Shatter’s response - Playing the man, not the ball

In politics, perception is everything.

How a TD or minister is rated, not just by his or her peers but more especially by voters, can make or break a career. The political graveyard is littered with corpses.

Not surprisingly, as witnessed in the Dáil yesterday, when a politician’s reputation is in the balance, the rules of engagement go out the window. In sporting parlance, instead of playing the ball, the focus of the game turns to playing the man, especially when Justice Minister Alan Shatter is involved.

Nobody can blame him for robustly defending his reputation which had been shredded in recent days. In characteristic fashion, with his political image under a scorching spotlight, he came out swinging. However, his predictably coherent response to opposition attacks on his handling of the whistleblower affair was disappointing in one major respect. It was a display of party politics of the worst kind.

Understandably, the focus of his verbal assault was Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who had led the charge against him and yesterday accused the minister of resorting to attack as the only form of defence.

Regrettably, Mr Shatter’s performance descended into a blatant display of political gamesmanship. His focus on naked party politics permeated his argument and risked obscuring the two citizens at the centre of this long running controversy – namely, the garda whistleblowers. Arguably, had they been totally eclipsed, it may have suited the Government’s purpose.

When the minister denied he had misled the Dáil, the claim was emotionally dismissed by Mick Wallace TD, who originally sparked this controversy. Once again, he called for the minister’s resignation. While Mr Shatter said he had no animosity towards Sergeant Maurice McCabe and no desire to have a public or private dispute with a member of the gardaí, his refusal to apologise for saying the sergeant had refused to co-operate with an internal Garda inquiry will have the effect of pouring petrol on the embers of dispute.

In an interesting twist, Enda Kenny answered a question on many lips as to why the confidential garda recipient, Oliver Connolly, was sacked. Apparently, it was because he would not confirm if he had made controversial comments purporting to reflect the minister’s alleged attitude towards the whistleblower.

Bluntly put, he refused to say if he told Sgt McCabe that Mr Shatter would “screw him” and “go after him” if certain allegations reached the print media. From the transcript of an alleged conversation between the whistleblower and Mr Connolly, the Taoiseach described this as “outrageous”.

Seemingly, the question put to Mr Connolly was: “Did you say these things, is this what you said?”

Ironically, it is not known if the same question was put to Mr Shatter.

Meanwhile, the Government has appointed barrister Seán Guerin to look into the handling of allegations from Sgt McCabe with a view to advising if the controversy warrants a formal commission of inquiry.

Arguably, Mr Shatter’s contention that as minister, he was solemnly bound to protect the rights of all citizens, would best be served by setting up such an inquiry. Nothing short of a fully independent probe will appease public clamour for transparency and accountability.

That and that alone will resolve the whistleblower controversy which looks set to haunt this government until all the questions are clearly answered.

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