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Dublin: 14 °C Wednesday 30 July, 2014

Explainer: Why is Alan Shatter under pressure – and will he survive?

TheJournal.ie explores the background to the current controversy surrounding the Justice Minister, the questions that remain and what’s likely to happen next.

Alan Shatter is in the eye of a storm right now
Alan Shatter is in the eye of a storm right now
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

ALAN SHATTER IS known to start his days well before 6am and is renowned for his relentless work ethic as a minster who straddles both the Departments of Justice and Defence.

In three years in government he has introduced 24 of the 159 Bills the coalition has brought before the Dáil, is currently bringing forward wide-ranging reforms to the legal sector, and has successfully passed two referendums – one to cut judges’ pay and another to establish a Court of Appeal.

So why, with all these reforms, does he find himself under pressure with calls for his resignation?

The simple answer is that the minister has been at the centre of the two biggest domestic stories in the last fortnight – the GSOC bugging controversy and now fresh revelations from a garda whisteblower.

The common thread is An Garda Siochána with Shatter seemingly now facing a perfect storm of crises that have literally been on the frontpages and at the top of the news bulletins for the last 11 days.

TheJournal.ie explains how it’s got to this stage and what it all means…

The GSOC saga

The Garda Ombudsman (GSOC) surveillance/bugging story is arguably as confusing now as it was when it was first revealed by the Sunday Times two weeks ago. Then, the paper reported that the GSOC’s offices had been placed under surveillance with the use of government-level technology.

Shatter sought to play down these claims and stated, off the back of a briefing from GSOC, that there was “no definitive evidence” of surveillance having taken place.

What kept the story alive was GSOC being less definitive about whether or not they has been spied on and some fairly obvious differences between what they told Shatter in a briefing and what Shatter told the Dáil.

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Garda Ombudsman Commissioner Simon O’Brien trying to explain just what went on at his offices to an Oireachtas Committee last week. [Pic: Oireachtas TV]

Added to this were the opposition parties’ calls for an independent inquiry and the lingering suspicion – though denied by GSOC, gardaí and everybody else at official level – that the gardaí or rogue elements within the gardaí were involved in the surveillance.

Then it emerged that there was an innocent explanation for some – if not all – of the anomalies that had been identified in the original Verrimus security sweep of GSOC HQ. This was based on a ‘second opinion’ Shatter sought from an Irish security firm, RITS.

The differences between the RITS and Verrimus assessments, the continued controversy the story was creating in the media and political pressure led Shatter to recommend to his Cabinet colleagues that a former High Court judge review the whole matter.

With that process under way, and barring any new revelations, that story is effectively paused until we have the judge’s report in eight weeks time.

The “extremely serious allegations of garda misconduct”

But now another, more serious problem has arisen for Shatter in the last 24 hours and again concerns the gardaí and a saga that has been rumbling on for the past two years.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claims to have received evidence from the garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe of gardaí having “seriously mishandled” a number of cases involving “abduction, assault and murder”.

Among the cases are that of Sylvia Roche Kelly who was found dead in a Limerick hotel in 2007 and her killer Jerry McGrath who had earlier that year attacked a woman taxi driver, Mary Lynch. Other cases included in the documents concern three separate assault causing harm charges, one false imprisonment and the alleged falsification of garda records.

Martin has given the documentation to the Taoiseach who himself said today there are “extremely serious allegations of garda misconduct” in the files. Enda Kenny said he’s going to deal with it. We’ve yet to hear from the Justice Minister.

Speaking in the Dáil earlier, Martin claimed that Shatter knew about the cases for over two years.

This claim is based on a transcript of a conversation between McCabe and garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly who, according to the transcript published by Broadsheet.ie, told the whistleblower he passed the documents to Shatter.

Martin said in the Dáil today: “Minister Shatter knew about these shocking cases for two years and in the knowing of these cases he comes into this house and accuses the whistleblower of not co-operating in the penalty points saga – undermining the man’s credibility in the public domain, something I believe was very wrong.”

‘If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished’

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Former garda John Wilson at a protest calling for Shatter’s resignation outside Leinster House yesterday. [Pic: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland]

These claims over the last 24 hours are the latest developments in a long-running saga involving McCabe, a serving sergeant, and another garda whistleblower, the retired John Wilson.

McCabe has now alleged that serious criminal cases were mishandled while both he and Wilson have said for some time that there was widespread malpractice in the fixed charge notice system – essentially that penalty points were being wrongly and corruptly cancelled.

