For any person nomination to serve as a cabinet minister is a great personal honour. Deputy Charlie Flanagan has every right to be proud of this nomination. I and my party congratulate the Deputy and also his family and supporters without whom he would not have reached this moment. I know it is a day they will celebrate and remember with great satisfaction. I also wish Minister Fitzgerald well in her new portfolio.
Due to the government’s large majority the outcome of this debate is not in question. However it is still important that we address the crisis which has led to this appointment being required. Appointing a new minister does not by itself deal with what has happened and the unprecedented collapse in public confidence in vital parts of the administration of justice.
We are getting a new minister, but what we need is a new direction.
If all we get is a new face carrying on with the same policies and the same approach then further damage will be done.
It is simply absurd that we are today discussing the replacement of a Minister for Justice without knowing anything about the specific information due to which he resigned. While Deputy Shatter’s resignation letter is full of his usual defiance and failure to admit error, clearly Mr Guerin has made extremely serious points about the mishandling of grave material. Making sure that this cannot happen again, to formally end the era of dismissing inconvenient evidence and attacking opponents, has to be at the top of the new Minister’s agenda. Yet we have been denied the opportunity to see the Guerin report before Deputy Shatter’s successor is appointed.
We have also again been denied even the most basic information about how the Taoiseach, with Minister Shatter, effectively pushed a Garda Commissioner into resignation.
This shows many things, but respect for accountability is not one of them.
Since the first decades of this state there has not been such controversy concerning the interaction of ministers and the Garda Siochana. Before this can be dealt with the government must first acknowledge it. Instead of doing this, what we have heard from the Taoiseach and the rest of the government are assertions that Minister Shatter did a great job and everything was fine even though he chose to resign.
In recent years the Department of Justice has been run with no accountability, an intolerance of questions, unnecessary conflicts and a refusal to respect the views of others. Some important legislation has emerged, but it is absolutely not true that the administration of justice has been radically reformed. In fact key elements of it have been undermined.
We need a minister who will rebuild the shattered relationship between government and the Garda Siochána. Who respects the fact that a Garda working in the community makes an impact which can never be matched by touring huge distances in squad cars. Who is willing to listen to Gardaí and engage with their representative organisations.
We need a minister who is willing to reign back on changes to the legal system which will make it impossible for ordinary people to be represented by the best legal talent. Someone who understands that personal prejudice is not the same thing as evidence when imposing changes no one is asking for and which will deliver no credible benefits.
We need a minister who believes that whistle-blowers have a legitimate role to play because things can go wrong even in the best of systems. The justice system needs a minister who does not brush aside inconvenient information.
What we absolutely agree is that we do not need is another minister who combines the roles of Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence. Leaving aside the fact that the near universal practice internationally is to separate these roles, the experiment of joining them has been a complete failure. The Defence Forces believe that they have been significantly reduced in terms of political engagement and the drift in policy terms has been obvious.
The Department of Defence was in many ways a model of public sector reform in the past decade and a half. Before the crisis they had reduced numbers, increased activity and added significantly to Ireland’s status as an international force for peace. There is no reason for the Departments to be joined. It has been bad for Defence and the crisis to be addressed in Justice is big enough to take up the whole time of a minister.
The resignation of Deputy Shatter is something which should have happened a long time ago. He has chosen to leave without admitting any error and in the name of protecting the electoral interests of the government.
He has however pointed out his gratitude to the Taoiseach and colleagues for their constant and steadfast support. This is support which continued up to yesterday lunchtime when the Tánaiste said he had full confidence in Deputy Shatter.
This steadfast support from Fine Gael and Labour stands in sharp contrast with their approach to former Minister Roisin Shorthall, who was implementing clear policies on primary care that were contained in the Programme for Government, which were noble in themselves and sought to help people in marginalised and disadvantaged communities but she was left go without any defence whatsoever.
If his resignation is to have any meaning then the government owes us an explanation for the share number of times they chose to defend the indefensible. The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and their parties were happy to allow behaviour which should never have been acceptable.
When information was withheld about the Smithwick Inquiry, Fine Gael and Labour had no problem.
When confidential information was illegally used to make a false allegation of hypocrisy against a Deputy, Fine Gael and Labour said ‘carry on’.
When information damaging to another deputy was leaked and no action was taken, Fine Gael and Labour didn’t say a word.
When a friend and donor was appointed as Confidential Recipient, Fine Gael and Labour thought there was no problem.
When findings of GSOC were ignored, Fine Gael and Labour had no interest.
When whistle-blowers with grave information were marginalised and their concerns dismissed, Fine Gael and Labour tried to ignore it but eventually, and as late as possible, said that whatever the problem was it wasn’t political.
When I was attacked in here for having the temerity to challenge what had happened, Fine Gael and Labour cheered along and were happy to vote confidence in this behaviour.
Last night the corridors of Leinster House were full of Fine Gael and Labour TDs talking about how Deputy Shatter’s resignation somehow brought this chapter to an end. In doing this they have decided that their record of supporting the behaviour which led to the resignation is irrelevant. It’s not irrelevant and is a key factor in this debate.
It’s not just a new minister we need, it an understanding that the arrogant and unaccountable way in which this government as a whole has behaved is what led to this resignation and the need to appoint a new member of government. This has to change we need to see some respect for other opinions, and an openness to criticism or nothing will have changed.