Miriam Lord: Frances bows out, Charlie dodges the trapdoor

Best gag? Flanagan saying thanks for questions leading to Government’s near downfall

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has apologised in the Dáil for failings at the Department of Justice.

 

Good luck to the dry cleaners.

They’ll have their work cut out trying to launder the imprint of Leo Varadkar’s boot from the seat of Charlie Flanagan’s pants.

The Minister for Justice replaced Frances Fitzgerald last night for a second performance of this year’s Fine Gael panto: Leo Varadkar’s Old Incuriosity Shop. Fitzgerald was in the limelight last week, giving a performance which was supposed to save her career. She resigned yesterday.

Leo, who has displayed a tin ear for political nuance since last week’s opening performance, cast Flanagan in the leading role last night. His career is also a little wobbly, but despite calls from some members of the Opposition for him to leave the stage, he isn’t expected to follow Frances through the trapdoor.

Charlie’s portrayal of a misunderstood Minister vastly differed from the former tánaiste’s approach. Fitzgerald went for the emotional angle, angrily defending herself and her reputation.

“I have done nothing wrong,” she repeated, again and again, digging in her heels as the audience booed.

Flanagan, who also fell victim to a malaise identified recently by the leader of Fianna Fáil as “incuriosity”, had to go out front and centre last night and explain why he could have allowed the Taoiseach to inadvertently mislead the Dáil about the non-existence of an email which he, Charlie, knew all about.

With Frances having taken her final bow – after one of the longest curtain calls in recent political history when she clung to its folds and refused to move into the wings – it was Flanagan’s turn to explain his incurious self to an incredulous Dáil.

Abject apologies

But not before he delivered a series of abject apologies to everyone in Leinster House and everyone who knows him. He got on with the job, because he had no choice, getting the worst part over with at the beginning of his Dáil statement.

“Firstly, I want to apologise to Deputy Alan Kelly on two counts.”

That must have been very painful for Charlie. Labour TD Kelly, on the other hand, puffed up like Toad of Toad Hall until people worried that poor Brendan Howlin in the next seat might be crushed.

The Minister for Justice regretted losing his rag two weeks ago in the Dáil when he accused Kelly of trying to smear his reputation. It was only because some people told him that Alan had been making nasty comments about him back home in his Tipperary constituency and he got annoyed about this.

Oozing contrition, perhaps a little too much, Flanagan swallowed his pride. “I reacted badly,” he conceded.

Furthermore, he might have dealt a bit better with the questions Kelly tabled to him about Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe (he dodged them). This was down to advice he was given by officials in the Department of Justice. He took it in good faith.

It’s strange, how some advice from officials is acted upon, but other communications go unheeded. At least where both Charlie and Frances were concerned.

Anyway, in the best gag of the day, Charlie sincerely thanked Kelly for asking the questions which ultimately nearly led to the downfall of the Government and have damaged the Taoiseach and his Cabinet. Because if he hadn’t asked them, the emails which were subsequently unearthed might not have been.

After years of controversy, one would have expected any communication bearing the 'McCabe' word to have been isolated immediately, handled with fireproof gloves and gently neutralised

Speaking a mile a minute, Flanagan raced on to his explanation for not sharing his knowledge about the email which has caused ructions for a fortnight in Leinster House. This is the one which alerted then minister for justice Fitzgerald that the Garda Commissioner was planning to have her lawyers attack the character of the whistleblower at a private inquiry while the State was publicly lauding him an exemplary officer.

Expose malpractice

The officer is Sgt McCabe and the saga of his fight to expose malpractice in the force, while the establishment conspired against him, has caused the Department of Justice and politicians associated with it no end of grief.

After years of controversy, one would have expected any communication bearing the “McCabe” word to have been isolated immediately, handled with fireproof gloves and gently neutralised.

But not so.

Flanagan’s explanation for his part in the Old Incuriosity Shop was simple.

The Department of Justice is very big.

“A vast department,” he declared to a bemused Dáil, explaining how a busy Minister might overlook an email about a man with the proven ability to ruin the careers of public servants who cross his path.

An email flagged by the department’s Secretary General just after he delivers the bombshell announcement that he is leaving the job.

Howlin imagined how the Sec Gen broke the news: “I’m retiring, and, by the way, we’ve found an important email.”

Did Charlie not want to know its contents? Apparently not. Because he is a very busy Minister. He has received “12,000 emails” since taking up office 23 weeks ago. And responded to 1,829 Parliamentary Questions. And stuff.

“I simply missed the significance of the email”.

Justice is a huge place.

Leo Varadkar said the same thing two weeks ago, incuriously enough.

“The Department of Justice is a big place. It’s not a person, it’s a body that has hundreds of staff. And can I put my hand on my heart here and say that there is not one person somewhere who might have been told something by someone...”

Thanking journalists

You know things are really bad at Government level when Ministers are even thanking journalists for uncovering stories that have embarrassed the Cabinet.

Will it be enough to keep Flanagan in a job?

Probably.

The departure of the tánaiste is more than enough to keep Fianna Fáil quiet. Micheál Martin, who looked to be coming out on the wrong side of the email saga at the end of last week, was now vindicated and suitably humble.

There was no triumphalism from the FF side when the Taoiseach came in to say he had accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation. Although he thinks a fine woman has been done down “without getting a full and fair hearing”.

Which makes you wonder what the last two weeks of revising explanations was all about.

If anything, the Taoiseach was playing the departure of his misunderstood tánaiste as the end of a difficult time in his political career. A distraction in his work schedule which he could have done without.

And then, having taken the country to the brink of a Christmas election, he declared to the house that “at least we managed to avoid an election.”

Of course, it was all the media’s fault.

“In the past few days a drip-drip of information may have made certain things seem greater than they are. There was a feeding frenzy and it became impossible for her to get a fair hearing based on the full facts,” the Taoiseach said, still batting for his minister.

He will be hoping the saga is over now. With the tánaiste gone, Fianna Fáil is sated

If not for any complicity with what some are alleging is a cover-up of the establishment’s real approach to whistleblowers, but for incompetence in handling the situation.

By the way, has anyone asked Enda Kenny if his then minister for justice informed him of the emails floating around?

Fitzgerald wasn’t in the Dáil when Leo said he had accepted her resignation.

But he will be hoping the saga is over now. With the tánaiste gone, Fianna Fáil is sated.

Stink

But is this the end? The stink around this story hasn’t gone away.

And Mick Wallace was on hand to throw in another little grenade during Leaders’ Questions.

“We will be bringing stuff in here next week or the week after about what is happening today in An Garda Síochána that will frighten the Taoiseach.”

As it stands, Leo says it would been much better had the questions over the emails been dealt with promptly and properly two weeks ago, when they blew up. But they’ve been feeling their way around it, as it it’s all been as new to them as the people in Opposition.

But what about the weekend of the Fine Gael ardfheis, before things got out of hand. Fitzgerald did an interview with Newstalk. Was she was aware of the plan to attack Mr McCabe’s character when she was minister for justice?

“Certainly I have never had the slightest interest personally in attacking Maurice McCabe’s character; I met with him and his wife. Just to say, the reason I set up the tribunal was so that all of these issues, and that particular issue you’ve raised with me, is one that is being examined by the tribunal, and that commission is the place to examine that.”

But what did she know of a plan to attack him?

“Look if I start answering questions like that at this point, I’m effectively cutting across the work of the commission, and that’s why that commission was set up and we’ve an excellent judge, Charleton examining that...”

Incuriouser and incuriouser.

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