Ireland on verge of election as Taoiseach refuses to sack Frances Fitzgerald

Fine Gael executive council to meet as officials get ready for election in mid-January

A motion of no confidence in Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has been tabled by Sinn Féin. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

The Government was in crisis and the State of the verge of a general election on Thursday night as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar refused a Fianna Fáil demand to remove Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

A late-night Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting heard widespread applause when the the Taoiseach re-affirmed his support for Ms Fitzgerald. Mr Varadkar called the meeting amid sustained pressure to sack Ms Fitzgerald who faced allegations from Opposition parties that she was aware of a campaign to discredit Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission.

A statement issued after the Fine Gael meeting said a motion supporting Frances Fitzgerald was unanimously passed.

Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon said after the meeting: “What we have seen from both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil today is a political stunt, pure and simple. We will not allow the Opposition bully us.”

Fianna Fáil will hold its own meeting at 9.30am Friday morning.

The Irish Times understands that the Fine Gael executive council will meet next week and party officials are preparing to have the organisation ready for an election in mid-January.

While Ministers said December was still an option for an election, other party sources said a formula may need to be found to get the Government over the crucial December 15th meeting of the European Council, without Mr Varadkar being a lame duck.

“We have to be ready for mid-January,” said one figure. “The problem is the December summit: A lame duck Taoiseach can’t go to that. Can a formula be found to limp on until after December 15th and dissolve at Christmas recess? I can’t see Varadkar allowing anything to wreck that summit.”

Mr Varadkar told his senior ministers he would not be sacking Ms Fitzgerald, did not expect her to resign and did not her want to resign. Mr Varadkar told his colleagues he did not want a general election but would not allow the Tánaiste to be “thrown under the bus”.

Fianna Fáil move

Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said earlier the party would table a motion of no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald amid allegations she was aware of a campaign to discredit Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission, which examined claims of Garda malpractice.

Events this week have destabilised the minority Fine Gael-led coalition Government, which relies on the support of Fianna Fáil in a so-called “confidence and supply” deal struck between the two parties after the general election in February 2016.

The Fianna Fáil plan for a move against Ms Fitzgerald followed a day of speculation about the future of the former Minister for Justice, who is the latest member of Government to become embroiled in a debacle involving Garda scandals.

“We are just being clear and straight with them, that if there is a vote next week we cannot vote confidence in the Tánaiste,” Mr O’Callaghan said in reference to plans by Sinn Féin to table a similar motion against Ms Fitzgerald next week.

“I know she gave a very passionate defence of herself today, I know she believes she did no wrong but in my opinion, she should go.”

He said the party had an “unambiguous” view on this and has made this clear to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr O’Callaghan said. The Fianna Fáil TD said he did not want a general election but if that was the consequence, “so be it”.

“We are going to try to resolve this. [Fianna Fáil leader] Micheál Martin and the Taoiseach spoke yesterday, they will continue to speak,” he added.

A large number of Fianna Fáil TDs earlier insisted the party should support the Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald. Mr Martin has not yet made his position clear.

Ms Fitzgerald faced the motion in response to Opposition party allegations that she was aware of a campaign to discredit Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission, which examined claims of Garda malpractice. She was the Minister for Justice when the tribunal questioned Sgt McCabe about his claims before being appointed Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation in June 2017.

A number of Fianna Fáil TDs told The Irish Times on Thursday that party leader Micheál Martin would “lose the dressing room” if he failed to allow of the party to support the motion against Ms Fitzgerald.

Questions for Flanagan

Questions have also been raised about the actions of the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

It has emerged Mr Flanagan was aware of the email regarding the Garda’s legal strategy to undermine Mr McCabe on November 13th this year.

This was one week before the Taoiseach became aware of the email. The Taoiseach faced questions on this matter in Dáil on November 14th and 15th. Mr Varadkar has said he first became aware of this email at 11.30pm on Monday, November 20th.

Mr Flanagan was informed of the email’s existence by the secretary general of the Department of Justice Noel Watters. Mr Watters gave this information to the Minister at a meeting where he told the Minister he was retiring.

There were heated exchanges in the Dáil on Thursday also as the Tánaiste passionately defended her response to the matter and Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed it was “time for you to go”.

She warned Ms Fitzgerald that: “you may think Tánaiste that you’ll ride out this storm. You’ll weather it - you won’t.”

Ms Fitzgerald said she had taken very seriously and acted on all the issues raised by Sgt McCabe.

She insisted it would have been illegal for her to intervene in the legal strategy of the Garda team.

And she said this week she asked the official who sent her the controversial email in May 2015 about allegations of plans to undermine Sgt McCabe, why he had sent it to her.

He said it was for information, Ms Fitzgerald said.

She said it was completely wrong to suggest she should have got involved in the legal strategy. “I could not be involved in the legal strategy,” she insisted. “It would have been illegal.”

“But to suggest that I did nothing about whistle-blowers is completely wrong,” she said.

In an impassioned defence, the Tánaiste said she acted in a whole range of areas to deal with Sgt McCabe’s concerns.

“I set the tone, I took the actions and I initiated a whole range of initiatives.”

She set up the Policing Authority, included ethics legislation and there were specific measures around how whistleblowers should be dealt with in An Garda Síochána.