‘Plus ca change’ is one reaction to the ongoing controversy over the Justice Minister, Gardai and accountability. Indeed, it is quite uncanny how elements of the saga resemble the other great controversies of Irish political life, such as the capture of murderer Malcolm McArthur in the Attorney General’s flat in 1982 which so embarrassed the Haughey Government and gave rise to the GUBU acronym. But also the resemblance to the phone tapping of  journalists and political opponents by the same Government.  And to the Fr Brendan Smyth revelations in 1992, which brought down a Fianna Fail/Labour Government. The 1982 phone tapping brought down Haughey, but only many years later when ex-Minister Sean Doherty revealed on TV that Haughey had always known about the phone taps.

So here is the list of heady ingredients for an Irish political crisis – phone taps, missing files, an Attorney General, and allegations of a failure at senior level to communicate certain information. However, there is one big difference between all of the previous controversies and the current one. All of them resulted in resignations and an ultimate fall, or change, in Government. Whereas the current Government is unmoved, rock solid and Shatter has kept his job. Quite frankly, he wouldn’t have done so in 1992 and his head would be on a Labour-hoisted pike.

The big change here is that Labour, as a junior coalition partner, has lost its appetite for forcing resignations and ‘getting heads’. They have learned that the high moral ground is a lonely place, even with (and especially with) the electorate. ‘We’ve come for a head, Albert – yours or Harry’s’ Ruairi Quinn allegedly told  Taoiseach Reynolds in 1992 when the Labour Ministers confronted him, about his insistence on  appointing former Attorney General Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court, despite Labour’s objections.


In the end, they got both heads- but they also pulled out of Government and lost office. Even more strangely they pulled out of a possible new FF/Labour coalition (without Albert) on the basis that certain FF Ministers knew about the files that they said they didn’t about the Fr Brendan Smyth extradition. Even to this day, the details are confusing, but it meant the cancellation of a possible new Government. As it happens, Labour went on to form a very successful Rainbow Coalition with FG and Democratic Left, but the memories of these ‘high standards’ and ‘demanding of heads’ haunted Labour for years as they watched Government life from the loneliness of the Opposition benches.

This time it’s different. Labour are in a serious and challenging coalition with FG and are putting through major reforms and fiscal readjustments and they can’t afford to start having moral issues about awkward Ministers. Roisin Shortall should have taken note and Shatter should count his blessings. And Labour are probably right. What is the point in rocking the Government and demanding resignations, when no clear wrong has been done by the said Minister. The only cheerleaders will be the Opposition and an ever voracious media. The general public, struggling to pay their taxes, will remain indifferent.

And as for threatening a withdrawal from Government over it, as there was in 1992, forget about it. The public will not thank you. This was the realisation by Michael McDowell over Bertie’s finances in 2007. ‘Leave Government!’ cried the Opposition and media. But the PD’s took one look at the polls and saw that, far from the PDs being rewarded if they left the Government with FF, the electorate would punish them! Bertie got back in 2007, but it was only with the economy’s slide, that public discovered its conscience and started to ask ‘moral questions’ about those dig outs. What really matters to the electorate is the economy: its condition and its future, and if Labour can be part of its painful revival, they feel they will be rewarded.

But Shatter should count himself lucky. He has survived controversies that would have easily felled a Minister in the 90’s or even 80s. He used personal police information on live TV about an opponent, he ignored and dismissed the whistle-blowers, and he is now presiding over a police force which secretly recorded phone conversations, and about which he appears not to have been informed. But there is an added reason why he is staying. He is a genuinely hard working and reforming Minister, who has bravely tackled the entrenched legal sector. And Labour like him – he is one of theirs, a liberal FG man sound on gay marriage and on the abortion issue and one who could deliver on their agenda. So he’s a lucky man. Shatter’s ‘head’ will be spared – for the moment.