Back in the 1970s, a few years after Bob Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, he was being interviewed about how it was such an outstanding album. The album was written as Dylan’s marriage was coming to an end, a time of great trauma for him. Yet the interviewer saw only the musical accomplishment. Dylan’s reply was typical. “How can you enjoy so much pain,” he said.
The same question began buzzing around my head as I waded through Alan Shatter’s recently released memoir, Frenzy And Betrayal — The Anatomy Of A Political Assassination.
Alan Shatter is no Bob Dylan. The memoir will hardly ascend to the annals of literature. But the man’s pain bleeds from every page, as if he’s trying, like Mr Dylan, to quieten the demons who mock and wound when love turns sour.
Shatter resigned as justice minister in May 2014, at the end of a year in which he grappled with garda controversies; principally, though not exclusively, the one involving Maurice McCabe. Since his resignation, the courts have determined he was unfairly treated, in a report that precipitated his departure.
But by May 2014, his political capital was so depleted that his leader, Enda Kenny, would have accepted any excuse to be rid of him. The tone of Shatter’s tome suggests that he sees his political demise as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice of our time.
The book promised much. Shatter can write and he was once the smartest boy in the cabinet. He had a long career in politics, during which he was also, at various points, one of the leading family law solicitors in the country. And then his dream job came along and he was out of the traps like a seasoned greyhound, until he galloped head first into the steel blue wall of garda controversies.
Until that point, his tenure in justice was en route to being celebrated. He possessed a reforming zeal and an appetite for hard work. He also had supreme self-confidence, an asset that, during his descent, perhaps morphed into a liability.
The book largely concerns his last six months in office, in the first half of 2014, before he was wrestled from the job that was obviously a great love of his life. A theme of the book is that he carried truth like a spear through a jungle populated by savages of spin and deception. Early on, the Shakespearean tragedy is laid out.
If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of naïve truth-telling, when political theatrics or a political parable compatible with, or which pandered to, the desired false narratives of others, might have avoided much of the trouble that led to my political downfall in 2014.
He was wronged at every turn: By political opponents, Gsoc commissioners, reporters, lawyers, even some cabinet colleagues. Only those who could see the world through his eyes, the odd Fine Gael TD or perceptive journalist, is spared his spear of truth.
Even Maurice McCabe has questions to answer, as he “created a quagmire of complexity which had the capacity to detrimentally impact on anyone genuinely committed to addressing his concerns”.
Enda Kenny was a great fellow until he began harbouring a disregard for truth.
“I would later develop a more cynical perspective on Enda’s interest in ‘truth, transparency, and accountability’,” our hero declares. As for Leo, how could a truth teller have any time for such a master of spin?
The media hunted Shatter in packs. Each headline, column, or ‘fake news’ rant attempted to drag him down to their level, these turkeys preventing him soaring like an eagle.
Your columnist, for instance, was “disingenuous” in how he portrayed the truth teller. But that’s OK. If depicting me as one of the savages eases his existential pain, I can live with that.
What about poor Willie O’Dea, though? During a no-confidence motion in the Dáil on Shatter’s tenure in justice, poor Willie suggested the minister was “arrogant”.
Shatter writes in the book:
The ‘arrogant Jew’ is a centuries old, anti-Semitic depiction of Jewish people who stand up for themselves, have the courage of their convictions, and are neither servile nor compliant.
The author did add that most, if not all, of those who called him arrogant were not consciously anti-Semitic, but “while his Fianna Fáil colleagues did not enter this territory, Willie O’Dea plunged in head first”.
To be fair to poor Willie, the charge is ludicrous. Are we to take it that, irrespective of how arrogant one might find an individual who happens to be of the Jewish faith, labelling it is out of bounds?
The references to anti-Semitism — carefully calibrated to avoid specific accusations — are a low point in the self-pitying tone. It’s as if the author simply cannot find any other good reason why the world in which he existed turned so viciously against him. Rigorous self-analysis does not feature in the book.
Allowances must be made. The memoirist has still not got over the reality that he was forced from office not for telling the truth, but because his boss had come to consider him a political liability. That demise would be difficult for anybody to take. For somebody of Shatter’s supreme self-confidence, the wound festers and has long been infected with bitterness.
If only he could have traded a little self-confidence for a little political nous or emotional intelligence. If only he could have sensed that the McCabe affair was a rubicon in the relationship between senior politicians and senior gardaí.
If only he could have taken his departure from office with a little humility, the party would have ensured he got the opportunity to apply his considerable intellect in another sphere of public service. It wasn’t to be.
One of the outstanding songs on Blood on the Tracks is ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’. In it, Dylan deploys poetic metaphors heavy with longing and regret, until coming to a point in the song where he can no longer hide in language. He releases a plaintive cry from deep within and sings: “I’m going out of my mind with a pain that stops and starts.”
The pain in ‘Frenzy And Betrayal’ rarely stops. Unfortunately, that does not produce a memorable work, but, instead, gets in the way of what could have been an interesting insight into high office and the relationship between politics and the media.
Maybe, if nothing else, the book can serve as a cathartic exercise for the author. Perhaps he can finally move on. Everybody else has. There is nearly always life after being torn from the thing you love. And in the fullness of time, one hopes that Mr Shatter’s wounds heal and that a little perspective might cast things in a more benign light.