Gardaí taking Varadkar complaints seriously but formal investigation not a certainty

Harris has given written statement regarding his state of knowledge about controversy

The Garda inquiry into accusations against Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that he illegally leaked a confidential contract is still a preliminary inquiry. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The Garda inquiry into accusations against Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that he illegally leaked a confidential contract is still a preliminary inquiry. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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Gardaí regularly receive complaints alleging criminality by politicians and public officials. Most disappear because they are simply untrue, or just nonsense.

Some do not go any further because there is zero chance of an investigation resulting in a criminal charge. Just a few go beyond the stage of preliminary inquiry.

For now, the Garda inquiry into accusations against Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that he illegally leaked a confidential contract when he was taoiseach remains a preliminary inquiry.

He has not been asked to provide a statement. His Cabinet colleague Simon Harris has given a written statement about his state of knowledge about the controversy.

Mr Varadkar admitted he was wrong to give the contract between the Government and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to Maitiú Ó Tuathail, the then president of the rival National Association of GPs (NAGP).

Denying any criminality, Varadkar says he passed on the document to encourage NAGP members to sign up for a deal that was offered to members of the much larger medical body.

The news that gardaí have taken a statement from Mr Harris on the matter shows investigators are taking the accusations seriously.

Under caution

Nothing that has happened so far guarantees that a formal investigation will happen. Such an investigation would require interviews under caution and significant Garda resources.

Preliminary inquiries often lead to a dead end. For example, the Garda anti-corruption unit recently looking at allegations that a county councillor had fraudulently obtained expenses, which was quickly disproved. The inquiry was dropped.

The criminal complaint against Varadkar in November was made to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (NECB). Two issues were raised – one alleging corruption, and the other on whether Varadkar, as taoiseach, had breached the Official Secrets Act.

The first matter was one for the NECB. Having looked at it, it referred the file to Assistant Commissioner for Special Crime Operations John O’Driscoll, who, in turn, passed it onto to the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The NBCI is sometimes referred to as Ireland’s equivalent of the FBI, a not unreasonable comparison given its detectives routinely train with their US counterparts.

The NBCI, which has a reputation for discretion and few leaks, is officially responsible for investigations concerning “a public wrong that is punishable by law”.

In recent years it has been increasingly used to investigate internal Garda corruption as part of commissioner Drew Harris’s crackdown on misconduct within the force.

Corruption allegations

Among its current investigations are corruption allegations against Limerick gardaí for allegedly improperly cancelling penalty points and alleged theft by Prison Service staff in the midlands.

For now, the NCBI will speak with, or write to, people with knowledge of the leak. This includes Department of Health officials and will likely include the Tánaiste himself before long.

They will then assess if a crime may have been committed. At the moment it is difficult to see what that crime might be, since the Official Secrets Act suggests it cannot apply to Ministers.

However, the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018 does apply to ministers, and makes it an offence to use confidential information to obtain advantage for themselves “or for any other person”.

Whether this definition fits Mr Varadkar’s actions will be a matter for the Garda, but even a decision to move away from preliminary inquiries to begin a formal investigation would sharply raise the stakes.