Book Review by Frank O’Shea
FRENZY AND BETRAYAL. The Anatomy of a Political Assassination. By Alan Shatter. Merrion Press 2019. 452 pp
RRP: h/b $39.99
It is common in a book like this on matters of recent public interest to find endorsements on the flyleaf or on front and back covers. Here they are noticeably absent, except for one from Paul Williams whose forte and the area on which he has written a number of books is crime and criminals in Dublin. His verdict is that the book is a ‘searingly honest’ account of ‘a frenzied onslaught by the baying mob of populist politicians.’
Williams might well have added his fellow-journalists to that yelping cacophony, and indeed have mentioned that most ordinary Irish people would have been part of the raucous chorus. This uniformity of opinion may also explain the absence of a word of support from anyone else, because Alan Shatter had been a pariah for so long that to commend him would have required considerable courage.
When he was elected to the Dail in 1981, Shatter was the new face of Fine Gael: young (he was 30), outgoing, articulate, Jewish, the kind that would never attract a soubriquet like Blue Shirt. However, he had to wait 30 years before joining the cabinet; after the 2011 general election, he was appointed Minister with responsibility for Justice and Defence.
Among his charges were the Garda Siochana, encumbered at that time by a multitude of troubles. Most of these troubles were carried over from the previous Fianna Fail era, but new ones would come, many originating with Sergeant Maurice McCabe, a determined and long lasting whistleblower.
McCabe made a number of claims about his fellow-Gardai, right to the top rank; many of these accusations contained the word ‘corrupt’ in one of its variations and though some would later be withdrawn, that c-word had by then attached itself to individuals. ‘By the beginning of 2017 … no one was prepared, where possible, to check the accuracy of any statement he [McCabe] issued or resist any demand he made for fear of adverse personal political consequences,’ Shatter writes, referring to a time after he himself had been forced to resign. Over a short period, two Garda Commissioners, Martin Callinan and Roisin O’Sullivan resigned, as did Shatter and the person who succeeded him as minister, Frances Fitzgerald.
These troubles gave rise to a veritable industry of political and media grandstanding, most of it unsympathetic to Callinan, Shatter and their successors. It is hard to imagine how anyone would have dared to or been able to write about it without bringing down on him/herself a storm of political and social fury. Even a reviewer of a book like this has to be careful not to suggest a position on one side or the other. What can be said is that the troubles brought about the end of the political career of Alan Shatter, a man regarded as a highly competent and hardworking government Minister.
Shatter is a solicitor and the reader can presume that he had to use all his training in deciding what to put in this book. The result is sometimes tedious, leaving a reader wishing he would just get on with the story rather than appearing to put all charges and all rebuttals fairly. ‘There are few rewards in politics for only speaking when you truly know the facts and for only speaking the truth,’ he writes.
Even his comments on his fellow-politicians appear to be put carefully, but are all the more powerful for their understatement. Here he is on the current Taoiseach:
I knew that Varadkar and his immediate circle were dedicated to media spin and I had, until that day found their antics more a source of amusement than irritation. In particular because they seemed oblivious to how readily identifiable was the origin of some of the stuff that appeared in print attributed to anonymous Government sources.
And later he adds,
For Varadkar, Martin Callinan’s fate was beneficial collateral damage inflicted to elevate his public stature as Enda Kenny’s likely successor.
McCabe is equally dismissive of Joan Burton, Deputy leader of the Labour Party, the coalition partner of Fine Gael. ‘I regarded her as totally lacking any insight on the public perception of her party and the likely damage she was causing to its future electoral prospects.’
Though he praised Taoiseach Enda Kenny, he was fiercely critical of the latter’s role in attempts to win two seats in his (Shatter’s) three-seat constituency.
What I did not expect was that the Taoiseach, as leader of the party, and those who worked closely with him would cynically manipulate Fine Gael voters into redirecting crucial first preference votes and undermine the integrity of the election process.
And we thought Australian politics was rough.
Shatter was exonerated by a number of official investigations.
The Fennelly Commission would publish its report and unequivocally establish that I had told the truth … But by then it had become apparent that the truth really mattered to very few beyond me, my family and my close friends. It was of no major interest to the media commentariat or to Opposition Deputies by whom I had been pilloried.
Because the author is so careful to give chapter and verse for each of his and his government’s problems, this can be slow reading in places. However, it is a salutary reminder that politics is a dirty game, a very dirty game indeed.