Fianna Fáil ends week of tribal mud-slinging with sigh of relief

Party is damaged by Dáil voting controversy and glad election is not imminent

A week of tribal mud-slinging in Leinster House ended as it began, with Fianna Fáil struggling to defend the conduct of some of its senior TDs, and Fine Gael overegging its attacks.

Statements on the Dáil voting controversy heard Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, while condemning the actions of Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins, erect a straw man defence and Martin Heydon, chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, imply that further investigations should involve an examination of telephone records.

Dooley, Collins, Lisa Chambers and Barry Cowen all apologised for their part in the controversy, and Martin confirmed Dooley and Collins would not be restored to his frontbench.

Although clerk of the Dáil Peter Finnegan’s report into the controversy did not make findings against the individuals involved, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl’s statement before Leaders’ Questions on Thursday was an oratorical arched eyebrow.

“Politics is a profession,” he said. “It is an honourable profession, but, as politicians, we must conduct ourselves professionally. It is a matter of deep personal and professional regret to me that this did not happen last week.”

He said the facts, as laid out by Finnegan, were “stark and unpalatable”, and he added that the failure last week was “not of a technical nature … the failure was political”.

It was probably as much as Ó Fearghaíl could say while staying within the boundaries of the report from Finnegan, and, seen through a neutral lens, perhaps the most accurate view of the controversy.

Martin deflection

In his Dáil statement, Martin said there is “simply no question” but that Collins should not have cast votes on Dooley’s behalf. But the Fianna Fáil leader also claimed there was no evidence that the actions of any of his TDs had influenced the outcome of Dáil votes.

“The main case involves a series of divisions where the average margin was over 45,” he said, in an attempt at deflection. “The lowest margin involved was 31. The idea that there is any question over the result of those votes is manifestly nonsense.”

Nobody in recent days had suggested the votes were on a knife edge. All the focus was justifiably on whether it was appropriate to vote in place of someone else.

With Taoiseach Leo Varadkar staying above the fray and away from the Dáil chamber, Heydon listed out a series of questions for Fianna Fáil and suggested Dooley and Collins produce "their phone record".

Independents Maureen O'Sullivan and Catherine Connolly correctly criticised both Heydon's attack and Martin's defence, with Connolly expressing disbelief at the Fianna Fáil leader's statement and what she characterised as Fine Gael's desire for a "star chamber".

Yet Fianna Fáilers know the past week has been damaging, and the sight of four of its TDs apologising to the Dáil is not one Fine Gael will let it forget.

With Varadkar having helped secure a new Brexit deal and Fine Gael rising again in opinion polls, the Fianna Fáil benches are relieved the general election is now likely to take place next year rather than next month.