During this debate government members and backbenchers have stuck to the basic line that there is no legitimate reason to even raise the issue of whether Minister Shatter should continue in office. They have said that partisan politics is the only basis for criticising him and that asking him questions is a distraction from the real issues which should concern us.
I agree absolutely that there are many urgent issues facing the people we represent which deserve more debate and action. These include the mounting mortgage and household debt crisis which is not being addressed because of the government’s decision to put the banks in charge. They include a two-tiered recovery which is seeing some do well as the majority are left behind. They include regressive taxes and stealth charges which are hitting struggling families the most – we all know that the detail of the water charges are being hidden until after May’s elections.
These and many more issues are what concern people the most – but to use this as an excuse to try and close down the crisis engulfing Minister Shatter’s tenure is cynical politics at its worst. If we allow this attitude to prevail then it is the same as saying that no Minister can ever be held to account for their actions.
The facts of this crisis show that anyone who was looking to the Labour Party to assert basic standards of accountability within the government can now give up any hope.
In this case the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice pushed the Garda Commissioner into resignation but didn’t think it necessary to tell Labour anything.
This is apparently OK with Labour. It’s also OK with Labour that it took months to force Minister Shatter to apologise for a false slur against Garda whistle-blowers and it’s OK that he has built up a unique record of dismissing anyone who raises any inconvenient issue.
We are not talking about one incident of bad judgement or misfortune concerning a minister: What is involved is a mounting list of events which have already destroyed public confidence in Minister Shatter’s oversight of one of the most vital areas handled by government. The administration of justice and public faith in our police force are not some marginal issues – they cannot be pushed aside with the usual spin.
Four separate inquiries have been established into matters under the Minister’s direct control. In three of the cases there is no question of his full level of knowledge of the issues and eagerness to declare files closed. Equally the inquiries followed public statements by him that everything was fine. In the case of the Garda and prison tapes his Department was in possession of significant information for months and it is only being investigated because the Attorney General raised the matter with the Taoiseach.
Carrying on with his standard practice of dismissing all challenges, he said last night that questions about “who knew what and when” are irrelevant.
In this debate the Minister spoke for 20 minutes about his tenure and quite incredibly failed to mention that he was involved in decisions which directly led to the resignation of the Garda Commissioner for only the second time in our history. He actually managed to avoid answering questions on this issue.
His stated position is that he is a dynamic Minister fully in charge of his Department – while at exactly the same time he should not be held accountable for the ongoing escalation of controversies in his Department or his role in pushing the Garda Commissioner into resignation.
He claims to be responsible for everything positive and accountable for nothing negative.
Minister Shatter says that he is being vilified and being portrayed as “Public Enemy Number One”. He has acknowledged the theory that everyone makes mistakes, but has refused to admit that he has made any.
In addition he has, of course, fallen back on the worn-out deeply cynical excuse of saying that everything is the fault of his predecessors.
Let’s be very clear about one thing – Fianna Fáil fully supports the holding of an independent inquiry into the recording practices in Garda stations and prisons. Let that inquiry address any time period it wants, and question any former officer it wants.
The revelation of this past activity is not the reason why Minister Alan Shatter should leave his office – and no one has said it is.
What is at issue is a Minister whose actions in handling the exposure of problems has caused them to escalate to the point of crisis – whose actions have damaged morale within our police force – and who is completely dismissive of legitimate questions about his behaviour and the behaviour of those he has been entrusted by the people with the duty of overseeing.
The manner in which Minister Shatter has carried out his role as Minister for Justice goes to the core of why the public has lost confidence in him and why we should vote no confidence in him tonight.
From his first days in office he has been aggressively dismissive of any accountability to Dáil Éireann or the wider public. When faced with any specific challenges his immediate response has been to limit information and to attack those asking him questions.
Were this purely a matter of style it would be serious but not fatal. However this behaviour has led to him taking actions which are absolutely incompatible with holding the post of Minister for Justice in a democratic republic.
In his early months in office he started as he meant to go on.
He came into this House seeking to limit the time available to the Smithwick Tribunal and said that Judge Smithwick had no problem with what was being proposed.
It was only later, and through the Freedom of Information process, that we discovered that he had failed to tell the Dáil that Judge Smithwick had written to him to object to what he termed Minister Shatter’s “wholly inappropriate interference” in the work of the Tribunal. When questioned he attacked anyone who suggested that this information was relevant.
At roughly the same time in 2011 he appointed his personal friend and donor to serve as Garda Confidential Informant.
Two years later his friend and donor was fired for a reason which has still not been explained.
When independent Deputies raised the possible abuse of the penalty points system the Minister’s response was not to express concern and seek to get to the bottom of the problem. Instead he went on the attack.
His misuse of confidential information supplied to him by the Garda Commissioner to attack Deputy Wallace with a false claim of hypocrisy remains a disgrace for which he should have resigned.
His disinterest in how information about another Deputy was leaked before the tests clearing her were available confirmed his highly partisan approach to a role which should be above such concerns.
