Enda reaches for the backburner as Shatter faces a day of grilling

The Taoiseach stepped in to stop the Garda row boiling over. The flame isn’t off, but he has bought some time

Enda referred to Maurice McCabe as “the good sergeant”. This was in contrast to the dismissive way Shatter has spoken of the whistleblower. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Enda referred to Maurice McCabe as “the good sergeant”. This was in contrast to the dismissive way Shatter has spoken of the whistleblower. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Wed, Feb 26, 2014, 01:00

What day is it today? Today is Shatterday. All day. The Taoiseach stood up in the Dáil and gravely announced he was handing over the floor to the Minister for Justice: there you go Alan, knock yourself out!

Words cannot describe how much everyone in Leinster House is looking forward to this. Over to you, Alan. Break a leg! Not quite, but at least he’s going to break his silence.

Shatter was conspicuous by his absence from the Dáil yesterday. Even more so by his absence from the Seanad, where, unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues, he is most punctilious in his attendance when justice matters are under discussion.

“I know the Minister wanted to be here today,” said Senator Ivana Bacik, noting he had sat through the full hearing of the justice committee when it met to discuss the issue of community courts. “But he is otherwise engaged.” You bet he was. Big day today.

Back in the Lower House, the Garda story the Government seem determined to smother continued to dominate. Week after week they’ve tried to put the lid on it, looking utterly shifty in the process. In this regard, Shatter has been more of a hindrance than a help.

Yesterday afternoon the Taoiseach stepped in to stop the whole twisted mess from boiling over. He firmly elbowed his Minister for Justice out of the way, threw a fire blanket over the pot and shoved it on to the backburner. The flame isn’t off, but he’s bought some time.

This was a curious performance from the Taoiseach. He came into the chamber expecting an onslaught from Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams. He came prepared.

The alarm bells had been going off around Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan for long enough. Enda – not to mention his Labour Coalition partners – was feeling the heat and that can’t be allowed. So predictably, he did what he and his senior Ministers had been solidly insisting they would not do and reached for the fire blanket. In political terms, that means the lawyers. Did they do a U-turn? Yes. Are they bothered? Not particularly. Although judging by the sulphurous look on Joan Burton’s face during Leaders’ Questions, some are more bothered than others.

Labour’s deputy leader was made to look foolish last week because she held the line about there being no need for a second review to look into the claims of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Burton, along with a long list of Government Ministers and TDs, went on the record to explain, in some detail, why an investigation wasn’t needed. They all look a bit stupid now. No matter, they will all line up and say how welcome Enda’s latest announcement is. And the St Patrick’s Day exodus is looming and there’s the Fine Gael conference at the weekend and German chancellor Angela Merkel is in town next week and the elections are cranking up and the media have the attention span of a gnat. We’ll all move on. If only Maurice McCabe and his irksome transcripts would.

Then there’s the prospect of further whistleblowers – possibly emboldened by the fact that one man’s complaints have finally been given a proper hearing – emerging from the woodwork. Definitely time to send for the lawyers.

Back to Enda, who produced his fire blanket when the Fianna Fáil leader raised McCabe’s allegations of possible Garda malpractice in several serious cases and how they were received by the top brass. Seán Guerin SC would conduct a scoping exercise, the Taoiseach told him. If – there’s precedence here with the Morris investigation – he recommends a full commission of inquiry, it will happen.

Enda fair took the wind out of the Martin’s sails. The same too for Adams. You could have knocked them down with a dossier. The Taoiseach read his reply from a tight script. The fingerprints of m’learned ladies and gentlemen were all over it. Clearly, himself and Eamon Gilmore had a busy weekend on the firefighting front.

In the course of his reply, Enda referred to Maurice McCabe as “the good sergeant”. This was in contrast to the dismissive way Shatter has spoken of the whistleblower. The Taoiseach also made it quite clear that it was his decision, and his alone, to engage a senior counsel to investigate the claims and counterclaims. This wasn’t lost on the Opposition, or the media. The Cabinet may be fully behind Shatter, but nothing Enda had to say could be taken as a ringing endorsement of his Minister.

As for the dossier of allegations from the whistleblower which Martin gave him last week, he told the Dáil he didn’t share it with anyone – not the Tánaiste, the Cabinet or the Department of Justice. “They had it already,” snorted FF’s Dara Calleary.

Enda outlined his dilemma: there are the reports from the Garda investigation, which the Minister presumably relied upon, which found “no criminality” (a lawyer might say this is not the same as malpractice or incompetence). And there are the claims in the file assembled by “the good sergeant”.

“You know, Taoiseach, having read it, that the material jumps out at you,” said Martin. “Who am I to believe here?” wailed Enda. His question was intriguing. Particularly as his Minister for Justice and Callinan appeared to have made up their minds on the matter. And until this troublesome story refused to go away, it seemed the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and most of his Ministers thought the same way too.