It looks like nobody ever tells Shatter anything

Dáil Sketch: It may be that the Minister for Justice, for all his self-belief, is always the last man to know, writes Miriam Lord.

 Minister for Justice  Alan Shatter:  so busy he can’t be expected to know everything. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter: so busy he can’t be expected to know everything. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin


A full week has passed since Enda put the fear of God into us. The murderers and rapists and armed robbers remain behind bars. But the Taoiseach was right to warn us.

Otherwise, we would have existed in a state of blissful ignorance, thinking the worst thing which could possibly befall us was the sacking of a Garda commissioner and survival of an endangered Government Minister. And not the possible collapse of the criminal justice system.

The prison gates have not burst open. The convicts do not walk among us. It’s a relief. Last Tuesday, Enda put the fear of God into us. The way he suddenly called in the Opposition leaders to brief them all of a sudden. That’s grave national emergency territory.

He set up an immediate commission of inquiry to look into this, lassoing a Supreme Court judge into his rapidly growing collection of special investigations. It’ll take a while to nail down the terms of reference and stuff like that, but at least the Government has moved definitively to do something definitive about what they don’t know for definite yet.

This, explained Enda during Leaders’ Questions, is why he didn’t contact his Minister for Justice for a full day after the Attorney General alerted him to the fact that there was a problem with telephones in Garda stations. The serious matters raised by AG Máire Whelan needed to “be reflected on” and a thorough legal analysis carried out.

‘Continued reflection’
There had to be “continued reflection by the legal personnel”. This, for some reason, did not include his Minister for Justice, who is a highly regarded solicitor and knows his way around the law.

But never mind. As for the state of knowledge of the AG in the run-up to this crisis, the Taoiseach said she was only told “generalities” about the telephone taping situation. Would that make her an Attorney Generalitie?

And to keep everyone occupied, another committee will be set up. After yesterday morning’s Cabinet meeting, it was announced that a new Cabinet subcommittee on justice reform is to be established. Enda Kenny will chair it. He’s also chairing a subcommittee on health, as if he hasn’t enough to be doing.

Some might say this is a way of keeping a tight rein on gaffe-prone Ministers Alan Shatter and James Reilly, but it’s just because Enda likes to be a hands-on, high-five sort of leader.

The question of the letter from the Garda commissioner that nobody saw until after the commissioner was given the heave-ho last Monday night was high on the Opposition’s agenda yesterday.

Indeed, what actually happened over those 2½ fraught days between the time the Attorney General spooked the Taoiseach with information last Sunday week and the Cabinet meeting last Tuesday when a full blown national crisis seemed on the cards, has been a subject of much confusion in the past week.

How some of the most powerful people in the State could have such difficulty piecing together their movements over a couple of days is most worrying. But, for some reason, they didn’t seem to know who said what to whom and why a senior official was sent to the commissioner’s home to help him “retire”.

They had to “tease out the timelines”, as Pat Rabbitte elegantly put it. He made the Taoiseach, Minister for Justice, their respective aides and the Attorney General sound like forensic archaeologists. Finally, some information was going to be released last evening.

The commissioner’s letter – the one the Minister never saw – would be published, along with the “chronological sequence”, Enda said, waving an alarmingly substantial- looking document. And a big document it proved to be, baffling in its detail of how the Minister for Justice is so busy he can’t be expected to know everything. There wasn’t a minute to brief him on the immensely grave telephone issue. On one of his busy days, he had to deal with the incoming report from the Garda Inspectorate on the GSOC bugging affair.

And presumably he had to find out who in the Department of Justice leaked its findings to an RTÉ reporter. It may be that Alan Shatter, for all his self-belief, is always the last man to know. He only found out during yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that telephones were also being recorded in the prison system.

The Irish Mail newspaper published a story about this on Monday. Nobody twigged in the Department of Justice or, if they did, nobody told the Minister. Again.

Numerous subsections
In the evening, Fianna Fáil held their hopeless motion of no confidence in Alan Shatter. Hopeless, because the Government will vote it down.

To help his colleagues sing his praises during the debate, he circulated a 53-page, densely typed report, Work Done by Minister Alan Shatter during First Three Years of Government March 2011 – March 2014 . He didn’t hold back: 136 entries, with numerous subsections and bullet points. Where to start? Well, there was the Defence Forces’ annual carol service.

There was a hiccup when Labour appeared to claim credit at a press briefing for the establishment of the new justice subcommittee, a claim which was later dismissed by Fine Gael. It was an interesting squabble. For the moment, it seems Shatter is safe.