Miriam Lord: ‘It was entirely legal’ echoes through Leinster House

Máire Whelan controversy is like Enda stashing a dead fish behind the radiator

It took Leo Varadkar two days to make a comment on the controversy. Guess what? What they did was legal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

It took Leo Varadkar two days to make a comment on the controversy. Guess what? What they did was legal. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

“You can’t do a thing.

You have nothing on us.

We didn’t break any law.

Show us. Show us where we broke the law.”

It’s easy to just imagine how The Guys brazened it out when the investigators paid a call. All cufflinks, confidence and smarmy charm, relaxed in the knowledge that their top-dollar, top-notch legal boys would see them right.

They bankrupted a country with their arrogance, ignorance and greed. Their reckless gambling destroyed many lives. These “wealth creators” disregarded the old ways of prudence and best practice, sneering from their luxury homes at the poor suckers who played by the rules.

When it all came crashing down, The Guys did alright despite their vanity years of supreme irresponsibility. They weren’t the ones who lost their homes. And when the gardaí and corporate enforcement officers came knocking, they knew what to say, because the lawyers told them.

“It was entirely legal.”

It was also entirely immoral, entirely unethical and entirely wrong, but you can’t be done for that. It’s a pathetic excuse.

Then there are the hugely wealthy corporations and individuals who go to great lengths to avoid paying tax.

It’s neither honourable nor fair. But it’s totally legal.

No point in even starting on the shenanigans which went on in the planning and property development world. All legal though, mind.

Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

But thankfully, things are different now. Or maybe not.

For here we are, less than a week into the tenure of a new and young Taoiseach – with all the high hopes for change that this brings – and already Leo Varadkar’s Government is embroiled in a row over cronyism and stroke politics.

The most dispiriting aspect of this fresh mess is the wretched excuse that Government Ministers and backbenchers were trotting out all day yesterday.

What they did was legal. Oh yes, all accomplished in accordance with the law.

They came supplied with the relevant get-out-of-jail quote from the Constitution to excuse their actions. It’s paragraph 13 subsection 2.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when the Government has to justify its choice of appointee to the second highest court in the land by insisting they didn’t break the law in the process.

One of his last acts

At his final cabinet meeting and in one of his last acts as taoiseach, Enda Kenny saw outgoing Attorney General Máire Whelan safely into the vacant position on the Court of Appeal. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald facilitated it in one of her last acts as Minister for Justice.

Perhaps Frances didn’t anticipate the fallout. She must have been a valuable asset to Leo in his leadership campaign, because he kept her on as Tánaiste. Or maybe he didn’t see it coming either.

There doesn’t appear to have been much discussion about the appointment, save for a mild expression of concern from Shane Ross, and he having kicked up a storm for months about the need to shake-up the judicial appointments process.

The chosen candidate (intriguingly, no other candidate was mentioned, even though it emerged afterwards that three High Court judges had thrown their hats in the ring) was at the Cabinet table while her elevation was mooted and agreed. Nobody thought to suggest it might be a good idea, for the sake of the appearances if nothing else, for the AG to make herself scarce.

Not even the civil service top brass saw the need.

This, according to Paschal Double-Department Donohoe yesterday, was because she was the only candidate. And yes, the whole thing was “entirely legal” because the Constitution tells him so.

But questions about the way the new judge was chosen surfaced in the Dáil the day after Enda Kenny put her up for the job. The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, brought it up during speeches on the election of the new Taoiseach.

Whelan’s selection is “the first time in nearly a quarter of a century that an appointment such as this was made in this manner” he declared, claiming it directly bypassed established procedures and that the job wasn’t even advertised even though it lay vacant for over three months.

“The rushed and unusual manner of the appointment to which Deputy Varadkar and all of his colleagues agreed is, at best, squalid” he told the Government, returning to the subject later in the evening to conclude the whole thing “stinks”.

He wondered “why was 23 years of precedent been abandoned for no real reason?” But on the big day that was in it – new Taoiseach in the House – the issue was largely overlooked.

Blame

Is it fair to blame Varadkar for a decision taken by his predecessor?

