Miriam Lord: Seething Leo faces the fight of his political life

Enda Kenny said nothing about Fitzgerald crisis – but he allowed himself a little smile

A motion of no confidence in Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has been tabled by Sinn Féin. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

In the Members’ Bar, TDs and Senators gathered to watch the Six One News. Not so much to hear what happened during a tense and uncertain day in Leinster House, but to find out what would happen next.

They knew that Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan – close by in the Dáil broadcasting unit – was about to go live into the bulletin and talk to presenter Sharon Ní Bheoláin.

The men and women of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil held their breath. After Sinn Féin declared it would table a motion of no confidence in Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald next week, everybody wanted to know what Fianna Fáil intended to do.

Fianna Fáil’s support is keeping Leo Varadkar’s Government in power. If that goes, then it’s curtains for the 32nd Dáil. The party went into shutdown mode. Radio silence was maintained all day as journalists made frantic efforts to contact party leader Micheál Martin, senior politicians and advisers. They heard nothing back.

Micheál was attending a funeral in Cork on Thursday morning and remained incommunicado as he raced back to Dublin. But while he and his team may have shut down most contact with the media, an aide remarked that Cork isn’t Outer Mongolia and there are such things as phones.

He was able to tic-tac with people and assess the evolving situation on his way back. In the bar, the members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil knew that when O’Callaghan did his piece, the next twist in an increasingly volatile political situation would be revealed.

The room hushed

Halfway through the transmission, he appeared on screen and the room hushed. A short preamble and then the big reveal: “Fianna Fáil no longer have confidence in the Tánaiste.”

And with that, a big cheer went up from the Fianna Fáilers in the bar. The Fine Gaelers, looking on, blanched.

“Fianna Fáil do not have confidence in the Tánaiste and we will not be voting confidence in her.” Then, to a man and a woman, they took to their phones and began texting furiously.

As the day wore on, events seemed to be moving in one direction for Fianna Fáil, and it wasn’t anywhere near where Fine Gael wanted them to be. In the end, there was a certain inevitability to O’Callaghan’s statement. But it still came as a shock.

The Government is now in a real and serious political crisis.

On a sliding scale of venal to Gubu, the jury is still out on whether Fitzgerald really deserves to be sacked and whether the whole bewildering business should pitch the nation into a general election

As soon as Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman channelled Micheál Martin’s words on the evening news, the nightmare bus drove through the gates of Leinster House and parked squarely on Leo Varadkar’s cojones.

Now the new Taoiseach faces the biggest test of his political career, his capability and his backbone. What will young Leo do?

Throw his deputy leader under the bus – and maybe follow up by booting his Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, in after her – as a sacrifice to Fianna Fáil and save his Government?

Or face down Micheál Martin: call his bluff and double-dare him to bring down the Government, thus forcing a mid-winter election? Of course, there could have been another course of action.

The leader of Fianna Fáil could have decided to huff and puff over this latest crisis connected to the Government’s disastrous record in the Garda whistleblower/Department of Justice vale of tears, then continued to prop up the Fine Gael administration.

But if he did that, Martin seriously risked getting thrown under the bus by his own party. Because on Thursday, it became increasingly obvious that there was no desire in the ranks to spread another safety blanket beneath Fine Gael feet.

Show no fear

As the day wore on, rank-and-file Fianna Fáil politicians grumbled about being taken for granted by the Varadkar Government and defiantly said they weren’t scared of an election.

Hence the teatime cheer for Big Jim O’Callaghan.

Meantime, Frances Fitzgerald, whose dreadful handling of a sensitive policing issue has sparked this crisis, was battling to save her career. It will be no consolation, but by the afternoon, it looked like she was going to be joined in the last-chance saloon by her successor at the Department of Justice, Charlie Flanagan.

Even now her story about a forgotten email concerning whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe is a little hard to believe.

But, on a sliding scale of venal to Gubu, the jury is still out on whether she really deserves to be sacked and whether the whole bewildering business should pitch the nation into a general election.

