What began as a difficulty surrounding whistleblowers has now mutated into something far more serious – a full blown crisis over the recording of phone calls to Garda stations around the country.
The Government has undoubtedly had its toughest week since its election victory in 2011. And what must be infuriating for those managing its time in power and providing advice behind the scenes is that much of the wounds have been self-inflicted.
It is always good to have combative Ministers. And there is no doubt that Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter TD is very much his own person. He has been a long time waiting to become a senior Minister and he has certainly stamped his own unique mark on the Justice portfolio in particular.
As a backbencher he drafted his own legislation. As a Minister he has been at the forefront of making radical changes, particularly in taking on what are seen as powerful vested interests in the legal profession. He has won few friends there but as a man in a hurry to impose badly needed reforms he has not courted popularity.
For a politician not to court popularity makes for a refreshing change. But it is one thing not courting popularity and another opting to remain in the eye of a storm over a protracted period of time. The difficulty is eventually the storm becomes a hurricane which has the potential of demolishing all around it.
Alan Shatter stood squarely behind former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan following the furore over his “disgusting” comments. Mr Callinan, an old school Garda, was horrified at what he saw as the breach of trust in the collegiality of the force by whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson releasing information from the Garda pulse system.
Mr Callinan had opportunities to step back from the brink and clarify his “disgusting” comments. Equally, Minister Shatter had the opportunity to correct the Dail record that neither whistle blower had cooperated with the O’Mahony inquiry. Both opted not to do so and allowed the controversy rumble on. The danger, of course, in pursuing such a high wire course of action is that eventually someone or something will impact on the wire and topple you.
In this instance it was the comments of Transport Minister Leo Varadkar TD suggesting it would be helpful if the then Commissioner withdrew his remarks. That came as a bolt out of the blue at a time when the controversy had run out of oxygen. It forced Labour to rally to the Varadkar line which meant that the Commissioner’s days were numbered. Even had he withdrawn his comments he would have been badly weakened as head of the Garda force.
In securing the “retirement” of Mr Callinan the Government may have used more artillery than was required. Mr Callinan’s departure came on foot of the establishment of the Commission of Investigation to examine the Garda taping issue. But the former Garda Commssioner appears to have acted properly in this regard and had discontinued the practice. Besides, it is not very clear what other legal repercussions will follow from the practise by the Gardai of taping phone calls. True, the “Bailey tapes” are very serious and have implications for the force but the Government’s apocalyptic warning seems even now a little strident.
It has also ensured that work being undertaken behind the scenes in decommissioning the taping issue is now to be completed under the arc lights of the media. And that spotlight provides clear and present danger for the Government.
(This article appeared in the Irish Examiner, Monday, 31st March, 2014)