so malleable, is it any wonder that the public is so disillusioned with politics?

Shatter will survive today's no-confidence motion, but the price will be a further erosion of the people's confidence in the political process.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss