Monday, May 27, 2013

What Lessons Can We Learn from Shattergate?

The best thing to come out of the recent brouhaha involving penalty points, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and those strange bedfellows, “ethics” and “probity,” is that we, the sovereign people, have been provided with a forensic walk-through of how the body politic works. The whole thing has been a case study in what’s important, what isn’t, why some things happen and why some things don’t in the state.

The worst thing about the recent brouhaha is that we, the sovereign people, are now sure beyond reasonable doubt that the institution of the state is a house of mirrors, and cries to high heaven for reform.

Firstly, we’ve been confirmed in a belief that the standard of civic debate in this country isn’t very high. A school of red herrings have swam past over the past twelve days, obscuring the central point of the “scandal,” which is this: is it a resigning matter if a Minister for Justice uses confidential material to which he or she only has access by virtue of his or her position as Minister for Justice to make an ad hominem attack on a political opponent?

That’s the central issue. Did Alan Shatter do wrong in using information about Mick Wallace to which Alan Shatter had privileged access due to his ministerial position?

Whether Alan Shatter bought a dud watch, wrote a dirty book, got pulled by the cops leaving the Dáil or is currently reforming the Department of Justice like a latter-day Martin Luther doesn’t matter. But despite this, the opposition has been all over the shop in their criticism of him. Not least Fianna Fáil’s Justice spokesman, Niall Collins, who has been like a child who got a present of a tin drum when it wasn’t even his birthday and keeps banging the thing constantly for days. Days.

One of the reasons that debate isn’t focused on whether or not Alan Shatter misused his office is that nobody in Ireland is all that terribly sure of what constitutes an actual political scandal. In Britain, the faintest hint of impropriety sees you shown the door although, in fairness to our former rulers, they usually go before they’re pushed.

Our fellas don’t go before they’re pushed. It was a brass neck that got them elected in the first place, and it’s not until the noose tightens around that same brass neck will they give up a damn thing.

Hence, Alan Shatter’s rather stunned reaction to the idea that he had a question to answer in the first place. “Is this a joke?” Shatter asked a reporter when the reported asked Shatter if he should consider his position. He’s a minister in a government with a well-whipped 58-seat majority. He doesn’t have to consider a damn thing, actually.

But, it did look bad so, with extreme bad grace, Alan Shatter made a speech to the Dáil that saw the thing get its second wind and journalists scurry to find out if this was an actual scandal after all, just like the grown-ups have.

It’s interesting, also, to note how much of the coverage focuses on Alan Shatter’s perceived arrogance. That Shatter, in his two years as Minister for Justice, has moved a raft of acts through the parliament and into law figures little in the coverage – the current writer is only aware of it having read it in a profile in the Phoenix, as an aside in a long feature detailing just what a pain in the neck the man is.

But this ability to get stuff done doesn’t count for anything. Shatter the man is inclined to look down on journalists – hard to imagine, but true – and don’t think the journalists care for it.

Either way, the matter is now over. Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported that there is no file to which a mischievous Mattie McGrath referred in the Dáil last week, which means either there actually isn’t a file or else the guards have been somehow got on message. It will be interesting to see if industrial relations between the Gardaí and the minister get better or worse in the next few months.

As for the substantial issue, Alan Shatter should have resigned. It was a gross misuse of power to use confidential information to score a cheap political point. Mick Wallace is a disappointment as a parliamentarian – one could posit that the only difference between Wallace and a clown in the circus is that the clown will at least wear a suit to work – but that’s not the point. If a Minister for Justice – any minister – can access and then use sensitive information then someday some Minister will use it against any of us. And that’s the definition of a police state.

But that’s not how politics rolls in Ireland. In Ireland, it takes more than a whiff or sulphur before it’s time for you to consider your position. You need to be caught with one hand in the cookie jar, the other holding a smoking gun, a hip pocket full of brown envelopes and a lifelong membership card for Opus Dei clenched in your teeth before it comes to that. And even then, with a fifty-seat majority, squeezing out a tear or two for Dobbo on the six o’clock news might do it. God knows, it’s worked before.