Analysis: Word ‘sorry’ was never going to feature in Shatter statement
Minister’s explanation to Dáil leaves two questions unanswered re whistleblower issue
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter addressing the Dáil this morning on the handling on the Garda whistleblowers issue.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s statement to the Dáil this morning ran to over 5,700 words but - no surprises here - the word ‘sorry’ was never going to feature in it.
Ostensibly, Shatter gave a very detailed chronology of how the complaints of Garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe were dealt with and handled by the Garda Síochána, by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, and by the Department of Justice and by himself.
But being Shatter there was always a strong political dimension - it was paradoxical to hear this most partisan of politicians taking umbrage at his opponents for being partisan in their attacks on him.
There were four elements which were noteworthy. The first was his explanation of his handling of the correspondence and the communications and the allegation made by McCabe. In the whole, his explanation was credible but it still left two questions unanswered. Should he have done more given the gravity of what was contained? And did his speech allay concerns about the quality of internal investigations within the Garda Síochána? We will return to that.
The second element was political. Last night, Shatter let it be known that he would go on the offensive today, particularly in relation to the manner in which its leader Micheál Martin had brought the matter to public attention last week.
Shatter attacked his cavalier attitude towards the Garda, his lack of respect for Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. “[Micheál Martin] falsely accused me of undermining the administration of justice , a charge which I entirely reject.”
Shatter responded to Martin’s contention that he was in receipt of the information two years ago but did little about it. The Minister’s response to that did not confine itself to a justification of what he did as a result of receiving the correspondence and contacts.
He extended the attack to claim that there had been contact with the previous government. He was able to show that Maurice McCabe had written to then Fianna Fáil minister for justice Dermot Ahern in 2009 highlighting concerns in the Garda station at Baileboro, Co Cavan. He also disclosed that the husband of murder victim Syliva Roche-Kelly, Lorcan Roche-Kelly had also written to Mr Ahern in 2009.
However, in both cases it was the Minister’s private secretary who responded, directing McCabe and Roche-Kelly on to gardaí and GSOC as the appropriate bodies. Ahern maintained this week that the case was never aware of the case and this correspondence bears it out.
It does show that there was contact. But the contact was not of the magnitude of the voluminous dossiers and emails (running into dozens) sent to Shatter, and incidentally, to Taoiseach Enda Kenny over the past two years.
Martin, in his follow-up Dail statement, could say with some justification that the contacts were of a different order: “Dermot Ahern never got the dossier. You did. The [CONTACTS]are not comparable in any shape or form.”
The third element related to Shatter’s statement in the Dáil last October in which he contended McCabe had not cooperated with the Garda inquiry into the operation of the fixed penalty point scheme headed by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney.
There’s no other way of saying it but he resorted to a dazzling display of semantics to avoid conceding any ground.
He did accept that what was at issue is an interpretation of the one-page directive issued by Callinan on December 14th 2012 in which he directed McCabe to desist from accessing the Pulse system but which Shatter acknowledge also included “inviting” him to participate in O’Mahoney’s investigation.
He then said a letter from a senior Department of Justice official who advised him if he had any further information to bring it to O’Mahoney’s attention.
Shatter then referred to the conversation between O’Mahoney and McCabe after he had competed his investigation. O’Mahoney had offered to send a garda down to him. Shatter said the report had not been finalised and could have been delayed.
Do any of those add up to non-cooperation? Only at the longest stretch of credulity.
The fourth element, and this was brought up by both Martin and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, was the unspoken element of Shatter’s 30 minute speech. He made no mention whatsoever of Oliver Connolly, the confidential recipient he sacked earlier this month after McCabe released a clandestine recording in which Connolly said: “If Shatter thinks you are screwing with him, he will go after you”.
What Shatter showed this morning that his Department had dealt extensively with McCabe. How it handled the information is a question that may be decided by the senior counsel Sean Guerin who has been asked to assess the information.
It’s clear that neither Shatter nor his officials ignored or sat on the allegations. But the question is about judgment and proportion. Was it sufficient to act according to the rubric or where the allegations so extraordinary that they demanded some extraordinary action?
Martin claimed today that that is what the Taoiseach did. But part of that is the political fact on the ground that a big public controversy has ensued and in those instances, a more ‘public’ response became a necessity.
On the other three elements, Shatter is on more shaky ground. The evidence supporting his effort to push the focus back to the previous administration is flimsy.
In addition, the grounds for refusing to back down on his Dáil statement from October are of the marshy-cum-quicksand variety. His rare Beckettian moment of minimalism in relation to Oliver Connolly was also very telling.
When you remove all the interference and noise - and the politically charged atmosphere - there is evidence that McCabe was not ignored by the Department. But there is also evidence that he was not really listened to? And that is where the systemic problem might lie.