Twin egos once joined at the hip threaten Coalition

The two men at the top of our justice system, cut from the same cloth, seem to be turning on each other. And this story is turning into one for the history books

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and former Garda commisioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and former Garda commisioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 10:51

Here’s your cap, Commissioner, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. That’s not the way it was. And the Taoiseach, with a perfectly straight face, was at pains to point this out to an incredulous Opposition yesterday evening. In fact, we were all incredulous. Martin Callinan did not resign.

Nor was he pushed. He wasn’t stitched up. And he didn’t leave the pitch in a fit of pique because his erstwhile defenders had to cut him loose to save their own skins. No. The Garda commissioner decided to pack away his swagger stick and toddle off into the well-pensioned sunset of retirement.

Enda wished him well and thanked him for his 41 years of sterling service (while simultaneously informing the House of the sensational news that the Garda Síochána has been allegedly illegally taping telephone conversations for 30 years).

Meanwhile, Alan Shatter, who had joined the Taoiseach in backing the gung-ho Garda commissioner to the hilt before he suddenly decided to retire, stayed out of the Dáil – probably too distraught at the shock departure of the officer he so staunchly defended. But he issued a lovely statement later in the evening, extending his sincere gratitude to Callinan for his long years of distinguished service. After Callinan’s intervention last night, they might not be so well disposed towards him now. But earlier, it was a case of what’s all this talk of resignation about?

The Taoiseach took his detractors to task and instructed them to look closer at an important word in the opening paragraph of the commissioner’s valedictory statement. “Retire,” he stressed, like he was addressing a crowd of halfwits. “Retire.” That’s alright so. But nobody was buying it.

“You’re not in the national school in Kiltimagh now,” snorted Billy Kelleher. “You have a neck to say he retired,” thundered Joe Higgins.

Back on the Government front bench, James Reilly chuckled, finding it all great gas. But then, the gaffe-prone Minister for Health hasn’t had it so good since the whistleblower crisis began consuming the Coalition.

The retire versus resign distinction was an important one, because it gives the Government a convenient excuse not to hold a debate on Martin Callinan’s departure. How could the House address the resignation of the highest law officer in the land when he’d only gone and retired? That was the Taoiseach’s story and he clumsily spun it with only the slightest hint of desperation.

The Opposition swayed between open derision and outright anger. But that didn’t really matter.

The Government got a little more time, and maybe Alan Shatter might manage to say the right thing when he has yet another opportunity to set the record straight in the Dáil today.

The Cabinet doesn’t seem to care that the Minister for Justice has become a long-term tenant in the Last Chance Saloon. Because if they avert their gaze for long enough, even Shatter will have to emerge eventually through the swing doors. Won’t he? In the meantime, all they have to do is create enough distractions and diversions to keep the media occupied.

Heaven knows, those fickle hacks have a short attention span. They’re too thick to concentrate on one story when a juicier gobbet is tossed into their drooling maw.

The events in and around Leinster House yesterday were extraordinary. It was a day when a series of unfortunate events dovetailed into a series of fortunate coincidences for the Coalition government. Serendipity, some might call it. The Cabinet is on the rack over the whistleblowers story they tried to smother but couldn’t.

Quite why this affair blew up into such a mess is mystifying. The simple, if dispiriting explanation is that an alliance of twin egos conspired to tough out the crisis. Callinan and Shatter – the former, obstinate and authoritarian and the latter, obstinate and arrogant. Refusing to accept that they, in their lofty domains, or the institutions of the State they represent, could ever be anything but above reproach. Between them, they would see off those irritating whistleblowers and parliamentary nuisances daring to question them.

The crisis they couldn’t contain, despite tribal support from an administration swept to power on pledges of transparency, lurched threateningly along. They tried to shunt the problem into so many reports and inquiries that senior legal personages were locking themselves in their chambers for fear of the ministerial press-gangs roaming the Law Library for fresh silk. The intervention of Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar (who was being quietly congratulated by the likes of Róisín Shortall and Peter Mathews in the chamber yesterday) escalated the situation. The Labour Party was shamed into action, calling for an apology for the whistleblowers. Uncle Gaybo, a rock of articulate sense, waded into the battle on the airwaves.

Then, by happy coincidence, the Cabinet’s luck changed. The commissioner, who had bucked the official trend and negotiated an extension of his contract beyond retirement age, suddenly decided he had to spend more time with his family. And nobody was more surprised than the Taoiseach and his senior Ministers – didn’t this absolutely huge story about Garda malpractice suddenly drop into their laps at the weekend. They had to make it public immediately and set up a full-blown commission of inquiry into the process. This was well signalled beforehand to members of the media – despite the Taoiseach’s protestations to the contrary in the House. He had no idea about the leaks.

“There’s a lot of cynical stuff going on here, Taoiseach,” said Micheál Martin, fuming over the fact that the departure of the commissioner – an issue of serious national importance – would not be discussed in the Dáil.

Enda decided to sulk, before declaring the Fianna Fáil leader a hypocrite and guilty of “breathtaking condescending arrogance”. James Reilly sniggered again. The Taoiseach sulked because the Opposition was not biting at the new phone-taping revelations. Why don’t they want to discuss them? He invited Opposition leaders over to his office to explain about them and the ingrates chose to talk about Shatter and the Garda commissioner instead.

And we wondered who was being cynical here as the media raced after the shiny phone-taping bauble and temporarily forgot about the whistleblowers. But not for long as people began to feel stitched up. Enda’s generous handing up of a scandal on a plate was a separate course. The whistleblower affair and other Garda issues were still live.

As the day gave way to night, the commissioner fought back. RTÉ reported that he had informed the relevant Government authorities in writing of the taping well before the Taoiseach and his Minister for Justice say they heard of it.

Shatter and Callinan were said to be “joined at the hip”. Shatter, in the words of the man he appointed as the Garda confidential recipient, was not a man to be crossed.

Now, the two men at the top, cut from the same cloth, seem to be turning on each other. And this story is turning into one for the history books.

But never, it seems, in the history of this great country, has there been a Minister for Justice as brilliant as Alan Shatter. Yesterday, again, the Taoiseach was moved to proclaim Alan’s magnificence to Dáil Éireann. Apart from Leo Varadkar, Ministers have been falling over themselves to express confidence. He is their shining star.

Without Alan Shatter, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s Government would not be the united, decisive, spine-stiffening, self-assured, sure-footed, confidence-inspiring team they think themselves to be. Or the unmitigated shambles that we see now. Gubu returns.