Mr Shatter apologises but many questions remain unanswered

 

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter failed to satisfy his critics in the Dáil yesterday but, in view of his handling of a succession of Garda controversies, nobody expected anything different. His lack of knowledge about a festering telephone-taping scandal involving Garda stations generated widespread disbelief. But he provided details of when and how the issue was brought to his attention within the Department. That information can and should be fully checked before the terms of reference for an Independent Commission of Investigation are agreed.

Mr Shatter’s account of events involving former commissioner Callinan involved a troubling lack of detail. Many questions remain unanswered. A letter drawing attention to the telephone intercepts and their potential seriousness was received within his Department on March 10th but it was not drawn to his attention until March 24th. A meeting within his Department involving Mr Callinan, the Attorney General and senior officials took place on March 11th to discuss developments. But he was not informed. It stretched credulity and demands a more complete explanation. Suspicion does not, however, represent grounds for condemnation.

Pressure on the Minister reduced somewhat when he apologised to garda whistleblowers Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former Garda John Wilson for causing them distress by suggesting they had not cooperated with an internal Garda inquiry. The apology was belated but comprehensive. His correction of the Dáil record and a retraction of critical comments made elsewhere was equally complete. The most convincing aspect of his speech, however, involved an outline of the reports he had commissioned and published as a consequence of the whistleblowers’ allegations and the necessary reforms he had subsequently introduced.

Former commissioner Martin Callinan circled the wagons before the Committee of Public Accounts when he defended the Garda Síochána against the whistleblowers’ allegations. Taoiseach Enda Kenny followed that example in defending Mr Shatter and protecting the Government. Sackings can provide a cathartic moment in public life, but they do not address the root causes of failure. Passing a law and then ignoring it; appointing oversight agencies with inadequate powers: these have been traditional Government responses to deep-seated administrative problems.

Mr Shatter’s removal would please some vested interests. But the State would still lack the required robust policing and regulatory structures, along with necessary reforms of the judicial and legal systems. A need to de-politicise the Garda Síochána, reduce the influence of the Department of Justice and strengthen oversight and accountability of the force represents the larger, more important picture.