D-day for coalition on garda row

Alan Shatter: Expected to answer questions on whistleblower's claims.

The coalition is under pressure to take action to resolve the crisis on the third anniversary of the last election, writes Political Reporter Juno McEnroe

TODAY marks a significant point in the Government’s calendar. It is exactly three years since the people of Ireland went to the polls and gave Fine Gael and Labour the numbers they needed to form a coalition. It is also D-day for the coalition about what to do regarding the ongoing controversy, claims and counter-claims surrounding Justice Minister Alan Shatter and the gardaí.

At the centre of the row are questions about how the Fine Gael minister handled concerns raised by garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe about alleged malpractice in the force. The issues are “grave” and “serious,” as Enda Kenny has said, and include allegations about gardaí mishandling murder, assault and abduction cases.

Matters involving Mr Shatter have reached a crisis point. This is the third week running where the force and the minister will be a talking point at the weekly Cabinet meeting. Two reviews, in his department and the Taoiseach’s, are under way, into the handling of Sgt McCabe’s claims.

Moreover, all of this comes on the back of the announcement last week of a judge-led review into separate claims about bugging at the Garda Ombudsman’s offices.

It took a week and a half for the coalition to finally decide on the need for that so-called inquiry.

But the row over how garda whistleblower claims were handled took on a new twist last week when Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin handed over a dossier on alleged garda malpractice to Mr Kenny.

Mr Shatter also sacked garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly for making controversial comments to Sgt McCabe which allegedly included the startling claim that if “Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.”

Since then, Mr Shatter has remained silent. For a week he has let this row rumble on. This is strange for a minister known for his work ethic and who, many argue, relishes confrontation.

What happens next will define not just his position, but that of the Taoiseach and, of course, the Fine Gael-Labour relationship.

Some firm action is needed to stop the drip feed of damaging and erosive claims now emerging on a daily basis about the force.

This matter supersedes where the coalition stand in opinion polls and what backbenchers think.

Trust in a police force and a justice minister go to the heart of law and order in any state.

Evidently, Labour think Mr Shatter is going nowhere. Eamon Gilmore said as much yesterday when he said there were no questions about his position.

But what remains is an evolving mess around how Sgt McCabe’s claims about gardaí were handled.

This is not going to go away. Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil yesterday revealed they were close to exposing further claims against gardaí after more garda whistleblowers stepped forward. Clearly, if opposition parties have opened a Pandora’s box on Garda malpractice there needs to be some orderly way to assess claims and counter claims about the force.

The announcement of some type of inquiry today would plug the drip feed of claims.

It could take one of two forms. The coalition could either extend the remit of former High Court Judge John Cooke, who last week agreed to investigate claims about the bugging of the garda ombudsman commission’s offices.

This review has no statutory powers, will only last eight weeks, and its terms were partially set by Mr Shatter.

A more fitting inquiry could be held under the Commissions of Investigation Act, 2004. This would be completely independent. Furthermore, witnesses, including gardaí, could be compelled to give evidence.

Coalition sources and gardaí privately fear this could lead to a flood of complaints against gardaí coming before such an inquiry, relating to everything and anything. Undoubtedly any probe would have to have a very clear remit. Mr Cooke is known for his calm and measured approach. Any calculated extension of his review could work. But would it be enough?

Mr Shatter is also finally expected to answer questions today about what he did about Sgt McCabe’s damning claims, which Fianna Fáil say he let ‘run into the sand’ for the last two years.

Key to this will be not only how much Mr Shatter personally knew about the alleged garda malpractice, but also what he did about the claims and if any action was taken independent of what the force were telling him. Mr Shatter must also address demands for an apology or correction of the Dáil record amid claims he wrongly claimed last October that Sgt McCabe and fellow garda whistleblower John Wilson refused to cooperate with a garda penalty points inquiry.

Clearing up this controversy quickly and transparently is necessary if Enda Kenny expects to ask voters for their support once again in two years time.

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