Counting the cost of Shatter's battles

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has inflamed the GSOC scandal, and will face tough questions in the Dáil this week, reports Political Reporter Juno McEnroe

ALAN SHATTER faces tough questions from TDs tomorrow amid the ongoing row over the suspected bugging of the garda watchdog’s offices. There were clear discrepancies between what the justice minister told the Dáil last week about the alleged bugging and what he himself was informed by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Mr Shatter has picked more battles than most ministers. His relish for confrontation is matched by a continued brusque dismissal of criticism. However, while he will likely survive this second week of the GSOC bugging scandal, the row will leave not only his position damaged in the long term but also that of the ombudsman, as well as of the gardaí themselves.

The minister’s initial response to the GSOC story was to shoot the messenger rather than deal with the substantive issues. This is largely to blame for the damage now done to all three.

Alan Shatter previously described himself on his own website as a “reforming legislator willing to confront controversial issues”. Since appointed minister in early 2011, he has tackled a backlog of legislative changes in justice. He has also got embroiled in some big rows.

One over the closure of army barracks saw the resignation of junior minister Willie Penrose. Mr Shatter — who doubles up as Ireland’s defence minister — also faced criticism for reducing soldier numbers.

In the same year, his dismissal of criticism of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum by eight former attorneys general was seen by some as a key factor in the Coalition losing the vote.

The closure of 100 garda stations early last year saw some rank-and-file members of the force claiming the minister’s cost-saving strategy was “pure madness”. The opposition went as far as accusing him of turning the force into a “glorified neighbourhood scheme” in rural parts of Ireland.

In recent years, Mr Shatter has also earned the ire of judges, tackling their high salaries in a 2011 referendum. But the Coalition was later accused of dismantling the independence of the judiciary “brick by brick”.

However, previous rows involving Alan Shatter were dwarfed when claims surfaced last year that gardaí were involved in the large-scale cancellation of penalty points.

By May, he had faced and survived a Dáil vote of no confidence after it emerged he had avoided a breathalyser test when stopped by gardaí at a driving checkpoint.

The minister was later forced to apologise for releasing information on live TV about Independent TD Mick Wallace being stopped by gardaí in a separate incident.

This latest row involving Mr Shatter has rumbled on for over a week now. It initially centred around whether GSOC’s offices had been bugged or not — a serious issue beyond doubt.

Problems started for Mr Shatter, though, when he and Taoiseach Enda Kenny began to deflect attention from the alleged surveillance of the watchdog and onto the fact that GSOC had not informed the minister about the suspected bugging. Furthermore, by the end of last week, some Fine Gael TDs seemed obsessed with how the bugging story had leaked to the media rather than the surveillance of GSOC.

It became a case of shooting the messenger rather than finding the spy.

Last week, GSOC was queried for four hours about the bugging scandal in front of the Oireachtas Committee on Oversight and Petitions.

Mr Shatter can expect an equally tough amount of questioning tomorrow in front of the committee.

Specific attention will focus on what Mr Shatter told the Dáil last Tuesday in a special debate about the alleged GSOC bugging and how this compared to what the ombudsman in fact informed him the previous day.

Fianna Fáil have already accused Mr Shatter of “misleading” the Dáil on the issue.

A number of discrepancies can expect to be raised. These include:

-The fact that GSOC launched a “public interest investigation” which looked at possible garda involvement in the bugging, but Mr Shatter only said this was “an investigation”. The minister failed to mention that GSOC had on October 8 last year invoked section 104 (2) of the Garda Síochána Act for this investigation;

-The alleged bugging of the GSOC chairman’s conference telephone. The minister did not specify the outcome of a test on the phone which resulted in the phone line ringing. External consultants concluded that the likelihood of a wrong number being called at that time, to that exact number, was “so small as to be at virtually zero”;

-The minister also did not mention that the level of technology involved in simulating a UK 3G network near GSOC’s offices was “only available to government agencies”;

-Mr Shatter also did not tell the Dáil that GSOC had informed him that the three threats or “anomalies” around the security of its offices could still not be explained and this raised concerns

Ahead of tomorrow’s hearing, committee chairman Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has already said he has “heightened concerns” about discrepancies between what Mr Shatter told the Dáil and what GSOC told the minister beforehand.

Shatter can also expect criticism in the Dáil this week when Sinn Féin push for an independent investigation into the GSOC bugging scandal during private members’ time.

Nonetheless, despite the barrage of comments coming Mr Shatter’s way, he will be expected to comfortably survive any opposition or criticism. Most Fine Gael TDs want to put this scandal to bed and are dismissing calls for an independent inquiry.

Furthermore, GSOC said at the weekend that the bugging claims had dominated its focus and that it wanted to prioritise its work.

But Mr Shatter’s handling of this incident has left him tarnished. Who will not seriously question any statement he makes about a row next time in the Dáil?

More importantly, the trusted lieutenant of Mr Kenny has failed to stop the GSOC scandal overshadowing the long-term work of the ombudsman as well as the Garda Síochána. Mr Shatter undermined GSOC’s independence by ordering its chairman, Simon O'Brien, in for talks last week. He should also have corrected the wrongly stated claim that GSOC had been required to inform him about the bugging investigation.

Tensions between GSOC and garda management remain. Moreover, a refusal to order an independent probe is likely to unfortunately leave suspicions about whether any present or past member of the force was involved in spying on GSOC.

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