‘Everybody was in a frenzy’ – the slide towards a general election
Three Dáil parties have indulged in a snowblind waltz towards an unwanted election
Leo Varadkar: Fianna Fáil had signalled to him on Tuesday that the email to Fitzgerald represented a very big problem. Photograph: Getty Images
The week in politics has its own rhythm. Monday is quiet, Tuesday and Wednesday are long busy days, and things calm down on Thursday as Dáil business ends for the week and TDs head home. Friday is quiet.
Last Monday was an especially quiet day. TDs were in their constituencies; the Cabinet was not meeting until the following day and there was nothing startling on its agenda. Behind the scenes, though, something was happening.
For weeks Labour TD Alan Kelly had been pestering the Department of Justice with a series of parliamentary questions about its knowledge of the Garda’s approach to whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. Kelly’s questions were specific and pointed; he clearly knew something.
The department had tried to fob him off, but parliamentary questions are a powerful tool – Ministers have to answer them truthfully lest they be found to have misled the Dáil. Reporters had been following up the response to Kelly with questions of their own.
On Monday evening, a spokesman for Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan – who had an angry Dáil exchange with Kelly the previous week – responded to reporters. The spokesman confirmed it had emerged that Frances Fitzgerald had become aware of the Garda’s approach to McCabe not in 2016 – when it was widely reported in the media – but when it was actually occurring in 2015.
Later that night Primetime reporter Katie Hannon popped up on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live. New information had come to light in the Department of Justice, she reported, and the department was now accepting that its previous accounts were incorrect. In fact, Fitzgerald had been sent an email in 2015 alerting her to the clashes between the Garda legal team and McCabe’s lawyers at the O’Higgins commission set up in early 2015 to investigate issues in the Garda’s Cavan/Monaghan division.
This was a bombshell, not because the department was correcting itself, but because it meant the Taoiseach had given inaccurate information to the Dáil, when he had repeatedly assured TDs last week that Fitzgerald had known nothing about the legal strategy employed by the Garda against McCabe.
The following day there was uproar in the Dáil. Unwisely, the Taoiseach tried to tough it out. He did not have first-hand knowledge of the events, he said. He was only reporting what he had been told by the Department of Justice. Fitzgerald had done nothing wrong. We should leave it to the tribunal.
It was thin enough stuff, and Fianna Fáil was not buying it. Nor was the Leas Ceann Comhairle, Pat “the Cope” Gallagher. When Varadkar suggested to him the Dáil would need to get legal advice, he slapped the Taoiseach down. It was pretty clear the Government was on the run. Later, when Fitzgerald came into the chamber to answer questions, she stuck to her guns.
Next morning, with the atmosphere growing more febrile by the hour, Micheál Martin summed up his party’s attitude: “The email,” he said, “is damning.”
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was more aggressive. She questioned Fitzgerald’s judgment, credibility and competence. “There are serious questions over her fitness for office.”
The Tánaiste was now officially on the rack. She’ll have to go, Opposition TDs said around Leinster House. So did a scatter of Fine Gaelers. There couldn’t be an election over it. Could there?
In fact, Fianna Fáil had signalled to Varadkar on Tuesday that the email to Fitzgerald represented a very big problem. The Fianna Fáil leader had been privately grumbling for months about Varadkar, and having stepped back when previous controversies arose he was determined to take a tougher line in the future.
On Wednesday, Martin advised Varadkar that the Fitzgerald situation required action from the Government. Fianna Fáil would not be able to abstain on a motion of no confidence in Fitzgerald. That meant only one thing: the Tánaiste would have to resign or the Government was doomed.
Varadkar and Martin were carefully evaluating each other’s position. Their advisers studied statements and canvassed views. Varadkar’s people reckoned Martin wouldn’t push it all the way. Whatever Fitzgerald’s mistakes, they didn’t merit sacking her, surely? Nobody would risk an election before Christmas. Martin couldn’t be serious.
On the Fianna Fáil side they were concerned Varadkar simply wasn’t hearing them. They reinforced the message: Fitzgerald had to go. Or it was an election.
Fitzgerald took Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Thursday morning, but her performance – though steely and animated – provided no new answers. Sinn Féin put down its motion. Fianna Fáil went quiet for a few hours, hoping Fine Gael would take care of business. When it didn’t, the decision was made to go public. The die was cast.
Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan went on RTÉ’s Six-One news to declare the party’s position: Fitzgerald had to go or the Government was finished. In the Dáil bar a group of Fianna fail TDs – their names were supplied by Fine Gael later – cheered their approval. Their roars significantly exacerbated the situation.
Varadkar, meanwhile, was holding a rolling consultation with Ministers and advisers. By Thursday evening he had made his decision. Fine Gael TDs were summoned to a special parliamentary party meeting. There would be no resignations and no sackings, they were told. If Fianna Fáil wanted to bring down the Government it could. The party would begin preparations for an election immediately.
Although an election was becoming more and more inevitable, senior Fine Gael figures had still not decided on an election strategy. There was no fixed idea on when it should be, or what leeway the electoral rules and the Christmas calendar would afford Varadkar if he went to the country. They were making it up as they went along.
Late on Thursday night and early Friday morning figures at the top of Government toyed with the idea of even holding an election on Friday, December 15th, the date of the crucial European Council summit that will decide if Brexit negotiations can proceed to the next phase.
As the enormity of what was occurring became clear, TDs scrambled to make preparations. There was a run on Oireachtas envelopes, which provide free postage. Frantic phone calls were made to printers. Some were resigned about the situation; few were happy.
One rural Fianna Fáil TD could not understand how the three big parties had indulged in a snowblind waltz into an unwanted general election in December.
“We are supposed to be intelligent people. Yet everybody was going around yesterday in a frenzy. It was a bubble of bullshit.”
Radio presenters and commentators practically pleaded with the parties not to ruin Christmas. On Friday afternoon, the two leaders met. But was there anything to talk about? Not impossible we can de-escalate it, reported one of their intimates. But nobody was optimistic.
The Taoiseach went on the television news of Friday night, and stood full square behind the Tánaiste. Talks will continue Saturday.
Tuesday, when the Dáil meets, is D-Day.
(Additional reporting by Fiach Kelly, Harry McGee and Sarah Bardon)