Flanagan appears to be safe despite ongoing heavy criticism
Opposition questions continue but Fianna Fáil has no appetite to pursue matter further
Alan Kelly repeated his call on Wednesday for Charlie Flanagan, above, to step down and for his department to be split in two. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
The apology from Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan in the Dáil on Tuesday night over missing the significance of a crucial email was as abject as any in recent political history.
The fall-out from the latest crisis relating to Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe resulted in a further resignation, that of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, and left Mr Flanagan vulnerable because of his omission. Nor did he escape criticism from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who referred to Mr Flanagan’s “mistake” in the Dáil and also specifically said his Minister for Justice would come into the Dáil and apologise.
And that he did on Tuesday night. He apologised to Labour TD Alan Kelly for “intemperate comments” when he accused the Tipperary politician of engaging in a smear campaign.
He also apologised for missing the significance of an email he was alerted to earlier this month, at the very time that Labour was asking about it in the Dáil. Mr Kelly had obviously received a leak from a well-placed source, as he was specifically able to ask about an email dated May 15th, 2015.
Mr Flanagan has faced heavy criticism for, as one colleague put it, 'taking his eye off the ball'
That was the internal Department of Justice email that disclosed that An Garda Síochána was pursuing an aggressive legal strategy against Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins commission, which investigated Sgt McCabe’s allegations of corruption and malpractice within the force. The email was copied to the then minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald. When it was made public last week, it confirmed that the former Tánaiste had been made aware of this strategy in May 2015. In public she had always said she did not learn of the strategy until a year later, in May 2016. The controversy led to her resignation.
The failure of the department to furnish the document to the Charleton tribunal – which is investigating an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe – as well as Mr Flanagan’s handling of the affair also became a huge political focus this week.
In particular, Mr Flanagan has faced heavy criticism for, as one colleague put it, “taking his eye off the ball”, as well as his overzealous defence of the department.
However, none of his Fine Gael colleagues believe his career is in jeopardy.
“You could see from the Dáil comments that [Varadkar] was not pleased by his handling of it. His outburst against [Alan] Kelly did not help either”, said one deputy.
“There’s no appetite to go after him.”
He claimed it was 'beyond extraordinary' that so many documents remained unlocated within the department
That did not stop the Opposition from asking a series of additional questions yesterday. Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said the Minister’s explanation for the late discovery of the email and other documents was not credible. Neither, he said, had the Minister given a credible explanation for not reading the email when he was informed of it.
“He felt no need to ask further questions as to what the email contained,” said Mr Ó Laoghaire, raising the same criticism that was levelled at Ms Fitzgerald – that she had failed to inquire as to the nature of the disputed legal strategy at the O’Higgins commission.
He also claimed it was “beyond extraordinary” that so many documents remained unlocated within the department and would have remained so had the information not been leaked into the public domain.
Mr Kelly repeated his call on Wednesday for Mr Flanagan to step down and for the department to be split in two.
He also referred to another line of questions, this time on the Charleton liaison unit within the Garda, which is in charge of furnishing documents to the tribunal. He said a series of questions he had asked of the Department of Justice about the cost of the unit, and about who it is representing, and if it is providing value for money, had not been answered.
For all the continued pressure on Mr Flanagan, there was a sense within Fine Gael that his apology had drawn a line under the matter. For its part, Fianna Fáil also indicated it had no appetite to pursue the matter further. That party’s public expenditure spokesman, Dara Calleary, said the party had been given cast-iron assurances that all of the documents from the department had been furnished to the tribunal and that the party’s concerns had been assuaged by Mr Flanagan’s guarantee that everything possible had been done.
Sinn Féin had originally tabled a motion of no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald, but that was academic yesterday. Instead it brought forward a motion asking for the tribunal’s terms of reference to be revised to take in the recent revelations pertaining to the Department of Justice, An Garda, the Attorney General’s office, and Mr Flanagan and Ms Fitzgerald.
However, Fianna Fáil joined with the Government in opposing the motion. Its justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, said he thought the amendment of the terms of reference was unnecessary.
“It’s risky for politicians to start amending terms of reference of a tribunal of inquiry without consulting with the chairman.
Mr Ó Laoghaire criticised Fianna Fáil, who he said, was showing a “desire to draw a line under it” despite obvious and ongoing issues with the department.