Politician and author Alan Shatter proved to be a most interesting guest speaker at the Imagine Festival in Waterford last Saturday.
The recently retired Justice Minister and TD has written a book on the early part of his life titled ‘Life Is A Funny Business’ and this is likely to be a two-part serial and the next book is likely to cover more his later Government career.
RTE DJ and Waterford Writers Weekend Curator Rick O’Shea was on hand to ask the question at the Large Room in City Hall, and there was also time for a Question and Answer session at the end of the session.
Mr Shatter has an unusual background, at least in an Irish context, and being of Jewish extraction he has a very different background from your average public representative. He provided the audience with some insight into life as a young Jewish man in Dublin into a family of a la carte Jews as he put it. Only a minority of Irish Jews would be seen as orthodox and go to services weekly in the synagogue.
His father came to Britain as a child with his parents and was raised in the UK. Mr Shatter’s father met his future wife on a visit to Dublin where they had cousins: she came from Southport in England, where they had a hotel.
The original family were from Lodz, Poland. Prior to 1918 it was part of Russia where his ancestors originated: in the late 1800s, it had a very large Jewish population of over 100,000.
Lodz was a centre of the textiles industry back then and was so busy that even English and Irish emigrated there too. Many Germans lived there at the time, in addition to Jews from around Europe.
Arriving n London they had a different name, but the immigration man in Liverpool wrote down as Shatter as opposed to the Jewish name of Jankel Sachnin (for his father).
After the Nazi invasion Lodz had 230,000 Jews in 1939; that fell to 7000 after the war, so many relations would have been lost due to the Holocaust.
Mr Shatter gave an insight into his early life growing up in the comfortable suburb of Rathgar, Dublin.
He went to the Methodist Primary School and subsequently to the High School in Rathgar and later to Trinity College, Dublin. And no time did his Jewishness make him feel any different to his classmates.
He told some good tales about his early student days, doing a general degree and selling wet look coats for ladies in the Dandelion Market near Stephen’s Green.
A young Alan Shatter used to buy the PVC from a factory in Kildare, going there in his old Morris car with a roof rack and then bringing them to a Francis Street garment house for making into ladies coats (which a friend of his Dad did) and then off to the Dandelion market for sale, which proved lucrative with first stock sold out.
It was trendy back in 1969/70 and his prices were cheaper and the coats were of stronger heavy material. An entrepreneurial background came from his Dad’s side and he even did coat designs himself. But he began to leave the rag trade behind after this fashion boom.
Alan Shatter could have made a good living from this but he then got other ideas and decided on going for Law. He then really focused on it in the late 60s, when he got into law reform and family law.
Law and reform took over and when he was beginning to consider a career, he opted for family law; family planning was one of his major campaign issues.
He thought it would be better to change within than outside as a critic and was influenced by the reforming zeal of Minister for Foreign Affairs and later Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald
He would become a Fine Gael Councillor and a TD in the early 1980s for Dublin South and for man years he wrote many of the party’s legal papers on law reform.
Mr Shatter then had a cut at some recent and current political leaders, stating that there is not enough reform and “real policy” within his own party. The same goes with Fianna Fáil whom he said are more interesting in-re election than reform
Irish politics needs more reform in his view given that there remains so much outdated legislation. While in office, he had a big interest in reforming children’s Victorian laws, family laws and others relating to poverty.
Mr Shatter also had a major role in establishing the free legal advice centres in Dublin and around Ireland, including Waterford.
He also spoke well of the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in relation to the peace process and he confided to him in the summer of 1994 on the Sinn Fein talks, when they used to meet at the Riverview Tennis and Swimming Club in Dublin on many evenings.
Mr Shatter kept the discussions confidential but encouraged Albert not to give up. He spoke of Mr Reynolds’ lonely road (at times) and the fact that he felt he could not respond to critics, due to the sensitive nature of the talks.
He recalled the thumbs up story from Albert Reynolds during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II at the Garden Remembrance, when he nearly burst into laughter in front of the Queen on so a stately occasion.
At times he was markedly personal. He opened up about his mother’s death by suicide and how he found her dead at the age of 14 in their kitchen. This was traumatic event for anyone, something that could have an overtly negative influence in life, yet perhaps that gave him more human interest in public life and trying to make a better society.
Alan Shatter appeared to be a real reformer and a man, who, for me, is missed in the political sphere.
He got caught up in the Garda controversy and felt treated badly, but in the end, he felt vindicated given what came out in the wash. This something he will go into with greater depth in the second volume of his memoirs; he previously published a fictional work, which sold 20,000 copies.
He signed books at the conclusion of the talk and got a great reception form the smallish audience; perhaps a Saturday night wasn’t the best with so many other events on (the Propellor Palms were downstairs in the Theatre Royal at the same time). Nonetheless, we were glad to be there and listen to a very significant politician of our times.
Alan Shatter is missed from the front line of the Dáil. He saw Fine Gael more a reforming party in the 1970s and that, in reply to a question, is why he joined them.
But he has concerns about Fine Gael today, where there are too many sound bites and not enough policy. He feels a better vision is needed. Politics would be well served, we feel ,if there were more of Alan Shatter’s ilk in office.