Intense, slow moving tic tacking between Varadkar and Martin
Election decision set to go to the wire as secret Dublin talks fail to calm political crisis
On Thursday evening Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signalled he would not be treading the well-worn path in Irish politics, where the head of a minister embroiled in a political scandal is offered to allow the Government to survive.
Varadkar’s obduracy – and his extraordinarily robust defence of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald – plunged the 32nd Dáil into a mammoth political crisis.
The following morning, Fianna Fáil had tabled a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. That followed a separate but similar motion tabled by Sinn Féin the previous day.
The language was that of brinkmanship. But in the three days since then, there has been no sign of any party stepping back from the ledge.
Neither Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin nor Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was going to retreat from that position. For a moment during his Six-One News interview on RTÉ on Friday evening, Varadkar looked like he might be giving a subtle hint of a mechanism in which the Tánaiste might vacate the position. However, his subsequent comments, if anything, seemed to suggest a hardening of his stance with references to a “kangaroo court” and to “summary execution”.
As if to eliminate any doubt, Varadkar did a media stand up at a National Women’s Council event on Saturday morning.
He strongly refuted the suggestion he had sent out a subtle message for her to resign.
“I won’t be seeking a resignation,” he said. “I don’t want her to offer it to me. There is no subtle message being sent out to the Tánaiste.”
And to eliminate any doubt, he continued: “I wonder what kind of message this sends to tomorrow’s leaders, to young women who may enter politics in the future, if we bow to those who want to sacrifice an honourable woman’s career without giving her a fair hearing.”
For its part, Fianna Fáil was not prepared to step back from its position either. Jim O’Callaghan was resolute on the Claire Byrne Live programme on RTÉ a few hours later.
“The only way we can prevent a general election is for the Tánaiste to consider her position,” he said, “I think the Tánaiste stepping aside in reality is a resignation.”
From the two protagonists – Varadkar and Martin – there was radio silence after that. Both attended matches over the weekend. Varadkar was at the Irish international rugby game against Argentina in the Aviva on Saturday evening. Martin attended the Munster football club championship game on Sunday, where his son, also Micheál, played in goals for Nemo Rangers, who defeated reigning champions Dr Crokes of Kerry.
“He let in no goals,” said a Cork Fianna Fáil person. Martin headed for Dublin immediately after the match to meet Varadkar for further talks.
Advisers for both leaders remained incredibly tight-lipped over the weekend about the nature and the venues of both Saturday’s and Sunday’s meetings.
A spokesman for the Taoiseach said: “The Taoiseach is doing everything he can to avoid an election, and hopes it will be possible to reach agreement with Micheál Martin.
“The talks are at a sensitive stage. There is no question of the Tánaiste being asked to resign.”
It emerged the venue for the meeting on Saturday afternoon was the Alexander Hotel in Dublin. Varadkar emerged with his chief of staff Brian Murphy after 4pm and travelled straight to the rugby game nearby. A few minutes later Martin exited the hotel with his chef du cabinet, Deirdre Gillane.
What was known about the engagements was that they were intense and progress was initially very slow. The Taoiseach’s team produced a four-page summary of the Department of Justice’s trawl for documents.
The trawl began because Ms Fitzgerald is at the centre of controversy relating to when she first learned of the Garda legal strategy to attack whistleblower Sgt Maurice 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.
Fianna Fáil asked for the entire cache of documents to be shared with it when the trawl concluded on Sunday night. Other parties then demanded that they too be given sight of the documents. It was confirmed that the documents would be shared between all the parties.
Meanwhile, on Sunday there was another development when RTÉ reporter John Burke disclosed there had been a phonecall between former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and a senior un-named official in the Department of Justice around the same time the email at the centre of the crisis was passed onto the Minister.
The official was contacted last week as part of the trawl and remembered that O’Sullivan had rang him and informed him of the strategy being pursued.
In a statement on Sunday, the department said that what was discussed was no different than what was contained in the email. “[The conversation] was along the lines of what was set out in the email to the minister’s private secretary on May 15th, 2015. No written record of this call has been located.”
Fitzgerald was not informed of the phonecall, her spokeswoman said on Sunday.
Other senior Government sources were quite categorical in saying that the fact of the call, or its details, were never conveyed to the Tánaiste, who was then minister for justice.
Sources with knowledge of Fitzgerald’s thinking also confirmed she had no intention of resigning, or even standing aside temporarily. “Sure that would be the same as resigning, it’s not going to happen.”
On the sidelines, politicians from all parties fought an airwave and media battle, all claiming they had good on their side. Privately, everybody said there was no appetite for an election. But how to avoid it? Fianna Fail TDs were saying that Fine Gael Deputies wanted Fitzgerald to become the sacrificial lamb. On the other side, Fine Gael TDs said the Fianna Fáil attack was a Martin and O’Callaghan idea, that was decided with no reference to the parliamentary party.
Among individual deputies, there were very mixed views. Even among Ministers and senior figures, there was a realisation of the volume of negative feedback from constituents to the prospect of a winter election.
As one senior Fine Gael Minister put it: “Reality of a Christmas election has firmly dawned on back-benchers in both parties. The no-confidence votes are still two days away. A long, long time. Word is that everyone has got a bad or ‘wtf’ reaction over the weekend.”
Another of his Cabinet colleagues became increasingly pessimistic as the day went on. “I think this will go to the wire tomorrow but it’s hard to know. Hard to see a way out for Martin.”
And ironically, a senior Fianna Fáil figure said almost exactly the same about Varadkar.
If the motions proceed, the reality is it will probably end up being equally bad for the two major parties, and possibly Sinn Féin.