Fitzgerald resignation has familiar pattern: Hue, cry, inquiry, exoneration
Analysis: Minister’s vindication shows that Dáil storms can be much ado about nothing
‘Frances Fitzgerald will not be the first prominent public figure in recent political history to feel hard done by after their forced resignation.’ File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Frances Fitzgerald or Nóirín O’Sullivan won’t be the first prominent public figures in recent political history to feel hard done by after their forced resignations were later found to have no strong basis when the full facts had been established.
What ultimately hounded former Garda commissioner Ms O’Sullivan out of office were the allegations of Supt Dave Taylor that she was privy to a smear campaign against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Those allegations have been wholly discredited by Mr Justice Peter Charleton in his report published on Thursday investigating a campaign against Mr McCabe.
For Ms Fitzgerald, she found herself walking the plank as minister after news reports of her office (and her) being made aware of an allegedly “aggressive” Garda strategy during the earlier O’Higgins commission, set up following allegations by Mr McCabe, and her alleged failure to respond to such a strategy.
The report published on Thursday found that a plain wrong impression had become public that Mr McCabe had been “maliciously accused before the O’Higgins commission of multiple and false sexual assault offences with a view to damaging his credit-worthiness; that the [then] Garda commissioner had authorised this; that the minister had been informed, and that the minister had stood back and allowed it to happen”.
And it was this false narrative that essentially played out politically in the last week of November last year, as Frances Fitzgerald battled in vain to retain her ministry. Viewed now in the cold light of the Charleton report, the allegations made against her by the Opposition look at best over-the-top, and at worst, wrong.
There were echoes of the downfall of Alan Shatter here – a hue and cry, followed by a resignation, and then findings that showed the minister had acted appropriately at all times.
For one, the allegation that all were relying on was that the Garda commissioner’s strategy, as Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan put it, was to “personally destroy the reputation of Sgt Maurice McCabe”.
The Charleton tribunal found no evidence of such a strategy on the part of the Garda commissioner.
“We do not say that the tánaiste formulated that strategy, we do not say that she was part of the make-up of that strategy, but we say she was aware of that strategy. To use a phrase that was used elsewhere on this issue, the tánaiste was privy to that strategy. Our criticism is that the tánaiste did nothing to stop it,” alleged Mr O’Callaghan in relation to then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, amid the controversy last year.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald upped the ante. An email from 2015 sent to Ms Fitzgerald, said Ms McDonald, had exposed “the very malicious strategy designed by former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and her legal team to destroy the reputation and the life of Sgt Maurice McCabe. It seems to me that there was a conspiracy to ruin this honourable man and that members of An Garda Síochána and the tánaiste’s former department [the department of justice] were part of this conspiracy.”
None of those statements stand up to scrutiny now in respect of Ms Fitzgerald or of Ms O’Sullivan. Independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace had also called for resignations based on what Supt Taylor had falsely told them. The basis of their calls has subsequently been shown to have been without foundation.
When a Minister is in the centre of a political storm over action or inaction, it is often the case that allegations are accepted at face value and are then elevated into the realm of “fact”, when they are no such thing.
As the controversy escalates, any new information touching on it – no matter how trivial – can result in the Minister’s position no longer remaining tenable. Afterwards it all looks like much ado about nothing. Except that a Minister has walked the plank.