Two years ago this month, McCabe met garda confidential recipient Connolly to discuss his concerns about a number of issues, among them the recommendation by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to promote a senior officer who was under investigation.

Appointed by Shatter in June 2011, Connolly was charged with receiving confidential reports of corruption or malpractice within An Garda Síochána from garda members or civilian employees.

As we said above, the full transcript of this conversation has been published by Broadsheet.ie and some of the comments Connolly made to McCabe have been read in to the Dáil record. Connolly is said to have told McCabe:

“I’ll tell you something, Maurice, and this is just personal advice to you. If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.”

These are remarks which the minister wasn’t able to definitely prove that Connolly had said, but which Connolly apparently wasn’t able to deny he had said, as a result the garda confidential recipient was was sacked yesterday and the office itself has been abolished.

In a statement, Shatter said: “I informed him [Connolly] that in the context of his failure to unequivocally repudiate the content of the alleged conversation or take the necessary action to restore public confidence in the office of Confidential Recipient, I believed his position was untenable and I had no alternative but to relieve him of the position.”

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Serving garda sergeant Maurice McCabe arriving at Leinster House last month to give evidence to the PAC in private session – a historic first. [Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland]

‘Ignored… and owed an apology’

In April 2012, two months after he met Connolly, McCabe made a formal complaint through the confidential recipient system but it went nowhere as far as he was concerned.

Feeling ignored by the confidential recipient, by the gardaí, and by the government, McCabe and Wilson brought their concerns to TDs, with Mick Wallace and Clare Daly taking up the case publicly.

McCabe has also given evidence to members of the Public Accounts Committee about cancellation of penalty points and the potential loss of revenue to the State. The PAC’s examination of the matter forced Shatter to ask the now-maligned GSOC to investigate the penalty points issue last month.

On the wider penalty points issue, Shatter has accepted the findings of a report into the operation of the fixed charge notice system by Assistant Garda Commissioner John O’Mahoney which largely vindicated the operation of the system when it was published last year.

But the minister went further in his response to the report, claiming that McCabe and Wilson did not cooperate with the internal investigation.

He told the Dáil in October last year: “They didn’t cooperate with the garda investigations that took place. Now I don’t know why that is… “

McCabe disputes this and Micheál Martin claims it’s just not the case that McCabe did not cooperate or offer to do so. He wants Shatter to apologise to the whistleblower.

The questions that need answering

Even with all this, the controversy does not end there for Shatter.

Last May, while appearing on Prime Time to discuss the penalty points saga, the minister revealed that Mick Wallace had been stopped by gardaí for using his phone while driving.

Wallace subsequently complained to SIPO and said Shatter made improper use of confidential information which had been given to him by the Garda Commissioner. Critics say this is an example of too cosy a relationship between Martin Callinan and the Minister.

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Martin Callinan and Alan Shatter [Pic: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland]

But aside from that, most problematic for Shatter right now are these “extremely serious allegations” in the documents that have been with the Taoiseach since yesterday, and which it is claimed Shatter was told about two years ago.

It is clear that Shatter needs to account for what he knew and when he knew it in relation to these documents. Following on from that what did the gardaí know and what do they have to say about the whole issue?

But the two key questions for the minister are: Was he, as is claimed, made aware of the “extremely serious allegations” in the McCabe documents two years ago? And if so, what did he do about them?

And finally, don’t forget the politics in all this

Politically, it should not be forgotten that Shatter was a key ally of Kenny’s in the attempted Fine Gael heave of June 2010.

Shatter is a key ally for Kenny at Cabinet level. The others are James Reilly and Phil Hogan, both of whom have their own problems with the latter more than likely off to the European Commission in the summer.

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that in some ways Shatter is also a key ally for Labour, particularly on various social issues the junior coalition partner has been pushing in government.

Shatter will be leading the arguments on the same-sex adoption bill and will theoretically be front and centre on the same-sex marriage referendum next year. The minister also gave one of the strongest speeches in favour of the abortion legislation last year.

But all that said, Labour won’t be afraid to burn Shatter if he becomes politically toxic.

We’re not at that stage yet, but if the serious outstanding issues which have emerged over the last 24 hours are not addressed and addressed adequately, be that a statement from Shatter or a full-blown inquiry, then trouble lies ahead for the novel-writing minister.

Taoiseach: I will deal with ‘extremely serious allegations of garda misconduct’

Read: ‘Can I suggest you relieve Minister Shatter of his duties?’ Mary Lou McDonald’s advice to Enda Kenny this afternoon

Watch: TD offers to share ‘a candle and bottle of wine’ with Shatter – but he prefers a G&T

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