GERARD HOWLIN: Bugging debacle shows Shatter’s dual powers do not serve justice

THE last government was too long in power.

The current government was too long in opposition. Having traded in the currency of political accusation for years, it is remarkably brittle about charges made against it.

Today, at 4pm, Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter will appear before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. He will defend his handling of the alleged bugging of the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

He faces two charges. The first is that his approach to the matter, since it broke in the Sunday Times newspaper a week ago last Sunday, has undermined the GSOC. The second is that he sexed-down, in his account to the Dáil eight days ago, the information given to him by the GSOC.

The political uproar is mirrored in the media, with journalists who run out of print space or air time continuing on social media. Media goodies are in campaign mode.

There is, they say, a black deed festering at the heart of the State. A rogue fifth column is beyond effective control. Worse, the Government, which should be the ultimate bulwark in the public interest, has failed to aid (and perhaps has attempted to pull the trap door on) the GSOC, the body charged with overseeing the most likely suspect, An Garda Síochána.

The baddies are craven, boot-licking (Garda boots mainly) reptiles who, having taken the soup of Garda gossip for so long, dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

This spineless low-life is abetted by the power and interest of media organisations, who want to rubbish a story from a competitor.

Worse, they followed the Government line and attempted to move the story away from the bugging of the GSOC to the source of the leak.

Yesterday, a story in the Irish Independent newspaper claimed an innocent explanation for two of the three “anomalies” found in the GSOC’s security, explanations allegedly known to, but not reported by, the GSOC. The security company involved promptly described that story as “wholly inaccurate”. Claim and counter-claim are a warning to be sceptical of stories sourced in a murky world.

In any quest for accountability, a war of words can be refreshing, if bracing. Sit on the fence, however, or be sceptical about any claim, and you are a wimp, hardly worth the kicking you deserve, but will be afforded anyway.

Alan Shatter is no wimp. He is all he-man and hero, a cut-out character from the genre of steamy novels he writes in his spare time.

In the decades since he was elected a TD — meantime, he lost his Dáil seat — his career was characterised by a lack of preferment and a potential apparently destined to be unfulfilled.

An outsider, a contrarian, and an aggressive critic of opponents, his exercise of power has been remarkably arbitrary and authoritarian. His late arrival to high office has been marked by an energy sometimes unchecked by discernment. Imperious in his display of IQ, at critical moments he has lacked politically important emotional intelligence.

Shatter, the solicitor who robustly insisted on his rights to represent his clients in the higher courts, without a barrister, has long been a bogey man for the legal establishment.

His authorship of a successful constitutional referendum to allow a reduction in judges’ pay deeply rankled an establishment already smarting from what they saw as the arrogance of an upstart.

If that was a popular success, his handling of a parallel referendum, to grant greater investigative powers to Oireachtas committees, was a significant contribution to its defeat. He looked and sounded, with help from colleagues, including Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin, exactly the sort of person you would not welcome sitting in judgement on your reputation.

This is the paradox of Shatter as a politician. Apparently fearlessly challenging the status quo in opposition and private practice, in power he has metamorphosed, perhaps simply continued, into a state of political and intellectual arbitrariness that makes the realisation of his objectives more difficult.

Unused to the checks or the responsibilities of office, he acts as if he is still firing fusillades from the opposition benches, against government, or at bewigged colleagues from the cheap seats reserved for solicitors at the back of a court room. Shatter is now in government. He enjoys layers of power, in pivotally sensitive positions, which, cumulatively, are unique.

He is Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence, and unprecedentedly combines in his person responsibility for all the security and intelligence services of the State. He holds these positions in a government that has a huge majority, and a taste for enforcing its wishes regardless of the scrutinising responsibilities of the legislature. And unlike most ministers in most governments, he is a political mainstay of the Taoiseach, within the larger party in government.

In light of the frustration and incapacity of the GSOC in exercising oversight of An Garda Síochána — a lack of effective institutional tension as distinct from counter-productive furore — it is apparent that the State is not best served by combining the roles of Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence.

The identities of those who bugged the GSOC may never be known. For now, I will wear the wimp t-shirt and say that while there are grounds for real concern, there is not yet, in the public domain, definitive proof. It is wise, however, to proceed on the basis that there may well have been a bugging and to act accordingly.

That assumption requires further resources, and legislative strengthening of the GSOC. It needs an acknowledgement from Alan Shatter, today, that he can see the bigger, structural picture for the State, and is not mired in trench warfare borne of pique. He may once have thought he would never be a minister. Now he is, and he is a power in the land as well.

Delivering in politics requires not simply force of personal will, but the capacity and the appetite to persuade. The public is unpersuaded that there is an effective oversight of An Garda Síochána. The aura of self-assurance that surrounds Shatter is not widely shared on this issue, a critical one of public confidence.

Today, he faces a challenge, to acknowledge the public’s concerns. It may never be discovered definitively what happened in the GSOC, but there is every chance, if it is taken, to fix it for the future. Politics, press and police are all in the business of creating suspicion, the better to feast on it. It is the minister’s job, unlike an opposition spokesman, to allay suspicions, not to deepen them. Let’s see how the day goes on.


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