As he was barrelling out the door on Tuesday, before having a few relaxing pints in Toners that night, Enda Kenny must have known he was lobbing in a grenade. The unorthodox method he adopted to do a last good turn for his long-serving Attorney General is beginning to look like his version of stashing a dead fish behind the office radiator as a welcome gift to the man who took his job.

It took Leo Varadkar two days to make a comment on the controversy. Guess what? What they did was legal.

Nevertheless, Clare Daly, who, surprisingly, had a lot of time for Varadkar when she spoke on Wednesday night, found the announcement of the promotion of the Attorney General “utterly shocking”. Roisin Shortall didn’t hold back, describing the decision to appoint Whelan to “a plum judicial position [bypassing the normal procedures” as “the worst kind of crony politics”.

Minister Shane Ross’s acquiescence was “the height of hypocrisy” and the “kind of pork-barrel politics” which “puts Tom Parlon very much in the ha’penny place”.

Ross’s Independent Alliance, having gone along with the appointment on Tuesday, is now looking for a review. The Opposition is howling blue murder over it, with dark mutterings from Fianna Fáil about collapsing the Government.

Trying times ahead for Leo Varadkar.

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“It was the culture of the time.” Another phrase (along with “it was entirely legal”) from the bad old days of the far-too-recent past.

Which brings us to Shane Ross, the man once known to us as the Winston Churchtown of South Dublin but who has now become Winston Strokestown.

What a serendipitous occasion for the Independent Alliance kingpin, reaching agreement to stay in Government following negotiations with the new Taoiseach just as the announcement came through that Stepaside Garda station is going to be reopened.

Strokestown has been campaigning for this to happen since he got into bed with Fine Gael. A number of stations around the country are due to be reopened having been closed down during The Great Austerity. Such was the badlands of Stepaside’s pressing need for a functioning garda station, new that one was on the way was released even before the Garda Commissioner’s report on the issue was completed.

As soon as Shane’s stroke, sorry, glad tidings emerged, he was out on a traffic island in his Dublin/Rathdown constituency with a big banner boasting his success.

But this was not his price for remaining in Government. Nor was it his price for agreeing to Máire Whelan’s speedy appointment to the Court of Appeal.

Mere co-incidence, he has insisted. And no link between the two either.

But Fianna Fáil TDs aren’t buying it, and Fianna Fáil wrote the manual when it comes to pulling political strokes.

Ross was outraged by FF suggestions that he is a hypocrite for readily agreeing to Whelan’s appointment having railed against the judicial appointment system.

Deciding the best form of defence is attack, he launched into the main opposition’s history of appointments. “I am not going to take any lectures from Fianna Fáil” he thundered, reminding Micheál Martin that he appointed the then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s partner Celia Larkin to the board of the National Consumer Agency. So they were at it too.

Then Strokestown said he’ll have a Bill in next week to sort out the judicial appointments problem.

“After the [ deal was done,” said FF’s Robert Troy.

“The old system is rotten and should not be tolerated,” replied Ross.

But on Tuesday, it was still was the culture of the time.

Next week it will all be different.

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Leo must have got mixed up when he was told he had to fill a new Cabinet.

So he put in all his favourite antiques.

And added four high chairs for his creche of “super junior ministers”.

He took out one woman, but really reduced the female representation by two. The Attorney General has been replaced by a man while Mary Mitchell O’Connor, demoted to super junior status, is still permitted to sit at the cabinet table but doesn’t have a vote.

Meanwhile, the big event the public doesn’t care tuppence about but leads to great excitement in Leinster House happens on Tuesday – Leo’s selection of junior ministers. There will be a lot of unhappy people after his announcement.

“There’ll be blood on the floor at the parliamentary party meeting next week,” a backbencher without prospects told us yesterday. “There’ll be f***** war if some of them don’t get jobs.”

And no amount of champagne in Copper Face Jacks will change that.

We hear a triumphant Frances Fitzgerald “was like the Queen of Sheba” at Leo’s celebration bash on Wednesday night while his chef de cabinet, Brian Murphy, “was the prince of all he surveyed”.

Mark Kennelly, who did that job for Enda, has left Government Buildings.