Miriam Lord: Nobody likes taste of their own medicine
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
It’s a strange irony at the end of a remarkable political week: the man who couldn’t hide his contempt for Garda whistleblowers is treated to a taste of his own medicine. He isn’t taking it well.
But then, as those whistleblowers could tell him – it’s not nice to be at the receiving end.
So while Enda Kenny laughably continues to protest he did not assist the Garda commissioner to arrive at his unexpected decision to “retire,” Martin Callinan’s confidential recipients are making it known that their man was very definitely pushed.
This should be of comfort to Alan Shatter, who must have been very hurt and annoyed by the commissioner’s shock decision to cash in his pips. After all, the Minister for Justice went to considerable trouble for Callinan, getting a special Government exemption for him to stay on in his job beyond the compulsory retirement age of 60. Then his man suddenly quits with well over a year of service left.
Shatter must have been astounded by this ingratitude, until “sources” close to the decommissioned commissioner revealed he didn’t go willingly. The Taoiseach, by sending the secretary general of the Department of Justice to Callinan’s home for a quiet word, put compulsory retirement firmly back on the table again for the lawman his Cabinet had voted to keep.
And Alan Shatter wasn’t there to help on this occasion. Although once the politically expedient decision to “retire” the commissioner was taken, the least our self-proclaimed “Minister for Time” could have done was send a nice gold watch over to Martin along with the chop. Particularly as Callinan’s “retirement” helped Shatter stay in his job.
He was cast adrift because the Taoiseach, all of a sudden, became very worried by reports that gardaí were secretly recording phone-calls. (Not exactly fresh news, as it transpires.)
He dispatched the top man in Justice to let the commissioner know just how gravely concerned he was about the implications of this practice.
Poor Martin must have been delighted. At last, somebody was taking notice. He must have felt like John Wilson and Maurice McCabe when Micheál Martin took up their case. The commissioner had closed down the recording of Garda conversations last November. He had meetings with Justice officials about it, flagging up the dangerous implications of this practice. He set up a working group to investigate.
He even couriered a letter, marked for the Minister’s attention, to his office. Disseminating important material for the greater good, just like Wilson and McCabe.
Whistleblower Callinan didn’t need the Taoiseach to explain the gravity of the situation to him. Unlike this week’s tribunal-like stream of top politicians and public servants who had no idea of what had been going on, at least the commissioner was on the ball. Then he was shouldered off it.
Neither the Taoiseach nor any of his Ministers have been able to explain why.
Just as Alan Shatter was unable to tell the House what he found when he re-examined the O’Mahoney report to make him change his mind on the whistleblowers.
Meanwhile, Alan Shatter sails on. Yesterday, sci-fi fan Alan didn’t send out his usual light-hearted notice reminding people to change their clocks to summer time tomorrow. Instead, a rather curt message arrived from a press officer.
Timelord Shatter may be no more. But he still has his job. Even if some are now referring to him as the Minister for Borrowed Time.
Off-key Leo blamed for forcing Shatter to change tune
Of course, this whole mess is all Leo’s fault. That’s the favourite Gardagate theory in Leinster House. Just say he hadn’t opened his big, honest mouth about the whistleblowers deserving an apology from both the Minister and Garda commissioner. What then?
Shatter and Callinan’s stubborn determination not to give legitimacy to them seemed to be working. They were hanging tough, saying nothing, even if Callinan may have had reservations about his “disgusting” remark. Media interest was waning and it seemed they were through the gap.
Then Leo blows it wide open. A furious Labour, having said nothing as per the game plan, now has to follow him. In the ensuing storm, Shatter has to change his tune or else.
Callinan is expendable. There’s a possible crisis on call recording about to break sometime soon. Could this provide the crucial diversion? That’s the talk around Kildare Street, but then again, Leinster House thrives on good conspiracy theories.
But what we do know is that lines of communication in the Department of Justice need to be improved. Take that urgent letter couriered by the Garda commissioner to the Department of Justice and marked for the Minister’s express attention. Alan didn’t get it. Never saw it. The letter lay around for five days before he went off to Mexico. He only opened it the day after his secretary general went to the commissioner’s house to report the Taoiseach’s worries about the tapes.
Here’s the Minister’s tribunalesque reply in the Dáil on whether the commissioner made any follow-up calls about the contents of his letter. “I will truthfully say that I do not recall whether or not I had phone conversations with the Garda commissioner between 10th and 15th March . . . I certainly did not talk to him from Mexico. I genuinely cannot recall whether I did. Certainly, there are occasions when we would talk about issues. I have no recollection of having a conversation with him about any issue that week but I cannot say that for definite, 100 per cent, because I do not make a note every time some brief matter arises about which we would have conversed. I do not recall talking to him that week but I cannot say that for certain. I cannot* say for certain that this issue was never the subject of a conversation between the Garda commissioner and myself.”
Fair enough. It’s not like the subject was of huge importance, or anything.
The noble way to eat humble pie
Would he or would he not correct the Dáil record? Since last October, when Alan Shatter first declared that John Wilson and Sgt Maurice McCabe did not co-operate with a Garda inquiry into the quashing of penalty points, there were calls for him to “correct the Dáil record”. A course of action the Minister typically refused to countenance.
Finally this week, with the minimum of grace and the maximum of arm-twisting, Shatter stood up in the chamber and apologised to the whistleblowers. “It was never my intention to cause any upset, and if any upset was caused, I hope that my correcting the record of the Dáil today will put this matter to rest,” he said.
So how exactly is the record corrected?
The process seems such a big deal. Are the offending words removed and the correction inserted? Does the original remain, but with a footnote pointing to the retraction and when it was issued?
No. The official Dáil record for October 1st of last year remains unaltered. Shatter’s words are there forever, which is only right. Wednesday’s about-turn is what constitutes that much-talked-about correction. It’s in the official report for that day.
Saying “the minister moved to correct the Dáil record” seems very dramatic, but in reality, it’s just a fancy way for politicians to make the eating of humble pie sound more noble.
*A spokesperson for the Department of Justice has contacted The Irish Times to point out that Mr Shatter is quoted incorrectly in the official Dáil record.
Whereas the Dáil record reads: “I cannot say for certain that this issue was never the subject of a conversation between the Garda Commissioner and myself”, the Minister said: “I can say for certain that this issue was never the subject of a conversation between the Garda Commissioner and myself.”