‘She has to go’ - ex-justice minister Dermot Ahern on Tánaiste’s future
Fitzgerald’s position on Garda strategy on whistleblower ‘not credible’
Dermot Ahern, former TD and Minister for Justice, pictured in Blackrock, Co, Louth in 2013. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Former minister for justice Dermot Ahern has said there is no alternative but for Frances Fitzgerald to resign if the Government is to avoid a general election being called at a critical time in Brexit talks.
Mrs Fitzgerald’s handling of the Garda whistleblower controversy during her time as minister for justice has pushed the country to the brink of a snap election less than three weeks before a key summit on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU when the future of the border post-Brexit could be decided.
The Fine Gael Tánaiste is under pressure over emails showing that she knew in 2015 of a strategy by then Garda Commissioner at a commission of investigation to question the motivation of whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe in making complaints about colleagues and did nothing about it.
“I am terribly surprised that things have just gone so wrong. There can be only one solution: she has to go,” Mr Ahern, a former Fianna Fáil minister, told The Irish Times.
He said that the issue had nothing to do with the legal advice she received that she should not intervene in the Garda Commissioner’s strategy at the commission, as she has claimed in her defence.
From a political point of view, he said, it was not credible for her to take this position when she and her colleagues were “out saying that Maurice McCabe is the greatest fellow since sliced pan” just as the Garda were “organising this thing surreptitiously behind everyone’s back and she is made aware of it.”
The former justice minister defended the senior civil servants at the department saying that “they did their duty” by putting the information about the Garda Commissioner’s strategy to the minister.
“The advice to her was: don’t do anything, you shouldn’t intervene,” he said.
“But the very fact that they were alerting her and her political advisers, it was understood that there was a political element to this and the Minister needs to be told and once she is told, the politics of it is out of their hands. It is over to the politicians to decide what to do with it.”
Mr Ahern’s experience as a former minister for justice and foreign affairs who represented a border county gives him a unique perspective on the crisis engulfing the Government as it prepares for what he calls a “make-or-break” summit of EU leaders next month that could determine the fate of the border.
The EU and the Government on one side and the UK on the other are deadlocked over the issue: Brussels and Dublin want guarantees there will be no hard border before allowing Brexit negotiations to proceed to talks a future EU-UK trade deal, while London wants the issue dealt with in the second phase.
The EU Commission will refuse to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase unless “sufficient progress” has been made on the UK’s Brexit so-called divorce bill, the rights of citizens and the border.
“If there is to be an election, I hope that it is in the new year rather than before Christmas, not because of Santa Claus or anything like that, but because the politicians’ eye will be off the ball,” said Mr Ahern.
Irish politicians would be in attendance, he said, but that they would be distracted “looking at their phones and getting texts.”
“While the officials might be clued in, equally so the officials will be aware that the people they are advising will have one ear back home; it is not a good scenario,” he said.
Mr Ahern, a former government chief whip, made comparisons between the political divisions within the ruling Conservative government at Westminster and the fresh turmoil at Leinster House.
“It is a bit ironic that here were some people saying that British politics was a basket case. I wonder what they are saying now?” he said.
The former Fianna Fáil TD who represented Louth from 1987 to 2011 described Brexit as “a disaster of Britain’s making.”
“All the honeyed words of ‘no hard borders’ and ‘frictionless borders’ and ‘great relationships’, they didn’t really think of all of that when they decided to put a referendum to the people,” he said.
Brexit would have implications right cross the country but particularly in the border area, he said.
“They haven’t gone away, you know, the smugglers. They’ll be back. Anywhere there is a border, there will be smugglers,” he said.