Saturday, 17 May 2014

Alan Shatter and the creaky coalition

Attention in recent days has focused on the publication of the Guerin report and the associated pruning of the cabinet. While the report is an important part of holding the government generally, and the Minister for Justice in particular to account, the events leading up to its publication are symptomatic of more worrying trends within the coalition government. The scandals surrounding former Minister Shatter speak to the weaknesses of this government and group of Ministers.

The resignation of Alan Shatter has provoked not so much a storm of controversy as a deluge of empty platitudes from his former colleagues in the Cabinet. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore praised Shatter’s “outstanding record of accomplishment”; while Enda Kenny said he had never seen anyone with Shatters “work ethic”. Indeed, judging by the effusive and over-the-top praise being heaped on him, we would have to wonder why Deputy Shatter has resigned at all. As always with this government, there is an awful lot of hot air and hypocrisy surrounding the event. Gilmore’s ringing defence of the former Justice Minister over the last few days came to a shuddering halt with his description of Shatter’s resignation as “inevitable”. Given that the day before Shatter’s resignation, both the Taoiseach and Gilmore were expressing their full support for him, and Gilmore’s spokesperson claimed Shatter had the backing of all the Labour members of Cabinet, the Tánaiste’s abrupt about-turn gives a new meaning to the phrase “delaying the inevitable”. 

Of course, Gilmore’s flip flopping on the issue is entirely predictable behaviour for a politician in an awkward situation, but it is a little aggravating coming from a member of the party that claimed it would clean up Irish politics once it got into government. From the brutal removal of Roisin Shortall, to the broken promises on child welfare, student fees and “Frankfurt’s way”, Labour have given a master class in cynicism and hypocrisy. Of course, we should not forget Fine Gael, the Big Brother in both the coalition and in Garda stations across the country. Their support for individuals like Shatter is worrying in the extreme. Bad enough that Shatter either was not concerned with, or was unaware of, the bugging of phone conversations in Garda stations and prisons. Even worse, he abused his position to leak confidential information about a fellow TD on national television and to slander whistle-blowers within the Gardaí. 

This is the man to whom Fine Gael and Labour saw fit to give control not only of the Justice Department but also of the Department of Defence. The combining of the army and police services under the direction of one individual is terrifying enough in a democracy; how much more terrifying when that man has no qualms about using the perks of his office to undermine political opponents? That Shatter has resigned months after the incident with Mick Wallace only highlights how long and difficult was the process of making him accountable.

The next generation is hardly better. Leo Varadkar has described the threat of strike action by SIPTU members in Aer Lingus as “old fashioned union politics”, and said he is “sick of it”. If Varadkar is irritated by the fact that a Trade Union’s existence is based around getting better conditions for their members with strike action as their ultimate sanction, he might next turn his mind to fusty old notions of free speech and the right to protest. And then of course we have Phil Hogan, water master extraordinaire, soon it is rumoured, to be rewarded for imposing yet another back door tax (sorry, “charge”) with promotion to the European Commission. And all this from a party elected on the back of promises to “build a new Republic in which the interest of the people and not those of the insiders are placed at the centre” and to end “Crony Government”. A new Republic indeed…

Perhaps Big Phil’s escape to the sunny climes of Brussels is simply good timing. Given the current debacle over water charges, transport, health, social welfare and government reform, Kenny’s and Gilmore’s Golden Circle should probably start looking for their Golden Handshakes. There may yet be other scalps for the taking in this government.

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