Probably, the toughest minister in cabinet

Alan Shatter relishes the challenge to confront issues, says political correspondent Mary Regan

ALAN Shatter is probably the toughest minister in cabinet. He is arrogant and politically aggressive, and does not mind being seen this way.

In his introduction on his own personal website, he describes himself as a “reforming legislator willing to confront controversial issues”.

This, perhaps, is an understatement. Not only is he willing to confront issues, he relishes the challenge to do so. Since taking on the role of minister for justice, he has seldom shown a willingness to give concessions. He has pushed ahead with his agenda, and he alone is the master.

This fearlessness has been useful in a coalition that has often had to make unpopular decisions to change things from how they were done during the Celtic Tiger. But it can, at times, such as now, cause problems.

Mr Shatter was not afraid to take on some of the most powerful public servants in the State when — just months in office — he held a referendum to cut the pay of the judiciary. The vote was passed and their salaries, which had never been challenged, were reduced. But, at the same time, a separate referendum was held to give the Oireachtas more powers of inquiry and Mr Shatter’s arrogance in the debate leading up to it was seen as a contributory factor to the defeat of the proposition. During the debate eight former attorneys general criticised the proposal. Ignoring their experience and expertise, Mr Shatter dismissed their views as “nonsense” and “simply wrong”.

Again, he showed no reservations about taking on another powerful institution, the Catholic Church, when he introduced a law that would see people criminalised for failing to report abuse. The minister refused not only to give in, but even to listen to priests who wanted an exemption to protect their seal of confession.

The Catholic Primate of all Ireland, Sean Brady, hit out at the measure. But Mr Shatter said he could not understand the “excitement” among the clergy and that they would be subject to the same law as everybody else. After seeing them off, he then stuck the boot in, saying their protests were a “diversion of the real issue”: That the Church had covered up abuse.

It is no surprise then that Mr Shatter has not shied away from criticising the gardaí and their representative organisations for their recent behaviour in reacting to cuts to pay and resources and the closure of stations.

But it seems he might have finally met his match and entered into a battle which he is unlikely to emerge from without serious injury to both his reputation and his credibility.

Mr Shatter was acutely aware of the raw anger and low morale in the force when addressed the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) earlier this week. But he was in no mood for reconciliation and, instead of reaching out to them, he rounded on the AGSI and the Garda Representative Association (GRA) who, he said, had “done a disservice to members of the force”. In a hard-hitting speech, he said they had missed their chance to argue their case in public sector pay talks and both bodies had “lost their way”.

The next day, the minister, as often before, could not resist rubbing salt in the wounds he inflicted. In an interview with RTÉ Radio, he said he was glad his wife did not accompany him to the conference because “I don’t think their conduct could be described as courteous or reasonable”. He said he meant this “in the context of the manner in which the members of the AGSI conducted themselves that night”.

This only served to deepen the confrontation. By bringing his wife into it and suggesting the force would be, in some way, dangerous around a woman, he personalised the row and brought it to a new level.

This personal involvement made it harder for him and his Government to distance themselves from disciplinary action against four members of the force who staged a walk-out during the conference. The Coalition claimed it was a matter for the Garda commissioner, but some members of the force saw it as the commissioner doing the minister’s bidding.

Tensions are set to deepen when he will become the first justice minister to be denied an invitation to the GRA annual conference at the end of next month.

Between now and then he will either have to put on a mighty display of strength that asserts his authority, or he will need to offer the gardaí an olive branch and try to rebuild the relationship and improve the force’s morale.

Digging his heels in further carries a huge risk and could push the gardaí into all-out revolt.

Despite his stubbornness, Mr Shatter has shown that he is not afraid to put his hands up and say he was wrong. He did, for example, apologise in June 2011 for his “unfair and inaccurate” comments about RTÉ’s crime correspondent, Paul Reynolds, whom he had earlier said “consistently engages in tabloid sensationalism”.

On this occasion, he cannot apologise to an entire police force, as to do so would permanently undermine his authority.

But his well-known willingness for confrontation may have to be tempered with a little diplomacy.

That, and not further fighting, would show his true strength as a fearless minister.

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