A controversy too far for Shatter

His combative style and fearlessness, while often useful in a recession-time government, proved to be his undoing, writes Mary Regan.

A controversy too far for Shatter

FEW had ever waited as long for the job as Alan Shatter. After first being elected to the Dáil in 1981, it would take 30 years for the solicitor to make it onto a seat at Cabinet.

And once he did, it was no surprise that he would cling onto office — through controversy after controversy — until it no longer became possible.

Since Enda Kenny appointed him to the position of Justice Minister in March 2011, Mr Shatter has tackled a backlog of legislative changes, he has picked more battles than most and saw off two Dáil motions of no-confidence against him.

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

This, perhaps, proved to be an under-statement. His combative style and fearlessness, while often useful in a recession-time government which needed to make unpopular reforms, ultimately proved to be his undoing.

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 during the campaign, when he described the views of eight attorneys general as “nonsense”, was seen as a factor in the defeat of the proposition.

Again, he showed no reservations about taking on another powerful institution, the Catholic Church, when he introduced laws that would see people criminalised for failing to report abuse. When Catholic Primate of all Ireland Sean Brady hit out at the measure, 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.

Neither did Mr Shatter shy away from criticising the Garda and their representative organisations for their behaviour in response to cuts to pay and resources and the closure of stations.

In March 2013 he addressed the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) and rounded on members who he said had “done a disservice to members of the force”.

He personalised the issue and further damaged relations when, in an interview with RTÉ, 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”.

His biggest battle was to come later that year when claims came to light about the large-scale cancellation of penalty points by senior gardaí. By May, he had survived a Dáil no-confidence vote after it emerged he had avoided a breathalyser test when stopped by gardaí at a driving checkpoint.

During a live TV debate on the issue he used information from the then-Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan, to reveal that the Independent TD, Mick Wallace, had been cautioned by gardaí for a driving offence.

The Data Protection Commissioner revealed this week that this was a breach in the law — a decision Mr Shatter is expected to appeal.

The penalty points issue emerged again before Christmas when a Garda whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, presented a box of evidence to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

On the eve of the garda’s appearance before the committee, Mr Shatter announced the issue would be investigated by the Garda Ombudsman’s Commission (something that he had previously refused to do) so that the issue could be “put to bed”.

However, it was far from over. Separate revelations emerged about concerns of GSOC that its offices were being bugged.

Initially the minister attempted to play down the story, claiming there was no evidence of surveillance and that GSOC had breached the legislation by failing to tell him of their concerns.

But the Taoiseach was soon forced to announce an independent investigation into the matter by Judge John Cooke (which is due for publication in the coming days).

In March, Mr Shatter was forced to apologise to two Garda whistleblowers after a report by the Garda Inspectorate vindicated their claims on penalty point cancellations.

He was also forced to correct the Dáil record and his previously misleading comments that they had failed to co-operate with an internal Garda inquiry on the issue.

To the amazement of many, he survived another vote of no-confidence. And while many, were awed at his ability to survive so many controversies, there was still some surprise when he announced his resignation yesterday.

In the end, it appears, the revelations in a report on Garda misconduct by senior counsel Sean Guerin to be published tomorrow proved to be one controversy too far.

The 300-page report is expected to show that Mr Shatter’s response was inadequate in terms of analysing and investigating allegations of misconduct in the force.

He will be missed by some of the Cabinet for his progressive, liberal agenda, just as he embarked on the legalisation of same sex marriage. Others will miss his fearlessness, work ethic and reforming zeal.

However, if he continued in Cabinet, there was a risk that the report’s damning findings would contaminate the rest of government. And so he returns to the all too familiar place on the Fine Gael backbenches.

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