Fitzgerald crisis shakes faith in Varadkar among some in FG

Minister admits concern about Taoiseach’s perceived lack of strategic thinking

Other colleagues feel Varadkar’s staunch defence of Fitzgerald will stand to him. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Other colleagues feel Varadkar’s staunch defence of Fitzgerald will stand to him. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Capping off the most trying period of his young premiership, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar walked along the corridors of Government Buildings yesterday morning, accompanied by the woman who was still his Tánaiste.

Sometime after 9.30am, Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Martin Fraser, the secretary to the Government, were all headed to the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Fitzgerald was accompanied by Marion Mannion, the special adviser who has been at her side for years. As they made their way to Cabinet, Fitzgerald and Mannion stopped in the Tánaiste’s office.

Fitzgerald stayed inside the office she has now left behind for a few minutes as the Taoiseach and Fraser, the most senior civil servant in the State, waited outside, a few steps away.

Varadkar, Fitzgerald and Fraser then walked to the Tánaiste’s last Cabinet meeting, where she would tender her resignation, after more than six years at the top table of Irish politics, once all other weekly business had been attended to.

She now joins the list of those whose political careers fell because of Garda controversies.

For Fitzgerald, questions about her knowledge of a legal strategy pursued by former commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan against whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe proved fatal.

Her final walk to Cabinet was the conclusion to Varadkar’s first major political test as head of government. It was a test he failed.

The failure will bring a number of consequences, even if the damage is not irreparable. Instant judgments in moments of high political drama very rarely stand the test of time.

In Fine Gael, questions may arise about his judgment. The trust the parliamentary party placed in Varadkar when they elected him in June could take a hit.

No master plan

As he went to war with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in the highest-stakes game played during this Government’s lifetime, Fine Gael TDs assured themselves their leader had a clear strategy in mind.

What emerged instead was a series of tactical moves instead of subtle political manoeuvres towards an end goal.

Many of those Deputies had been willing to sacrifice Fitzgerald earlier that day but were then talking war

“People had the sense that he had a plan, that there was a game plan he was playing to,” said one Minister, who acknowledged that faith in Varadkar among his own has been shaken.

“That’s what members will be looking at,” the Minister remarked of the lack of strategic thinking.

A series of high-profile bluffs designed to prove Fine Gael did not fear a general election was quite transparent. A hastily arranged meeting of the parliamentary party last Thursday evening to declare support for Fitzgerald riled up Fine Gael TDs but served no great purpose. Many of those Deputies had been willing to sacrifice Fitzgerald earlier that day but were then talking war.

After the hothouse atmosphere of the night before, the following morning saw senior advisers and Fine Gael staff scramble to identify a suitable election date in the weeks before Christmas.

A meeting of the Fine Gael executive council on Saturday scheduled almost 20 selection conventions to be completed within three days. TDs, such as Varadkar’s right-hand man Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, posted social media photos of themselves out canvassing.

Beneath it all was the inescapable feeling that Fine Gael was trying too hard with tactical bluffs, and that there was no grand plan in operation, which was what the TDs cheering their leader on believed was happening.

Bus-throwing is back

Fine Gael TDs also told themselves that Varadkar’s tough line against Martin’s demand that Fitzgerald resign showed that he was not going to conform to the old rule of politics: that Ministers putting the Government’s existence in doubt would not, in Varadkar’s words, be thrown under the bus.

In the end, he had to conform to those rules.

TDs are questioning the Taoiseach’s approach in his negotiations with Martin, too.

One deputy said that the facts of the controversy enveloping the Government were not established early enough. There was always a sense that Varadkar and his operation were playing catch-up and never got ahead of the game.

Even after Varadkar himself ordered a trawl of documents in the Department of Justice to find what else lurked in its vaults regarding the politically toxic Garda legal strategy, mistakes were made.

Fitzgerald had already been hugely damaged by the emergence of one email sent to her mentioning the strategy, and the trawl unearthed further evidence that she was repeatedly told of an “aggressive” approach to undermine Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins commission, which examined allegations of Garda malpractice.

Varadkar was provided with new emails on the subject on Saturday, and Fianna Fáil was told of their existence the same day, but not provided with their contents until Monday.

Other colleagues were more generous in their appraisals and feel that Varadkar’s staunch defence of Fitzgerald will stand to him

The emergence of these emails on Monday evening detonated the controversy once more just as TDs on both sides, chastened by almost universally hostile reaction to the prospect of a Christmas election among voters when they returned home for the weekend, readied for a compromise.

Caught unawares

With no effort to prepare the ground for what was to come when the results of Varadkar’s trawl were published, Fine Gaelers and the media were caught unawares.

Fitzgerald’s own TDs turned against her, making her resignation inevitable. One TD said it seemed as if Varadkar “didn’t understand the import of the document trawl before it got to media”.

Other colleagues were more generous in their appraisals and feel that Varadkar’s staunch defence of Fitzgerald will stand to him. The reception at the weekly parliamentary party meeting tonight will be closely watched.

“I’m not bothered by it,” said a Minister. “He’ll have an explanation. He is very methodical.”

A source close to the Taoiseach said: “I don’t think it will be damaging, long term. The party is unhappy but they respected what the Taoiseach tried to do.”

Curiously, against predications that the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael relationship will be irreparably damaged, sources on both sides say Varadkar and Martin got to know each other better in the heat of crisis talks, even if they have yet to fully got the measure of one another.

“It has kind of perversely helped the relationship between two leaders,” said a Minister. Others in Government see further silver linings.

Varadkar, it is claimed, believes himself to be the best political strategist he knows.

“It might be the best thing that ever happened to him,” said one Government figure. “Maybe he will start to listen to people a bit more.”

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