Fears within FG that Shatter cannot untangle himself from controversy
Minister will have to set out precisely what he knew of the taping and when
Alan Shatter: in the eye of political storm. Photograph: Eric Luke
The eruption of the Garda bugging affair creates yet more political turmoil for Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.
Already under acute pressure in the aftermath of the unexpected resignation of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, Mr Shatter is now confronted with a sudden threat to criminal convictions and cases pending before the courts.
All this is on top of the clamour within and outside the Government for the Minister to withdraw his damaging Dáil assertions about Garda whistleblowers who are at the heart of the penalty points debacle.
This is to say nothing of a separate judicial investigation into claims the Garda Ombudsman Commission was bugged and a senior barrister’s inquiry into claims of Garda malpractice by Sgt Maurice McCabe, one of the two Garda whistleblowers.
Faced with renewed Opposition demands yesterday to dismiss the Minister, Taoiseach Enda Kenny expressed confidence in himand in his reformist record.
Notwithstanding the Taoiseach’s supportive remarks, the very fact that the Government has decided to develop an independent policing authority demonstrates its lack of faith in the system in which the Garda Commissioner answers to the Minister for Justice. In that regard, it cannot be good for Shatter to have been the man in command when the decision was made to set aside the old system. No one likes to be the final person in charge of anything.
Even if Shatter’s uncompromising political style and his arrogance implies he is impervious to criticism, the fact remains that he has been on the rack for months amid a relentless swirl of allegations around the Garda.
While the Minister is dismissive of his critics’ attacks and relishes in counter-assault, some in his own party increasingly saw his proximity to Callinan as a distinct liability.
“This hasn’t been handled well by him and, as a result, the Government now look stupid,” said a ranking Fine Gael TD.
“The general perception is that he has put the Government in a position it shouldn’t be in. If I was the Taoiseach I’d be furious with him.”
What is more, the spokeswoman for Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore made it clear last evening that he still awaits a retraction from the Minister of his claim in the Dáil that Sgt McCabe did not co-operate with an internal Garda inquiry into the points affair. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan was unambiguous on television yesterday when he said this matter would have to be “addressed” by Shatter.
He is considered unlikely to take that opportunity before a Dáil debate tomorrow on the Garda Inspectorate’s report on penalty points. Even so, the gathering force of events may lead him to set out his current position as early as a debate in the Dáil today on the new taping affair.
It is clear that nothing the Minister now says in relation to the whistleblowers would be sufficient to appease his many enemies. However, this particular question is superseded abruptly by the startling news that as many as 2,500 recordings of phone traffic in and out of Garda stations have come to light .
Mr Shatter’s spokeswoman said last night that he leart of this only at 6 pm on Monday, fully 24 hours afte r the Taoiseach.
But many questions remain, not least the matter of Mr Callinan’s letter to the Department of Justice on March 10th in which he said the Attorney General’s office had been told of the bugging as far back as November.
The letter was dated March 10th and we do not know why Mr Shatter did not see it until yesterday morning by which point Mr Callinan was on his way to early retirement.
There is no little irony in all of this. The central political charge levelled against the Minister is that he has been far too close to Callinan and the force in general.
Leaving aside the fact that a plethora of official investigations are now under way into the cascade of allegations surrounding the Garda, the Minister’s instinctive response in the first instance was to question the questions raised.
But that perceived alignment with the force and its leadership may not have been all that it seems. It seems Shatter was not so close to the Garda as to know of the dubious recording system at the centre of the latest affair. At the same time it is clear that he will have to set out precisely what he knew of the scheme and when.
Its legal standing is seriously in question and there is deep concern within Government that it may yet contaminate convictions handed down by the courts. Not only that but it may also jeopardise cases which have yet to come before judges.
That is an exceedingly serious state of affairs, as signalled by glum faces around Leinster House.
Even if Shatter can find a form of words to remove his slight on the whistleblowers, that would be far from the end of his difficulties.