Justice Minister Alan Shatter

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.  

Part of the reason for that was his assumption that there was no real problem with the Gardai, no serious corruption and a pretty good record in dealing with crime and keeping Irish society safe.  

In that assumption -- shared by the vast majority of people here -- he was correct.  There is no big problem.  But there are many smaller problems, mainly to do with efficiency and accountability.  

These have grown up over many years mainly because there has been no independent oversight of the Gardai.  The Gardai policed themselves and any shortcomings were covered up.  

Both the Gardai and the civil servants in the Department of Justice stonewalled whenever attempts were made to get information on cases that had been inadequately investigated or cases that had gone completely wrong.   Stick together lads and say nothing seemed to be the motto. 

Since 2007 we have had the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), an independent body set up to deal with complaints about the Gardai.  But recent events have shown that this never had sufficient resources or powers.  

It was adequate to deal with everyday complaints from members of the public or the very few cases of minor corruption among members of the force, but it was never up to the job of thoroughly investigating more serious matters.  And it got minimal cooperation from senior Gardai, who seemed to regard it as a nuisance. 

In fairness to him, Shatter behaved no differently in backing the Gardai than previous justice ministers, all of whom aligned themselves with the force instead of taking an independent, questioning stance.  Being so busy with all his legislation, Shatter in particular had little time for concerns about the Gardai and repeatedly accepted the former commissioner's assurances that everything was okay.   

And as we now know, everything was far from being okay.

There is a long list of worrying examples of this -- the Sophie du Plantier murder case, the alleged bugging of the GSOC offices, the taping of phone calls in Garda stations and the writing off of driving penalty points by Gardai being just some that have made headlines.  

Just as serious are many of the more ordinary cases outlined by the two Garda whistleblowers, a list characterized by incompetence and laziness rather than any kind of corruption.     

Most of this stuff predated his arrival as minister.  But as it emerged it was his job to deal with it.  

Instead of listening to the whistleblowers, Shatter ignored them and then went out of his way to undermine them, which he subsequently had to apologize for in the Dail (Parliament).  As we now know, both men have been completely vindicated, and it is clear now that they were motivated only by the failures within the force they could see around them.   

Most large organizations develop some group think and inertia over the years.  But the Gardai, because of the enormous power they have, have developed serious problems in this regard.  

And their masters in the Department of Justice have been even worse, regarding themselves for years as an elite who are way above answering questions.  Security has been used as a convenient blanket to cover up.  

When Shatter last week read the official report on how the whistleblowers' complaints had been handled he knew he had to resign.  It may be true that he had not known the detail of what was involved, but the buck stops at his desk. Those who did know the detail, senior figures in the Department of Justice, are still in place and should be fired if they don't resign.  

We need a fresh start as we face into a new era which the new Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald says will be much more open and accountable.  Most importantly, this will include independent control of the police, including civilian involvement, just as exists in most other western countries.  This was already on Shatter's agenda.  

To be fair to the Gardai, what we have learned so far about many of the cases raised by the whistleblowers indicates a failure by the Gardai to work hard enough rather than any corruption.  Why work when you can get away with being lazy and when there is no outside pressure on you to perform?  But this attitude was very much a minority one. 

All this needs to be kept in perspective and we need to remember that the Garda record on solving serious crime, like murders, is good and certainly far better than in many places in the U.S., for example.  

Most of the Gardai -- and so many of them are young and inexperienced following waves of retirements as the government cut the numbers -- are obliging and courteous and do their best to do their duty.  But there are mountains of paperwork.  

And there is an overhang of complacency and occasional arrogance that needs to be rooted out.  The new minister is going to be busy.