Charleton tribunal may be asked to examine Fitzgerald’s role

Election looms as late-night meeting between Varadkar and Martin fails to end crisis

Harry McGee explains how an email to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald is threatening to collapse the Government.

 

Last-ditch efforts to avoid a general election will continue on Monday after a late-night meeting between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin ended just before 10.30pm on Sunday night without resolution of the dispute that has brought the country to the brink of a pre-Christmas election.

Both sides say they will continue talking on Monday and it is understood they have discussed a possible solution which involves Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald remaining in Government but her role in the controversy being examined in January by the Charleton tribunal, which is investigating the treatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Ms Fitzgerald is at the centre of controversy relating to when she first learned of the Garda legal strategy to attack Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins commission examining issues in the Garda’s Cavan-Monaghan division. It emerged last week she had received an email about the strategy in May 2015, a year earlier than she and the Taoiseach had stated.

Political tensions

But fresh revelations yesterday heightened the political tensions. RTÉ reported that the former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan telephoned a senior Department of Justice official in 2015 and spoke about the legal strategy that challenged the Garda whistleblower at the O’Higgins commission.

A spokeswoman for Ms Fitzgerald said the Tánaiste was not aware of the phone conversation between the then Garda commissioner and the senior official. However, the call makes clear that contact between the department and the gardaí about the approach to Sgt McCabe at the commission was not limited to the single email to Ms Fitzgerald which was unearthed last week and caused the current controversy.

The Irish Times understands the trawl for documents in the department has also unearthed another email to the Tánaiste’s office, notifying her of a press query in 2015, which references Sgt McCabe’s evidence at the O’Higgins commission.

Both parties remained non-committal on Sunday night on the prospects for an agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil which would avoid a general election, saying only that they were continuing to talk.

However, it is understood that the elements of a potential deal have been discussed by the two leaders. This could involve amending the terms of reference of the Charleton tribunal to allow it investigate specifically the contacts between the gardaí and the office of the Tánaiste and former minister for justice Ms Fitzgerald.

If combined with a statement in the Dáil from Ms Fitzgerald which acknowledged concerns about her management of the issues, Fianna Fáil could consider stepping back from its demand that Ms Fitzgerald resign this week and withdraw its motion of no confidence in her. However, this would require both parties to move from their current positions.

Leaders’ meeting

Sunday night’s meeting between the two leaders, convened at an undisclosed location in Dublin, was the second held over a weekend in which there was also continuous contact by telephone between both leaders and their senior officials.

In his only public interview over the weekend, Mr Varadkar restated on Saturday that he would not seek the Tánaiste’s resignation.

“I won’t be seeking a resignation. I don’t want her to offer it to me,” he said.

Fine Gael Ministers said they were prepared to fight an election on the issue if needs be, but some senior party figures said there would be immense pressure on Ms Fitzgerald to resign to prevent a general election if no agreement was reached on Monday. The Fianna Fáil motion of no confidence is scheduled to be discussed by the Dáil on Tuesday.

It’s understood that central to the leaders’ discussions is the outcome of a trawl for any relevant documents in the Department of Justice. On Saturday, Mr Varadkar handed Mr Martin a four-page summary of what had been uncovered to date. The department was completing its trawl on Sunday night. All the documents found will be distributed to all political parties on Monday.