Shatter abusing privilege of the House

The former justice minister is still trashing the good name of the man who wrought his fall from grace,writes Michael Clifford

LAST Friday must have been a difficult day for Alan Shatter. The Legal Services Bill was going through the report stage in the Dáil. He had introduced the bill in 2011. Reforming the legal business to bring it into the 21st century was a key initiative of his when he served as justice minister, prior to his resignation on May 8.

He had gone where successive ministers had feared to tread, taking on a powerful vested interest, even though the business had provided him with a lucrative income before he dedicated himself full-time to politics. And now, here was his successor, Frances Fitzgerald, reaping the benefits of his labour. Not easy for a man of Shatter’s renowned self-confidence.

Later in the day, he must have suffered a further blow to his ego. The Cabinet reshuffle had Leinster House abuzz, and he was now outside the loop, loitering on the backbenches. When speculation had begun about a reshuffle six months ago, the common consensus was that Shatter would be left alone in justice. He was a key ally of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s, perceived to be doing a good job. Then, along came all those Garda controversies, engulfing the Government and culminating with his resignation from office.

Maybe all that explains his outburst in the Dáil during the debate on the Legal Services Bill on Friday. During his contribution, he managed to steer the debate away from the substance of the bill towards his great grievance — the Guerin report which had prompted his resignation.

Shatter led the House towards his back door by pointing out that the professional practice committee of the Bar Council had been implacably opposed to his legislation for reform. And one member of that committee was none other than Sean Guerin.

Shatter went on: “My concern about all of this derives from the fact that I find it extraordinary that a member of the professional practice committee should have taken it upon himself to pronounce judgment in the Guerin report, something that has affected me personally.

“It is something I am concerned should not happen in the future because I do not think it is compatible with an objective review or inquiry into any matter that an individual who is opposed to legislation that a minister is processing through the House, be placed in a position in which he effectively makes a pronouncement. Even if there is no subjective bias — I am not suggesting there is — there is the appearance of it and a conflict of interest of a nature that should have resulted in Mr Guerin concluding it was inappropriate for him to take that position.”

Shatter was inferring that Guerin had been unfit to conduct his inquiry because of a conflict of interest. That he would make such an accusation under privilege of the Dáil tells much about his belief that his sense of grievance outweighs due respect for the privilege that accords to those who speak in the national parliament.

Then again, it wasn’t the first time Shatter has abused Dáil privilege. On October 1, he opined to the House that Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson had not co-operated with an internal inquiry into their complaints about abuse of the penalty points system.

Shatter’s failure to retract that allegation, until finally directed to do so by Kenny, contributed hugely to the travails that led ultimately to resignation.

There was more abuse of his speaking rights last month. During a debate on the Cooke report into alleged bugging of the GSOC offices, Shatter launched a scathing attack on Sean Guerin.

He accused the barrister of compiling a report that he variously described as bizarre, astonishing, disingenuous, and fundamentally flawed. (The rest of the body politic, interest groups, and the media characterised the report as being professional and to-the-point).

He also accused Guerin of acting unfairly — in criticising Shatter in the report — and suggested that as a prosecutor, the barrister would have been aware he was doing so.

The attack on Guerin was such that it might well have attracted legal action had it been uttered outside the Dáil.

The attack was largely without any proper foundation. Guerin’s report criticised Shatter for not initiating an independent investigation of the allegations made by Sgt McCabe. This assessment was based entirely on the law and available documentation.

All things being equal, Shatter could have addressed the criticism by pointing out that no other justice minister, operating under the existing law and culture, would have dismissed assurances from the Garda commissioner and gone outside the force to examine McCabe’s allegations.

Shatter’s problem was that all things weren’t equal. When the Guerin report was published, the persistent controversies, and his inept handling of them, had rendered him a busted flush. If Guerin had as much as said Shatter wore the wrong tie in a Dáil debate, Shatter would have been toast.

The reality was Kenny had had enough of his turbulent minister. The Taoiseach gave him a few hours to consider the report, not the act of a boss intent on saving a valued ally. Kenny was the one who wanted a barrister to investigate McCabe’s allegations, and he oversaw the setting of the terms of reference. Kenny also directed that Guerin report to him and not the justice minister, as would ordinarily have been the case.

Kenny’s exasperation with the minister he had theretofore considered the smartest boy in the class was not down to personality clashes. The Taoiseach had merely finally accepted that Shatter had made a ‘hames’ of a key element of his brief, and in doing so had cost the Government considerable political capital. Nothing personal, just business. Kenny wanted rid of him because he wasn’t up to the job.

Accepting such realities can’t be easy for somebody of Shatter’s supreme self-regard.

Much easier to focus on the messenger Guerin, whose name and reputation Shatter feels comfortable in thrashing under privilege of the Dáil.

Shatter is not the first person to harbour a burning sense of grievance after a fall from high office. But he is surely the first to believe he is justified in using the privilege afforded to parliamentarians to attack non-members whom he blames for his career demise.

That a politician of such long standing exhibits that level of contempt for the democratic institution he served for nigh on 30 years speaks volumes. Nothing has become the man as much as how he is conducting himself in the wake of his leaving.


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