Alan Shatter: ‘I was effectively cancelled, completely’

Reflecting on 2014 and what he might have done differently, Alan Shatter says he is ‘not sure what I could have done to change what happened’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
‘You have very few real friends in politics’. Former minister for justice says he will never fully get over circumstances that led to departure from cabinet

Alan Shatter doesn’t know what to do with his cacti. One cactus with long, sharp spines has grown very tall. He has moved it from an indoor conservatory to an outside greenhouse where it takes up a lot of space.

Gardening is one hobby that has helped the former minister for justice and defence take his mind off the events of 2014 that ultimately spelt the end of a three-decade career in politics.

“I like to go out to the garden to distract myself,” he says, showing off the colourful array of flowers around the garden of his home in Ballinteer, south Dublin.

“They started as these tiny little things,” he says of the cacti.

It was an enormous personal bombshell. You don’t fully get over that because, suddenly, 30 years of my life and my reputation went up in flames

Seven years on, that frenetic period in Irish politics still weighs heavily on the former Fine Gael politician. It has been a thorn in his side. It is particularly troublesome at this time of year as he reflects on how he was cast out of Irish politics and has been shunned by former colleagues.

May 7th was the day in 2014 when the report of barrister Seán Guerin, enlisted by the then Fine Gael-Labour government to review allegations made by Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe about police misconduct, was published, resulting in Shatter’s resignation from cabinet.

Guerin had expressed concern in his report about the adequacy of the investigation of McCabe’s complaints by Shatter as minister for justice. Then taoiseach Enda Kenny told Shatter privately that he could no longer express confidence as a result. Shatter was gone that afternoon. He lost his Dáil seat for Dublin South two years later.

It took almost five years, a follow-up commission of investigation and a legal action through three courts culminating in a Supreme Court ruling in February 2019 to overturn Guerin’s findings against Shatter. Twenty-two months later*, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil last December that a redacted copy of the Guerin report – with the paragraphs that criticised Shatter removed – had been placed in the Oireachtas library.

Shatter says that, until the Supreme Court ruled that Guerin’s conclusions were outside the scope of his report’s term of reference, that the barrister failed to give Shatter an opportunity to respond and that they damaged his reputation, the report was his first thought every morning.

“I would wake up and the first thing on my mind would be this and I would get up and do something else and forget about it,” he says, sitting in his back garden.

Despite the court ruling and the Taoiseach’s public correction of the record, Shatter says that it “still to this day impacts on my life” – there is “no alternative job or work, other than voluntary work, I could have sought because this loomed as a shadow over my reputation”.

Just as his gardening serves as a helpful distraction, writing has helped too. He sees it “almost as a form of escapism”.

His memoir Life is a Funny Business, published in 2017, is a very personal memoir – both poignant and humorous – while Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, published in 2019, is more heavy going. It reads like a legal document or affidavit, setting out Shatter’s case for his own defence against false claims that cost him his career.

He has never been able to shake a habit, from his years in law and politics, of rising early and the distraction of writing to forget about his political downfall has fuelled a frenzy of creativity.

Alan Shatter: ‘If you’re Jewish, there is an extra layer of abuse you got'. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Alan Shatter: ‘If you’re Jewish, there is an extra layer of abuse you got'. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

“For a period of years, I consistently had sleepless nights because of this and still got up at five o’clock in the morning with f**k all to do other than write,” he says.

Shatter has written a “comedic” novel, short stories to entertain friends and a play based on five people in New York “with disparate views and from different backgrounds”. The play covers contemporary issues, from Black Lives Matter to Cancel Culture in the age of social media.

Looking back, Shatter sees himself as an innocent victim of that culture, someone forced out, he says, without due process or a fair hearing, who had to battle false narratives and “conspiracy theories” about him that were taken as fact without having his side or “the truth” heard.

“I was effectively cancelled, completely. I had no credibility of a personal nature from the day after the Guerin report was published,” he says.

He refuses to accept that the brutal nature of politics was a factor in his demise. He is still shocked that a lawyer could produce a report that “destroyed my reputation without ever talking to me, without ever asking me a question” when everyone should be entitled to a hearing.

“It was an enormous personal bombshell. You don’t fully get over that because, suddenly, 30 years of my life and my reputation went up in flames,” says the retired solicitor.

Shatter says that even though the 2016 commission into the Garda malpractice, chaired by Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins, exonerated him of Guerin’s findings, the 2014 report would still be mentioned in the media as the controversy around the Garda's complaints rumbled on for years afterwards. It brought abuse, both directly and indirectly, on social media, years after he left politics.