Things took a bonkers turn at lunchtime, when it emerged that the current Minister for Justice was the first to know that this explosive email from 2015 alerting Fitzgerald to the fact that the legal team of the then Garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, was instructed to aggressively undermine the character of a whistleblower – a man lavishly lauded in public by police and State – at a private commission of inquiry.

Charlie Flanagan learned of its existence four days before Fitzgerald and a full week before the Taoiseach. But, for some baffling reason, he never told them, even when Leo was sitting a few seats away from him during a Dáil session and unwittingly giving false information while Flanagan knew the full story.

Seething Leo

It’s no wonder that Leinster House is awash with reports that Varadkar is absolutely seething with his Ministers for showing him up in the Dáil and putting his Government under threat.

Frances was already on the rack on Wednesday. Sinn Féin at this point generously offered her more time to answer their questions about the email debacle. The party said it would listen to her on Thursday morning and decide whether or not to declare confidence in her.

“So, Tánaiste, this is your last chance,” intoned deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, ominously. The Tánaiste came out fighting, mounting a very spirited defence and attacking Sinn Féin for hypocrisy in the process.

Not a good idea, if the party was genuinely using the session to make up its mind. Which it wasn’t.

When McDonald tore into the Tánaiste after her reply, professing hers and Sinn Féin’s utter lack of confidence in Fitzgerald, she referred to a script as she did so. So the Tánaiste was never going to win with this last chance.

But it gave Sinn Féin an extra day to milk the situation. Fine Gael rallied the troops to Fitzgerald’s side. Wagons were circled, for now. Perhaps this was an attempt to sway Fianna Fáil’s thinking. It didn’t work.

The members of the Independent Alliance were all of a dither and fuming with Fine Gael for getting them into this mess

But in the meantime, the ever-faithful Simon Harris came out to bat for Fitzgerald, his political mentor, with an early afternoon briefing at Government Buildings. It was dickied up as the Minister for Health launching a new stop smoking campaign, but he was really there to attack Sinn Féin for its “political stunt” and passionately fight his wronged Tánaiste’s corner.

A giant cardboard packet of cigarette was on hand for the photographs as people wondered if the fags were for Frances. We had visions of her lighting one up with a blowtorch as her ordeal took its toll.

After Harris, two Sinn Féin TDs appeared on the plinth to confirm they were tabling a no confidence motion. “We simply want to hold the Tánaiste to account,” said David Cullinane. “It’s either incompetence or complicity.”

Mucky water

With the Shinners having lit the touch paper, attention turned to the no confidence motion. The members of the Independent Alliance were all of a dither and fuming with Fine Gael for getting them into this mess. “If we vote against the Government there’s an election, but how will it look if we support Frances Fitzgerald?” said one. “We’re in a terrible position. Fine Gael will have to sort this out – it’s their fault.”

There was talk of demanding a meeting with Leo. Flanagan, looking very worried, returned from being up to his oxters in mucky flood waters in Mountmellick. Which was nothing compared to what he’ll be wading through in his political life in the coming days.

Government TDs were hardly flocking to either his or Fitzgerald’s side when they gathered in the chamber for votes. One of them replied, when this diffidence was pointed out to him: “We’re supporting them telepathically.”

As it stands, it’s not looking good for the Tánaiste. The political machine is fully cranked now and doesn’t look like it can be reversed. Fianna Fáil’s dander is up. “Ironically, the newbies are probably more up for an election that the senior guys,” said one first-time TD on Thursday night. “We didn’t put our hearts and souls into getting elected only to bend the knee to Fine Gael. I think it’s better to fight and accept some may fall than hobble from crisis to crisis.”

And who appeared in the chamber last evening? Only Enda Kenny, deep in conversation with Michael Ring. We met him on Merrion Street. “Leo knows he’s playing senior hurling now,” we said.

He smiled.

“Hope you aren’t taking pleasure in this.”

He said nothing. And smiled again.