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How Shatter spoiled it all by saying something stupid

'EVENTS, dear boy, events", was the legendary response from Harold Macmillan when asked what prime ministers feared most.

Enda Kenny would understand. Two weeks ago it seemed, after a hectic first couple of years, his Government might finally be able to draw breath. The Taoiseach was dealing decisively with the abortion issue and signs (albeit very tentative ones) were emerging the economy might be slowly turning around.

And then Alan Shatter went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid. Shatter will still be Justice Minister come 9pm tonight when the confidence motion is voted on. But his reputation – and, by association, the Government's – has taken a pounding in the past fortnight.

There have been numerous attempts by government ministers to dismiss the controversy as a "bottle of smoke". That misses the point on a number of levels. Firstly, the Justice Minister using private information against a political opponent is far from a trivial issue.

Nor is the revelation that Shatter failed to complete a breath test. It's something an ordinary citizen would not have been allowed do. And it's something no TD or senator should be allowed do, regardless of Article 15.13 of the Constitution.

Secondly, there is one thing that voters will not forgive in a government and that's even the merest hint of arrogance. And, regardless of his undoubted ability and work ethic, there's been more than a hint of it emanating from the Justice Minister in recent times.

What must infuriate Enda Kenny is how avoidable the whole mess was. If Shatter had avoided gilding the lily on 'Prime Time' last Thursday week, there wouldn't have been any story.

Of course, all governments have their "events". In politics, things rarely run smoothly. Perhaps what should worry Kenny more is that too many ministers seem to be playing their own individual game.

The story goes that when he appointed the combative and sometimes controversial Leo Varadkar to the Cabinet, the Taoiseach warned him to keep the head down and focus on the nuts and bolts of his brief. Varadkar has largely done just that, but the same can't be said for all the other ministers.

Shatter, in the words of one ministerial colleague, "can't walk past a sleeping dog without giving it a kick in the proverbials". James Reilly has blundered from calamity to calamity. And Joan Burton rarely misses an opportunity to express her reservations about austerity.

Both budgets introduced by this Government have been largely fought out through the media, instead of around the cabinet table. The result is a government unable to present a coherent message about what it is trying to do – or, more importantly, what it must do in the national interest.

Cabinets inevitably consist of strong personalities. And, with Enda Kenny more in the 'chairman' than 'chief' mould, it's inevitable that individual ministers will come to the fore. The fact that a number of these ministers may not seek re-election and want to make an impression in their last big job doesn't help.

Leadership moves – future (in relation to Labour) and past (Fine Gael) – also complicate matters. Burton clearly has an eye on succeeding Eamon Gilmore. Perhaps it's a coincidence but the Fine Gael ministers most embroiled in public controversy have been those who effectively saved Kenny during the Fine Gael leadership heave.

It's probably no coincidence the two ministers with the most power – Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin – have been largely keeping their heads down and avoiding fuss and hoo-ha.

Reports that the duo are planning a tough new post-troika economic programme demonstrate that they, at least, are focused on the issue most voters really care about – the economy.

No minister should need to be told there can't be any slacking once the bailout ends. But this pre-emptive strike suggests Noonan and Howlin believe some need to have it spelled out.

That does not reflect well on the Cabinet. It does not suggest a unity of purpose to do what needs to be done.

Despite what Macmillan said, governments usually manage to overcome even the trickiest "events". But, unless ministers start pulling together there could be more difficult times ahead – for the Coalition and the country.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108 FM

Irish Independent