Colm Keena: How did disclosure of email’s existence lead to near-collapse of Government?

Frances Fitzgerald made ‘conscious decision’ not to act on email she couldn’t remember

Former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald  at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle on Wednesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle on Wednesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

One of the notable aspects of the evidence given to the Charleton tribunal on Wednesday by Frances Fitzgerald was the definitive way she spoke about her reaction to a 2015 email she says she does not remember reading.

The email, which informed her of a development at the confidential proceedings of the O’Higgins Commission on May 15th, 2015, caused media and political convulsions when its existence was disclosed late last year, and cost Fitzgerald her Cabinet position.

It jarred when she twice referred to making 'conscious decisions' not to act on the basis of what the email contained, as to do so would be inappropriate

All through the political crisis Fitzgerald maintained that she couldn’t remember reading the email, and that remains her position.

So it jarred when she twice referred to making “conscious decisions” not to act on the basis of what the email contained, as to do so would be inappropriate.

She also gave a definitive “no” when asked if she had considered contacting the then Garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Issue of style

In fairness, though, it could just be an issue of style, and the matter may be resolved when she returns to the witness box.

The email disclosed that a row had broken out at the commission as a result of O’Sullivan’s legal team raising an issue to do with a criminal accusation that had been made against Sgt Maurice McCabe years earlier. (The accusation was comprehensively dismissed by the Director of Public Prosecutions.)

Fitzgerald was at the tribunal before it began proceedings at 10am but was not called to give evidence until after 2pm. In the meantime the tribunal heard from Department of Justice principal officer Martin Power.

During Fitzgerald’s evidence it was made clear that when she received the 2015 email she was in position to conclude that the development at the commission was a significant one

His evidence, and the documents produced during it, illustrated clearly that by the time she had received the email in May 2015, Fitzgerald, who had been appointed minister a year earlier, knew quite a lot about the 2006 sex abuse allegation made against Sgt McCabe and how, out of the public’s view, it continued to cause tensions.

Significant

Likewise, during Fitzgerald’s evidence it was made clear that when she received the 2015 email she was in position to conclude that the development at the commission was a significant one, and had the potential to turn the commission’s spotlight away from the alleged poor policing standards it was set up to examine, and onto the whistleblower.

That said, her view that what was noted in the email was a matter for the commission chairman, who had terms of reference to guide him, is a valid one. In time the tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Peter Charleton, may well agree that it was a correct view.

He may also, perhaps, opine about how all of this has anything to do with his terms of reference.

Meanwhile, us lesser mortals are left wondering how the disclosure of the email’s existence could ever have led to the near-collapse of the Government.