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.”
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.
The Personal Insolvency Act, notwithstanding the debate about its long-term impact, was a huge and complex piece of legislation that sought to overhaul the State’s antiquated, unforgiving bankruptcy process and offer a fresh start to people facing genuine difficulties in meeting their mortgage repayments after the crash.
His department was a legislative conveyor belt: Bills were published to introduce a DNA database, regulate the gambling sector and further protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. On his watch the Oireachtas passed laws to criminalise trafficking for criminal activities and to update criminal-law provisions on money laundering.
To remedy the four-year delays at the Supreme Court – a long-standing issue that had been ignored for years – Shatter proposed the creation of a new Court of Appeal and led the Government’s successful referendum campaign to have it approved. The new court, which is expected to be up and running in the autumn, is one of the biggest changes to the courts system in a century.
In family law, the area in which he built a busy and lucrative practice as a solicitor, Shatter proposed a new court structure and eased reporting restrictions so that the media could cover family and childcare cases for the first time. He was a strong advocate for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and said he believed it should go further to include cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
He also supported plans for a referendum on same-sex marriage and produced one of the most significant pieces of social legislation published in many years, the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which will bring major changes to surrogacy and adoption.
When the going was good
The problem was that his greatest strengths could also be his most glaring weaknesses. Determination was tactlessness, obstinacy an inability to listen. When the going was good – and while Enda Kenny and Labour had his back – he thrived.
Shatter faced down one of the State’s most powerful lobbies – lawyers – to publish the enormous Legal Services Regulation Bill within a few months of coming to office. But the Bill was put together so quickly that, as senior officials quietly admitted, it was riddled with holes. In the time it took to fill them, a war of attrition had begun over key features of the plan.
Some of the Bill’s big ideas remain in place, including ones that Shatter believes will reduce costs and improve access to justice, but a proposal to allow barristers and solicitors to set up one-stop shops with other professionals – an idea resisted by the Law Library – was deferred against Shatter’s wishes. Almost three years after the Bill was first published it remains to be enacted.
The reverse side of his supreme self-confidence was a supercilious disdain for people who argued against him. During the referendum in 2011 to give the Oireachtas more powers of inquiry, he dismissed as nonsense the views of eight former attorneys general. The referendum was defeated.
In a debate on malpractice by some gardaí in Donegal, he called Dermot Ahern of Fianna Fáil a “political gurrier” and referred to TDs collectively as “political eunuchs” for their stance on judicial separation.
He drove the lawyers crazy. In 1995 he lobbied hard, and successfully, to win for solicitors the right to be eligible to become judges on the superior courts. Barristers felt it was always personal with Shatter; that, as a skilled advocate himself, he resented their position.
One of the arguments made in Shatter’s defence this week was that some of the root problems that ended up bringing him down – the taping of phone calls in Garda stations, for example, or allegations by the whistleblowers – related to events that took place before he took office and over which he had no control.
This is true, but the question it invites is how he allowed himself to become so thoroughly ensnared in the mess. The outsider who relished taking on some of the most entrenched interest groups gave the impression of being in thrall to the then Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan.
Time and again the lawyer known for his independence of mind and obsession with detail seemed to take senior gardaí at their word without troubling to look into things himself.
His reactions were defensive; the man who supposedly didn’t care what people thought of him was plainly very sensitive to criticism. When the Ombudsman Commission revealed that it believed its office had been under surveillance, Shatter, a longtime champion of independent watchdogs, went on the attack, summoning the chief commissioner to his office and publicly criticising him for not reporting the suspicions to him sooner.
In November 2010, during a debate on the Prevention of Corruption Bill, Shatter pushed for stronger protections for people who reported wrongdoing in their organisations. They “should not be confronted with the dilemma of staying quiet and remaining in employment or blowing the whistle and becoming unemployed and . . . being portrayed as either nutcases or pariahs within society,” he said.
Yet, four years later, even as colleagues were telling him that the Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson were men of integrity who should be taken seriously, Shatter sided with Garda HQ, which was dismissive of their claims.
When the Independent TD Mick Wallace challenged him on television, Shatter referred to an incident in which, years earlier, gardaí had spotted Wallace using his phone while driving but let him off with a warning. Last week the Data Protection Commissioner said Shatter broke the law by disclosing the information, which Callinan had passed on to him.
Protected by his sponsors
Still, more than almost any other Minister, Shatter seemed protected by his sponsors. His decision to back Enda Kenny during the Fine Gael heave in 2010 was the making of him, guaranteeing him a Cabinet seat and the autonomy to act on his programme.
As a convinced liberal he was a valued ally to Labour on civil liberties and issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and surrogacy. But as the Garda controversies multiplied, Shatter’s authority gradually ebbed away. One of the Government’s stars became its biggest liability.
The final straw landed this week, when a report by the senior counsel Seán Guerin found serious shortcomings in the way Shatter had dealt with the whistleblowers. Shatter read just three chapters before writing his resignation letter.
His return to the backbenches removes from the frontline of Irish politics one of its most compelling figures. It may also ease the temperature, but with further reports pending, and a sense of general disarray pervading An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice, the underlying problems will persist.
Into the breach steps Frances Fitzgerald, the new Minister for Justice, who faces a daunting task at a delicate moment.
The strong public trust in An Garda Síochána is under strain. It is without a leader, and its morale is at a low ebb. Information collected by officers has been used for unlawful political ends and the body that investigates allegations against the force has itself been undermined.
A system designed to allow for the reporting of wrongdoing in one of the most secretive bodies in the State is in flux, the individual nominated to receive confidential tip-offs having been sacked.
Two whistleblowers have belatedly been vindicated, yet their treatment over many years raises one of the most troubling questions of all: who will dare to speak out again?