The question of the week is ‘Will Alan Shatter survive?’ It’s been non-stop. Was the apology too little, too late? Can the Taoiseach lose one of his inner circle? How badly will this damage Fine Gael? Will Labour continue to prop up its liberal champion? Did Leo know what he was starting?
Will Alan Shatter survive? It’s got intrigue, conspiracy, a cast of heroes and villains, and an uncertain outcome. It’s a great question for the gossip. But ultimately it’s the wrong question to ask. We’re so used to political decisions being made in the interests of politicians, we don’t even think to ask, ‘What’s in the best interests of the country?’ Specifically in this case, ‘What’s in the best interests of An Garda Siochana and the public they are sworn to protect?’
The answer to the question ‘Will Alan Shatter survive?’ is anyone’s guess. But the answer to the question, ‘Is Alan Shatter the best person to lead the gardai, and the public, through the oncoming storm?’ is much easier. The answer to that question is a regrettable, though unequivocal ‘No’. And it is for this reason that Mr Shatter should step back.
We have just learned that over the past three decades, there has been a secret operation within the Irish police force which systematically bugged phone conversations between gardai, citizens, lawyers and journalists. How far-reaching the implications of this are depends, to a large degree, on the content of those recordings. But no matter what the tapes contain, the matter is deadly serious. It appears that part of the security apparatus of the State has substantively impinged on the constitutional rights of citizens.
Within 24 hours of the revelation, the Special Criminal Court adjourned a case, to see if those involved had been bugged. Within 48 hours, legal firms had started writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions to see if there was any bugging of cases they were involved in. There is talk of the legal system being clogged up for months, if not years, as cases are reopened, evidence is questioned, and the conduct of gardai is scrutinised.
We are exceptionally lucky in Ireland to have the police service we do – an unarmed force of men and women who put their bodies on the line every day to keep us safe. The gardai enjoy a high level of public trust, which is core to their operational effectiveness. However, we all know that rules get broken. The new report into penalty points found widespread abuse of the system, while a GSOC report, which is where the bugging investigation came from, resulted in custodial sentences (one of which was entirely suspended) for three gardai in Waterford.
That the bugging was happening at all is damaging enough. But as the tapes are released to lawyers, their content will seep into the media. Let’s hope it’s all innocuous. But it’s entirely possible that some of the content will include evidence of rules being broken. And if this happens, it will further damage the gardai, and erode public confidence in them.
There are other challenges. The penalty points report has just been issued. Judge Cooke will shortly report on the GSOC bugging allegations. The Guerin report will address allegations in the dossier provided by Maurice McCabe. And all of this is coming at a police force that is already demoralised, one that is under-resourced and under-staffed (though still reducing crime in many categories and parts of the country). One garda spoke to me this week of the rank and file feeling “isolated”, with many asking “What’s the point?”
Exceptional political leadership is urgently required. Whoever holds the office of minister will have to simultaneously achieve three somewhat conflicting objectives. One, hold An Garda Siochana to account both for the bugging and for whatever is on those tapes. Two, re-energise the gardai and work with them to drive meaningful change in how things are done. Three, maintain and build public trust in their police service.
This requires a leader who knows how to listen and build consensus. It requires someone who can command the respect of the gardai. It requires someone who the Oireachtas and the public believe capable of getting the job done, and balancing those conflicting objectives.
Now ask yourself this: Is Alan Shatter that person? He is an exceptional legislator, a prodigiously hard-working public representative, and a recognised expert in family law. But he does not have the
support of the gardai. The Garda Representative Association (GRA), has a motion of no confidence in him. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, (AGSI), was not well disposed towards him the last time I spoke with them.
Mr Shatter’s relationship with GSOC appears fraught, based on his reaction to their concerns about being bugged. Senior Justice Department officials didn’t tell him about the taping. This is in spite of reports that the former commissioner’s letter was read by officials when it arrived at the department, and that the former commissioner then briefed Justice Department officials.
Members of the Oireachtas have been calling for Mr Shatter to resign for months now. The public watched Mr Shatter use confidential information about Mick Wallace on Prime Time. They watched as Mr Shatter refused to call on the former commissioner to withdraw his “disgusting” remark about the whistleblowers. And they watched as Mr Shatter apologised only last week, under intense pressure, for his own comments about the whistleblowers.
In response to my questioning in the Dail on Wednesday, the Taoiseach said that “Minister Shatter is not liked by the judiciary, he is not liked by the legal profession, he is not liked by the gardai”. This is not the description of a consensus-builder. It is not the description of the type of political leader now required. Maybe someone like Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald or Ruairi Quinn could step into the breach, and manage the conflicting challenges ahead. But it is hard to see how the current minister could do so.
Will Alan Shatter ‘survive’? If you approach the question from the position of political expediency, the answer in uncertain. But if you approach it from the position of wanting the best outcome for An Garda Siochana and for the country, then the answer is very simple.
I have great respect for Alan Shatter as a legislator, and as a man who works tirelessly in the service of his country. After listing the groups of people who don’t like Mr Shatter, the Taoiseach continued as follows: “But I tell you one thing: he’s got the courage to deal with the truth . . . in the interests of our citizens and our country.” I hope he’s right. Because if he is, then Alan Shatter will step aside.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on March 30, 2014.