“I walked down the street and someone would whisper 'you f**ker' or 'you dirty Jew' and it would coincide with some of this stuff appearing,” he says. 'Filthy Yid' was another slur heard.

Shatter says friends and his daughter Kelly saw the abuse on Twitter: “I think she was very upset around what happened. I think she finds it difficult to this day to talk about.”

He acknowledges that everyone in politics gets abuse on stuff “but if you’re Jewish, there is an extra layer of abuse you got”, he says.

I would have thought a sense of decency would result in Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael apologising to me for what happened and ensuring that the record was addressed properly when he was taoiseach. I don’t know why he didn’t do that

“There is a serious issue that no one really wants to fully explore, which is how is it that the first and only ever Jewish minister of justice and defence found himself being pilloried?” he says, speaking about the furore that followed in the aftermath of the publication of the report.

He recalls an “obsessive focus, to the point of irrationality” in the conspiracy theories circulating about him and the Garda Síochána that “ultimately proved, when independently examined, to be completely mad”. He goes further, arguing that conspiracy theories have been “part and parcel of anti-Semitic tropes for centuries”. There is what he calls “asymptomatic anti-Semitism” in circulation: people who are not openly abusive but “who see the world through a particular lens”.

“I don’t think some of the frenzy that occurred in the 2014 period is totally detached from that perspective,” he says.

Almost a year after the Supreme Court ruling, Shatter had to turn to Micheál Martin as leader of the opposition – “something I never thought I would actually do” – to seek to have the Oireachtas record around the Guerin report corrected because he was getting nowhere with his former Fine Gael colleagues.

In the ruling, the court found that the “expression of conclusions” in the Guerin report adverse to Shatter exceeded the scope of the inquiry the barrister was authorised to carry out.

Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said in the court’s ruling that “the conclusions expressed, and the impressions thereby created, were damaging” to Shatter’s reputation.

In the ruling, the judge said that “far from being critical” of Guerin, he found that the barrister had carried out his inquiry with “great thoroughness and admirable expedition”. He said that the timescale for the inquiry was “short” and the “source of the difficulty here can be traced to the ambiguity in the nature of the role” he was asked to perform.

The terms of reference were “not clear-cut” and in future it would be “very desirable” to have “absolute clarity as to the legal nature of the tasks to be performed and its limits”.

Looking back now, Shatter says: “I discovered… that you have very few real friends in politics,” he says. The only Fine Gael colleagues who contacted him were former TDs who had retired or lost seats. No one in leadership or no former cabinet colleagues got in touch. Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar engaged but only after the 2020 election when he replied to a random text message from Shatter. He is grateful for his limited engagement which led to a “well-intended but poorly thought out effort” last May to have the Guerin report removed from the Oireachtas library.

“I would have thought a sense of decency would result in Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael apologising to me for what happened and ensuring that the record was addressed properly when he was taoiseach. I don’t know why he didn’t do that,” he says.

Former minister for justice Alan Shatter with former commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Former minister for justice Alan Shatter with former commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Shatter believes his isolation stems from his decision to take a case against Guerin over his report. It was “seriously disapproved of” – he was approached “by various people” not to do it.

“I had stepped outside the cult of Irish politics. I had bucked the system,” he says.

“At the end of the day, political parties do act a little bit like cults. Fine Gael is no different. Here was Shatter being difficult, he had taken Guerin to court.”

Viewed by others in politics as sharp and exceptional on devising policy and legislation but blunt and argumentative in manner, Shatter rejects the view that had he cultivated more friends and allies during this time in politics, things might have turned out differently for him.

“There were a lot of people in the Fine Gael party I got on extremely well with,” he says.

He hopes his cabinet colleagues “would have seen me as helpful” and he says he never used a cabinet meeting to “put anyone down”, though he acknowledges he made regular comments to ensure the government “didn’t fall into error on some issues”. He puts this down to a habit he has had since he was five of “asking ‘why?’ questions.” Down the ranks of the party, he says he operated “an open door policy” for backbench TDs with issues.

“The one thing that I didn’t do – because for a lot of my working life I effectively did two jobs because I used to start at five in the morning and finish for 10 or 11 at night – I didn’t spend large amounts of time hanging out in the Leinster House bar,” he says.

“One was because I don’t drink very much. If I have one glass of lager or one glass of wine, that’s me gone, thank you very much. I didn’t have time to hang out.”

Even if he had more friends, the Guerin report “would have done me in any way”, he adds.