When the persistence of the Garda whistle-blowers meant that the issue wouldn’t go away the Minister took every opportunity to dismiss them – including making attacks on them which he now, under pressure and with the minimum grace possible, admits were false.
When the possible bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was revealed most Ministers would have responded by committing to immediately investigate the situation.
In contrast Minister Shatter’s response was to immediately attack GSOC. He supplied the Taoiseach with a false claim that GSOC had a statutory duty to inform the Minister of these matters and he commissioned a technical report which said there was no issue for anyone to be concerned with.
Cabinet showed no confidence in his judgement by agreeing to commission an independent report – albeit with strictly limited terms of reference.
For over a week we have been trying to get the Minister to explain why he agreed with the Taoiseach to take actions which directly led to the resignation of the Garda Commissioner.
Minister Shatter said last night that he does not know if there are legal implications beyond the Bailey Case. He said that it was the Bailey case alone which gave reason for alarm bells to ring. The chronology published by his own officials says that Commissioner Callinan acted on the same basis as the Department and Attorney General – it was only the Bailey case which set the alarm bells ringing.
Yet the Minister and the Taoiseach decided that Commissioner Callinan alone required a visit to tell him that his actions raised concerns.
In spite of four attempts during Leaders’ Questions the Taoiseach will not answer a simple direct question of why he decided to put pressure on the then Commissioner in such a way as was clearly intended to get him to be the fall-guy.
He will not explain why he and Minister Shatter did not think that they should talk to Commissioner Callinan before deciding to act. Why did they have so little respect for the position of Commissioner of An Garda Siochana that they did not think he had a right to be heard by them?
They admit that they did not even discuss his March 10th letter.
While each morning we find a new informed leak from government seeking to explain their actions, nothing credible has yet been said. The latest anonymous briefing says that they were scared that tapes were about to be destroyed.
In reality they received a briefing from the Attorney General and Secretary General of the Department of Justice – both of who knew, as the letter of March 10th stated, that the tapes were “Now stored securely in Garda Headquarters pending the finalisation of legal advice”.
The inescapable conclusion is that the decision to send his most senior official to the Commissioner’s home last Monday evening was influenced by the wish to make the Commissioner the sole focus of attention.
For a week previous to that meeting political sources had each day worked to take the attention off Minister Shatter and onto Commissioner Callinan alone.
The papers were full of ministers willing to talk about his entirely wrong statement about the whistle-blowers to the PAC.
When the tapes issue emerged the reaction of the Minister and Taoiseach was entirely driven by the wider context of wanting the crisis to go away and to protect the Minister.
It has been claimed during this debate that Minister Shatter is somehow a uniquely reforming minister. This is just not true. Ministers in his Department over the years have generated an average of 15 to 20 Acts a years – often with profound reforming impact. Many of Minister Shatter’s Acts are good ones which we have supported.
However some important measures are increasingly driven by his personal obsessions and he is dismissive of any disagreements.
His legal services bill is actually the direct opposite of good legislation. The Minister claims without independent verification that it will open up and reduce the cost of legal services.
The one clear impact will be to dramatically limit the access which all citizens have to best legal talent to represent them in court. His new pet project of multi-purpose practices will lead to a less open more elitist legal system. The Labour Party recognised this and tried to stop it, but has recently surrendered in the face of Minister Shatter’s zeal.
If Minister Shatter ceases to hold his office there will still be legal reforms proposed, debated and implemented. The difference is that the reforms will reflect a broad democratic input.
It also has to be asked how the claims that he is completely on top of his portfolio sits with his hiding from the media for the last month. It is over three weeks since he last did an interview of any type. He has turned down interview requests from every broadcaster and every newspaper in the country. This is unprecedented in our modern history. There is no example of a minister embroiled in a major controversy who has refused for so long to be interviewed.
The media cannot expect to have politicians available to them whenever they want, but in a modern democracy a holder of major public office has no right to hide from interviews, limiting appearances to a Dáil chamber whose agenda and format is tightly controlled by his government. What is he so afraid of?
How can we be expected to have confidence in a Minister for Justice who is now proposing a Garda Authority which last month he said would be damaging and inappropriate?
How can we be expected to have confidence in a Minister for Justice who attacks and dismisses anyone who raises an inconvenient question?
How can we be expected to have confidence in a Minister for Justice who will not be publicly interviewed about a major crisis in his area?
How can we be expected to have confidence in a Minister for Justice when the Taoiseach left him in the dark for 24 hours about a major issue concerning his Department?
How can we be expected to have confidence in a Minister for Justice who agrees to pressurise a Garda Commissioner into resignation and thinks that this is not important enough to discuss in the Dáil?
We have been accused of playing politics, but the real politics being played in this Chamber is of government parties who have put their own interests ahead of demanding even basic accountability of one of their own ministers.
The newspapers are full of off the record comments from backbenchers and ministers alike agreeing that Minister Alan Shatter has behaved disgracefully.
The actions of the Taoiseach and Cabinet show that they do not have confidence in Minister Shatter to address the rising crisis of confidence in his handling of the Department of Justice.
You have already shown by your actions that you have no confidence in him. If tonight you vote to express confidence in him you share full responsibility for his behaviour.