Stonewall Burton stands by Shatter as Red Mick finds an unlikely ally
Leader of the Opposition gives credit to maverick Mick
Micheál Martin was so incensed by Burton’s stonewalling that he continued complaining during the Order of Business, forcing Seán Barrett to suspend the house for 10 minutes.
A month ago, when the Garda Commissioner was sending blood pressure soaring with his bumptious display before the Public Accounts Committee, deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace watched from the gallery. As non-members of this prestigious committee, they could not take part in the proceedings. Instead, they listened intently; occasionally shaking their heads and snorting in disbelief at what they were hearing. They had files. Lots of them. But they knew exactly what page to find when specific incidents were mentioned. The committee members asked their questions. Many of them, while trying to sound informed, were clearly winging it. “Have any of those TDs asked you about this?” we whispered to Clare. She laughed. “Us? You must be joking!” Mick asked her what the question was. She told him. He laughed too.
Fast-forward to last Wednesday, when the GSOC controversy was in full swing in the Dáil and the Fianna Fáil leader was about to throw the Oliver Connolly transcript into the mix. Micheál Martin read parts of an alleged conversation between the Garda confidential recipient and Sgt Maurice McCabe into the record. He said it was “truly shocking” and made for serious and grave reading. And then he added “Deputy Mick Wallace was the first to raise this matter in the House last week.” It sounded like a throwaway remark, but it was a significant one. The Leader of the Opposition was giving credit to maverick Mick, and by extension, Clare Daly and Ming Flanagan. This doesn’t happen, normally. As a rule, deputies from the main parties don’t pay much attention to the Dáil’s outsiders. They may have been banging the drum on behalf of Garda whistleblowers for over a year, but so what? As long as it was just those three awkward ones in the top corner, Alan Shatter and the rest of the Government could rest easy. But Micheál Martin? That was different.
Yesterday, when he continued to highlight the explosive contents of this transcript at Leaders’ Questions, the confidential recipient had already been sacked. And the Government was panicked. From their spot in the top right-hand corner of the chamber, Mick and Clare looked on as Joan Burton tried to stonewall on questions from Martin about the Minister for Justice’s lack of response to the whistleblower’s claims of serious Garda malpractice. She was having a miserable time. As it was Thursday, the Taoiseach was off the hook. Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore should have been in the hot seat, but he was abroad on Government business. As for Alan Shatter, he was in Greece for the day. So it fell to Joan Burton to hold the line – except there didn’t seem to be one. Micheál Martin, brandishing a sheaf of documentary evidence, claimed that Shatter had allegedly been made aware of the serious incidents outlined in Sgt McCabe’s substantial dossier. According to what was said by the confidential recipient (now out of a job) in this transcript, Shatter had known the contents of the dossier for two years. Did Joan have confidence in him? The Government has confidence in him, replied Burton, seeking safety in numbers. Should the Minister come into the Dáil to explain himself?
The deputy leader of the Labour Party, by ignorance or design, responded by loudly and indignantly misunderstanding the questions. There had been an inquiry (not a review, as proposed by the Government) set up the day before and it was headed by a retired High Court judge. But the review, she insisted, was addressing the issue of the transcript and the whistleblower’s failure to get a hearing from the Minister for Justice, was the review to look into a different controversy. The GSOC surveillance matter. Everyone in the chamber knew that. Except Joan, it seemed, who thought the louder she roared the more accurate she might be. She continued to parrot on about the judicial review. This retired judge – “highly regarded . . . an esteemed jurist” – had been appointed. What more did the Opposition want?
They wanted to point out, and they did, that this retired judge is, indeed, a great man, but he’s looking into a different matter entirely. But Joan chose to ignore that. It was not her finest hour. But the Government backbenchers rallied to her defence by roaring and shouting and taking grave offence as a pot-stirring comment from Independent TD John Halligan. Sure that judge “is a Fyne Gael judge”, he taunted. Of course, John Cooke is nothing of the sort. He just happened to be appointed during a Fine Gael administration. Deputies from Labour and Fine Gael demanded an apology, bawling about this “slur” on the independence of the judiciary. Halligan just smiled. The Ceann Comhairle was apoplectic. He couldn’t control the uproar. Micheál Martin was so incensed by Burton’s stonewalling that he continued complaining during the Order of Business, forcing Seán Barrett to suspend the house for 10 minutes.
Both Micheál Martin and Pearse Doherty noted that the Minister, like the rest of her colleagues, still couldn’t give any explanation as to why the confidential recipient had actually been given his marching orders. By the afternoon, the Taoiseach was ready to comment. But he wouldn’t take questions from journalists. Instead, he chose to give his opinion in the course of a speech at a business lunch. And yes, he feels the contents of the transcript are very grave. Yes, Micheál Martin was right to forward the documents to him immediately. And yes, he will take whatever steps are necessary.
Where does that leave Shatter, who referred to the McCabe transcript last week when he was defending his handling of the GSOC affair? “I am very curious about this other matter that is floating around,” he said, by the by. “There is a reference to some transcript to which I am not privy.” He knew nothing about it, but understood deputies Wallace and Daly have been trying to “peddle [it] for the best part of two years”. They have a strange approach to intelligence at the management end of the force. The Commissioner could tell Shatter that Wallace was reprimanded by a couple of his men for using his mobile phone while stopped at a traffic lights, but couldn’t tell him about this transcript which Wallace has been hawking around for over a year.
After the histrionics in the Dáil, we fell to thinking about the Smithwick report, where another esteemed judge concluded the Garda remained a force where “loyalty is prized over honesty”.
By the sounds of Fine Gael and their high-minded Labour sidekicks yesterday, they’ve got the loyalty part of it for a start.