The resignation of the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter last week, undermined by his failure to respond adequately to complaints about the Gardai (police), is a serious blow to the government here.
He was regarded as one of the most intelligent and hard-working ministers at the cabinet table and his loss is significant. Senior government figures last week, obviously fans of gallows humor, were saying they were all “shattered” by the events.
That reminded me of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's famous response when asked what he feared most in politics. "Events, dear boy, events," the old duffer replied. And politicians ever since have been quoting it as an explanation of how things can go wrong.
What Macmillan meant, of course, is the unforeseen events that crop up without warning and, even though they don't seem that important at the time, bring down a politician just when he thinks everything is going really well.
It happened to former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds, who later said ruefully, "It's the little things that can trip you up."
Alan Shatter is a prime example of how a minister's position can disintegrate just when he's thinks he's doing a great job. And in Shatter's case he really was doing a great job. The irony of the situation is that he was the best minister for justice we have had in years.
A lawyer himself, when he got the job his fellow legal eagles probably felt there would be little change in our archaic justice system which is painfully slow and inefficient and makes so many of them rich. But Shatter shocked his learned friends by setting about major reform of the system, something that has been desperately needed for years.
He was only minister for two years but his list of achievements in that short time is long and impressive.
Famously, he was at his desk before eight every morning. He focused completely on the job and he ignored the publicity appearances that most politicians here do here to boost their popularity among voters. He was intellectual, driven, a man on a mission who knew what he wanted to achieve.
This approach enabled him to bring about a staggering amount of reform or new legislation across a broad range of areas -- defense of the home, personal insolvency, the introduction of a national DNA database, transparency in family law cases (he is the author of the standard textbook on family law), trafficking, gambling, protection of children from abuse, money laundering, adoption and surrogacy, and that was just some of the smaller stuff.
His whopper was the Legal Services Regulation Bill, a fundamental reshaping of our justice system aimed at forcing it to be faster, more efficient and cheaper. What was required was not just a matter of dumping the wigs and gowns and the Dickensian mode of address and all the groveling (If it please your honor, My learned friend, etc.) that makes the courts so intimidating to ordinary people.
It's practical things like reducing the division between barristers and solicitors and sorting out the fee system and the number of lawyers who have to be employed to take a court action.
This was so radical and complex that it ran into problems. Much of it will survive his departure but it's a pity he will not be there to see it through.
Another major change he successfully introduced was the new Court of Appeal which will be starting later this year or next year, a big step in reducing the pressure on the Supreme Court where it can now take four years to get a case heard. This will be the biggest change in our legal system in many decades.
As well as all this, Shatter was a strong liberal voice over many years and more recently as minister on all kinds of issues like contraception, abortion and same sex marriage. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, not usually a fan of justice ministers, issued a statement bemoaning his passing as minister.
There were other achievements of note on a human level, like backing for the Magdalene Laundries survivors. And on top of all this he did what he had to do as part of the austerity program, cutting pay for Gardai in spite of threats of revolt, and making judges work longer for less (he had to oversee a referendum to give the government the power to cut their pay).
Shatter was a tireless minister, and he frequently drafted sections of new laws himself when his officials were either too slow or were not getting the wording right.
So where did it all go wrong? The problem for Shatter was that with the intellectual talent came an aloof attitude that meant his political antennae were never as finely tuned as those of his less gifted colleagues. Being slightly above it all meant that he failed to appreciate the extent of the problem that was building up until it was too late.