A career shattered
Alan Shatter’s resignation as minister for justice removes a compelling figure from front-line politics. This talented but truculent politician leaves two notable legacies: an impressive legislative record and a severely damaged police force
Atypical tiger: Alan Shatter in 2011. Photograph: David Sleator
In February 1979, when he was minister for health, Charlie Haughey rose in the Dáil and proclaimed that he had found “an Irish solution to an Irish problem.” Acting on a Supreme Court ruling that married couples had a constitutional right to privacy, which encompassed contraception, the Fianna Fáil government produced the Family Planning Bill, a draft law that allowed people to buy contraceptives on prescription “for the purposes, bona fide, of family planning or for adequate medical reasons”.
Haughey was using the “Irish solution” phrase approvingly, but liberals, who were furious with the Bill’s paternalistic restrictions, adopted it as an ironic catchphrase. Among them was Alan Shatter, a little-known 28-year-old solicitor who had his eye on a seat in the Dáil. Already the author of a book on family law, Shatter was one of the so-called young tigers, a predominantly urban and progressive group drawn to the social-democratic promise of Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael.
Shatter’s response to Haughey’s Bill was an elaborate spoof pamphlet called Family Planning – Irish Style, which was launched by Mary Robinson and went on sale for 95p. It described an organisation called An Bord Pleanála, to which citizens could appeal if their doctor refused them a contraceptive prescription. “It is envisaged that an architect will prepare for the board a general plan for the family,” it continued. “An Bord can then grant a certificate of planning approval for the family.”
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Shatter was on the rise. Two years later, despite being targeted by Fianna Fáil for his alleged views on abortion, he was elected to the Dáil at the first attempt. Glowing profiles appeared in the papers, casting him as a bright, energetic workaholic.
He was also pugnacious and bloody-minded, with a flair for political theatre. During a Dáil debate on marital breakdown, when he noticed that the opposition benches were entirely empty, Shatter crossed the floor, installed himself in Haughey’s seat and declared that he wouldn’t move until someone from Fianna Fáil showed up and took the issue seriously.
He was an assertive backbencher. At a Fine Gael branch meeting in Rathmines in 1984 he admonished his own government for its failure to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, provide spouses with automatic joint ownership of the family home, reform data protection or overhaul family law.
When The Irish Times included him in an article on “male feminists” in the Oireachtas, the writer described him as a politician “who lobbies for just causes and who is ever-available to those on the outside trying to get their causes taken up”.
Three decades on, in the week that he resigned as minister for justice, Shatter stands accused of precisely the opposite: of having been seduced by power, of hitching himself to the top brass, of dismissing those on the outside trying to get their causes taken up. His departure after three years in office removes from the Cabinet one of its dominant personalities, leaving in his wake one of most serious crises An Garda Síochána has faced in decades.
In Irish political culture Shatter is atypical to the point of eccentricity. He is intellectually confident, articulate, provocative, mercurial and aloof; a man who, after three decades in politics, few of his colleagues would profess to know. He shuns the glad-handing and the parish-pump plámás, has never really bothered cultivating journalists, and seems almost indifferent to popularity.
His work ethic and micromanagement are famous; legend has it in the Department of Justice that he dictated key parts of his own Bills. He is the author of the standard text on family law in Ireland and of a raunchy novel with a protagonist who vaguely resembles himself. His sport is table tennis.
Freeing himself from many of the requirements of the clientelist political system (it helped that his constituency was Dublin South) allowed Shatter to be a prolific legislator from both sides of the Dáil chamber, and although many people would forcefully challenge the merits of his signature ideas, he leaves office after three years with a long legacy on the statute books.