Varadkar relaxed as Máire Whelan controversy rages

Analysis: Shane Ross in awkward position but Fitzgerald insists AG ‘stand-out person’

 Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise and Innovation Frances Fitzgerald TD speaking at the graveside of John A Costello. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise and Innovation Frances Fitzgerald TD speaking at the graveside of John A Costello. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The fast-tracking of Shane Ross’s much-talked-about Bill to remove political influence from the judicial appointments process cannot happen quickly enough for the Independent Alliance Minister.

Confirmation came from Áras an Uachtaráin last night that President Michael D Higgins would make the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal this morning.

The furore over the manner of the appointment has put Ross in an embarrassing position and prompted some grumbling about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s decision to retain Frances Fitzgerald as Tánaiste.

Ministerial appointments

With the announcement of junior ministerial appointments due tomorrow, Fine Gael backbenchers hopeful of advancement are on their best behaviour.

Most of their privately expressed complaints have been directed towards Fitzgerald, the former minister for justice who Varadkar said had recommended Whelan as the “stand-out person for the vacancy”.

Fitzgerald broke her silence yesterday to robustly defend her actions.

“Can I make it very clear that this is a very, very serious process that we follow in relation to judicial appointments. It’s very carefully considered and let me just make it absolutely clear that all of the correct procedures were followed in relation to this appointment,” she told reporters.

But Fianna Fáil still wanted to know what had happened to the applications from the three High Court judges who made Whelan aware they were interested in the position.

It is not exactly a huge surprise that a former attorney general would end up on the bench, and it is apparently normal that only one name is brought to Cabinet in such circumstances.

However, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes said yesterday, in the course of an RTÉ panel discussion, that the fact Whelan may have been at the meeting at which her nomination was discussed was a surprise.

That said, this was his only reservation and he insisted people would be laughing at politicians if a Government was dragged down on such an issue.

He was right about one thing: Varadkar is capable of demonstrating “extraordinary political cunning”.

The Taoiseach certainly appeared to be staying relaxed as the controversy raged over the weekend.

He said the Government had already decided to change the way judges were appointed and added, almost with a shrug, that “everyone knows Fianna Fáil has the power to bring down the Government, if they chose to do so”.

He also noted nobody in Government was calling for the decision to be reversed.

Complaining It has been an uncomfortable few days for Ross, forced to deny the reopening of Stepaside Garda station was part of a judicial appointment deal with Fine Gael, and complaining in the Dáil about the way Fianna Fáil used to do their business.

Until now, Whelan probably passed under the radar of most members of the public. Some might know she was a close ally of former taoiseach Enda Kenny, although she was from a Labour background.

She has rarely made headlines, but the most serious controversy she was at the centre of was when it emerged in the reports of the Fennelly Commission that she had given two different versions of events while giving evidence under oath.

In 2014, Whelan told the commission she had given the taoiseach an alarming account of the taping of phone calls at Garda stations, warning him of widespread illegality by gardaí.

A year later, however, she changed her evidence. The report was also critical of other aspects of her behaviour, including her refusal to inform then minister for justice Alan Shatter.

The latest Whelan controversy came early in Varadkar’s premiership. As he heads to London today he must be hoping her appointment will bring a close to it.

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