Sunday, May 19, 2013

Shatter's Folly

The Minister has some work to do in making himself popular
The Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter is being accused of an abuse of office for digging up some Garda dirt on a political opponent in order to undermine him during a television debate.  Government Ministers Joan Burton, Richard Bruton and Brian Hayes have been out defending the Justice Minister, but whatever the outcome, they are going to be privately acknowledging that this incident has begun to damage an already poor public view of the administration. But more on the politics later. This is not the first time Minister Shatter has brought the dignity of the office into question.

The immediate problem is related to a series of indiscretions by Minister Shatter in the discharge of his office.  In mid-2011, Justice Smithwick complained in the most forceful terms that the Minister had attempted to interfere with the tribunal.  Earlier this month, he complained that judges were not giving enough community service orders; just last week, he suggested that judges were taking too many holidays; he recently complained that judges were imposing sentences that were too short.  In all these instances, Shatter has essentially been telling judges how to to their jobs, and exposing his office and the Executive to the charge of messing with the separation of powers.

The danger for the Minister, for his Ministry, and for the Government, is that policing is politicised.  We will now, it seems, apply different standards on opposition TDs than we had been doing in the past.  This time, it's Mick Wallace and a driving offence - a shot across the bow, perhaps.  But what if the Minister was able to determine that the son or daughter of an opposition TD had been downloading movies illegally?  Their prosecution would not be wrong, but would it be unjust?  Could the Minister decide where to look for other relatively minor indiscretions that could have a disproportionate impact on people's lives?  What about health records - finding out about TDs who had family members benefit from one treatment or another that could be used to undermine an argument on health policy?

The message this sends out is that there is one law, it seems, for friends of the Government, and one law for the rest of us.  A bit like Fianna Dail and their banker / developer / publican friends, perhaps.

This is not just about Fine Gael and the Government, but about the elite in Ireland.  Specifically in relation to the Gardaí, it comes in the wake of the scandal around the running of off-books informers, where several Detective Gardaí have allegedly been accused of advancing their careers by setting up and then cracking down on drug deals.  Minister Shatter's most recent indiscretion came in defending the position of Garda discretion, using the example of Mr Wallace's own 'let-off' for driving with a mobile phone as a case in point.    Why was he let off?

He was let off because the Garda knew exactly who he was, and for no other reason.  For ordinary people, the Gardaí are being incented to get as many tickets issued as they can.  All of them are counted, and ranked, and while there are no 'bonuses' for securing as many fines as possible, everyone in there that I have spoken to knows that the more they get, the better they are regarded.  One thing that you don't want is to have one that bounces back at you - and applying a fixed penalty notice to a TD has a stronger possibility than most of bouncing back.

That Shatter's anecdote was dripping with smugness and arrogance was part of the problem.  His dismissive 'is this a joke?' response to calls for his resignation only exacerbated it.  His delivery on the RTE Prime Time programme suggested that Wallace should almost be grateful for the munificence of the Minister, without whom he would find himself with penalty points and a fine.  The benevolent Shatter had decided, in his wisdom, that Wallace on this occasion would be pardoned.  Next time, be more careful to cross me, was the suggestion.
"If there are any Gods, how can it be that I am not one of them?  Therefore, there are no Gods" - Nietzsche, showing some typically Shatterian arrogance.
And so the politics will now play out.  It seems that this is going to be remembered in the same way as McDowell's Frank Connolly affair was remembered, and that's not good.  Another stick to beat the government with; the opposition won't let them forget it.  The people will cite it as evidence of Shatter and the Government's arrogance.  That may cause The Taoiseach to think that some rebuke may be in order at the next reshuffle - possibly as soon as this coming Autumn - but all Government ministers are dutifully rowing in behind their embattled Minister.  He won't, of course, be sacked - that would be an admission of failure by a government who don't understand the word humility.  Nor will he resign; such is the scale of his Nietzschean ego, he feels that he defines morality by his actions, rather than the other way around.

Shatter is weakened, and should something else happen of significance in a short space of time perhaps he could find that more difficult to fight off.  But given his - and the Government's - sense of confidence and superiority, it remains difficult to see anything other than a "dead prostitute in the flat / large bag of cocaine in the Dáil" level of scandal coming even close to touching him.

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