Alan Shatter was architect of his own downfall
Opinion: As a minister, he squandered political capital on needless spats
‘The Secretary General of the Department of Justice was asked by the Taoiseach, rather than the Minister for Justice, to visit the Garda Commissioner who then resigned the following morning.’ Above, Alan Shatter with Commissioner Martin Callinan during Templemore Garda College 50th anniversary celebrations earlier this year. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Alan Shatter was not pushed this week. He did not jump. As is often the case in such situations, the ground fell away from under him. The fact that he was isolated, out on such a politically dangerous cliff, without even Enda Kenny minded to save him, was Shatter’s own fault.
The contents of the Guerin report were so damning about how, as minister for justice, he (among others) handled the information provided by Garda whistleblowers that Shatter, who was already in a precarious position, fell over.
Shatter might have felt himself secure in office, not least because his position had been endorsed by overwhelming Government majorities in two Dáil confidence motions in the last year.
He had the praise of a chorus of Fine Gael and Labour Ministers and backbenchers ringing in his ears.
In reality, however, Shatter had lost a lot of his power in recent months. In late February, when Kenny got Sgt Maurice McCabe’s dossier of complaints from Micheál Martin and had established that some at least of it had already been furnished by McCabe to the then minister, the Taoiseach promptly and appropriately identified the need to have the matter examined by outside senior counsel. This move led to the Guerin report.
Another key moment came over the weekend of March 23rd, when the Taoiseach, having been informed by the Attorney General about the phone recordings at Garda stations, chose to spend the next day dealing with the political and media handling of this matter without involving the minister for justice until late on Monday evening. There is much about the events of that day which are still unknown and these are to be investigated by Justice Fennelly’s Commission of Inquiry.
What is clear, however, is that on that Monday the secretary general of the Department of Justice was asked by the Taoiseach, rather than the minister for justice, to visit the Garda commissioner, who then resigned the following morning.
The next day Shatter was required by the Cabinet to accept the need for an independent police authority which he had opposed up to that point. He was further required to agree to the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee to design and implementing policing reform.
While he may be a brilliant lawmaker and an able administrator, the reality is that Shatter is not a very good politician. His dogmatic, combative and highly partisan approach left him isolated at times even within his own party. The task of modern government is change management, and Alan Shatter was bad at it.
He was at his best when writing or implementing legal changes on issues where there was a general consensus on the need to do so. Shatter often applied his considerable capacities to tackling legal knots which other politicians had neglected.
He made a substantial contribution to writing modern family law legislation even before he became a minister. As he leaves office, the legislation to ground the establishment of a national DNA database has almost cleared the Oireachtas. Shatter also made important legal changes regarding how corporate crimes can be investigated and prosecuted.
Being a good minister, however, requires more than implementing your own good ideas. It is also about persuading others of the merits of your view and being prepared to listen to, and on occasion adopt, alternative views.
It requires recognition that others may also have expertise or at least a different perspective informed by more direct involvement. Being a good minister also requires engaging with those affected by legislative change who, even if apprehensive about reform, may have some useful input into how it might be implemented.
As a minister Shatter squandered much political capital on needless spats, sometimes with those who shared much of his reform agenda. He was gratuitous in his political insults and hyperbolic in trumpeting his ministerial achievements.
Others joined in this hyperbole. At one stage Kenny described Shatter as “the most reforming minister for 50 years”. As it happens Charles Haughey was minister for justice in 1964 and he was indeed a reforming minister.
Kenny’s overstatement about Shatter, however, fails to have regard, for example, to the challenges which Dessie O’Malley had to deal with in the early 1970s and which Michael Noonan’s predecessors left him in the mid-1980s. It also neglects the dramatic criminal law reform introduced by many previous ministers for justice.
Had he bothered to consult any of his predecessors, Shatter would have been told that, above all else, being minister for justice is about oversight of criminal justice and policing and maintaining confidence in their operation. He failed to appreciate deficits and failings within an Garda Síochána. Shatter had a blind spot on the need for reform and greater accountability in these areas. This blind spot proved politically fatal.