Shatter is still not satisfied with the redacted version sitting in Oireachtas library. He wants Martin, Varadkar or a Government Minister to put formally on the Dáil record that Guerin was wrong about him and to apologise formally on behalf of the State for the “stress and upset” he and his family have been put through, given that Guerin was effectively an “agent of the State”.

If I was starting over again, and know what I know today, would I join Fine Gael? I don’t know the answer to that

“I do believe that decency and justice, and just respect for the rule of law, and for accuracy in politics and for the truth in politics, does require that there is a statement,” he says.

“That apology may be insincere, but it would mean something to my family.”

Asked what he would say to Guerin if they passed on the street now, Shatter replies: “I would probably say to him: ‘I really don’t understand why you can’t do the decent thing and apologise – and I don’t understand how you sleep at night.’”

And to Enda Kenny? “I don’t think at this point that I have anything to say to him.”

He would react differently to Varadkar: “If we met, I would talk to him.”

Reflecting on 2014 and what he might have done differently, Shatter says he is “not sure what I could have done to change what happened”. Meeting McCabe would have been difficult because he was suing the State but he doesn’t believe a meeting “would have made a whit of difference”.

More generally, he regrets not taking more personal or family time and that he worked so hard.

“If I was starting over again, and know what I know today, would I join Fine Gael? I don’t know the answer to that,” he says.

Still hooked on current affairs, Shatter finds it difficult “not being involved and engaged” – this is “hardwired” into him as a result of his upbringing, he says.

Chatting a week after his first Covid-19 jab – a dose of the Pfizer vaccine for the 70-year-old Shatter – he says he occasionally ventures on to Twitter to share a view on the pandemic and the handling of the crisis.

To almost encourage families to get together over Christmas was insane. That was an appalling misjudgment for which there is no excuse

“I find some of the dreadful mistakes that the Irish Government has made extraordinarily depressing and upsetting,” he says, putting the relaxation of public health measures for a “meaningful Christmas” at the top of his list.

“To almost encourage families to get together over Christmas was insane. That was an appalling misjudgment for which there is no excuse. The huge escalation in infections and the increase in deaths is directly attributable to that.”

A restless Shatter wishes he “cared less about issues” and is frustrated by the fact that he can no longer put his “genuine expertise” to the public good “that might actually help someone”.

“It is extremely difficult to actually discover you’re like a eunuch in the harem: you can watch it all but there is f**k all you can do,” he says.

Friday marks the anniversary of the publication of the Guerin report and Shatter’s resignation as a Government minister, as he still awaits the apology he seeks.

“It’s now seven years. All of this should have gone away a long time ago,” he says.

May 7th will “forevermore” be burned into Shatter’s psyche, but it now has a more positive association for the former politician.

“By sheer coincidence my first grandchild was born on May 7th,” he says.

“So now May 7th is a happier date.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO ALAN SHATTER?

Alan Shatter resigned as minister for justice, equality and defence on May 7th, 2014, after the taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny, said he would no longer be able to express confidence in him.

This followed Kenny’s receipt of a government-commissioned report by barrister Sean Guerin, who investigated allegations of Garda misconduct by whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe.

Guerin raised concerns about whether Shatter as minister had properly investigated the complaints made by McCabe and had taken “all appropriate steps” to address those complaints.

At the time of his resignation, Shatter expressed surprise that he was not interviewed by Guerin had the barrister intended to make adverse findings against him in the report.

In July 2014 Shatter issued High Court judicial review proceedings against Guerin over his report. In May 2015, the High Court dismissed Shatter’s judicial review proceedings against Guerin over the report.

In February 2016, Shatter lost his Dáil seat in a general election.

In May 2016, the report of a commission of investigation into McCabe’s allegations – recommended by Guerin and chaired by High Court judge Kevin O’Higgins – concluded that Shatter had taken McCabe’s complaints “very seriously” and the action he took as minister in response to the complaints was “entirely reasonable and appropriate.”

In November 2016, the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court ruling dismissing Shatter’s case over the Guerin report. It found that Guerin should have interviewed him before reaching adverse conclusions against him or should have allowed him to respond to draft conclusions.

In February 2019, in Guerin’s appeal against this ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in Shatter’s favour. Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said Shatter received no notice of the adverse conclusions against him, that they damaged his reputation and that he had no opportunity to respond.

The judge, however, said that he was “far from being critical” of Guerin and that the barrister had carried out his inquiry with “great thoroughness and admirable expedition”.

In December 2020, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that a redacted copy of the Guerin report – without the paragraphs containing the adverse conclusions against Shatter that were criticised by the Supreme Court – had been placed in the Oireachtas library.

*This article was amended on May 1st, 2021.