Miriam Lord: Leo shields his forgetful informant – for now

The McCabe email business threatens Tánaiste’s job, even if nobody is 100% sure why

Frances Fitzgerald: The jury was out last night as to whether she did enough to keep her job. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Frances Fitzgerald: The jury was out last night as to whether she did enough to keep her job. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

With the best will in the world, the Taoiseach explained to the Dáil, he is only as good as the information he is given.

Leo could have cast a scornful glance at the woman sitting next to him, but he didn’t.

Meanwhile, his chief informant gazed stoically ahead, a portrait of concern and discombobulation in a jacket of fire-engine red.

Frances Fitzgerald was not having a good day.

It began in the morning with an “emergency” meeting with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice where they sought to establish when exactly she found out about a Garda plan to undermine whistleblower Maurice McCabe at a commission of inquiry.

Fitzgerald told him a week ago that she only learned of it when the story appeared in the media last year. So Leo went into the Dáil and said just that. This led to him standing in the same Dáil spot yesterday and having to wipe egg off his face.

And all this down to Tánaiste Fitzgerald, his forgetful informant.

Because in the intervening period, an email had surfaced indicating that Fitzgerald, when she was minister for justice, knew more about this strategy to undermine the whistleblower than she had been letting on to her boss.

Almost all of Leaders’ Questions was taken up by Opposition demands for the Taoiseach to set the record straight and for his former minister for justice, who is now in the Department of Enterprise, to come into the chamber at the earliest opportunity and explain herself.

With each fresh call for her to front up and answer questions, she looked less and less keen to oblige. But with no let-up from the other side, Varadkar was forced to endure a severe buffeting from across the floor on his handling of the issue and then, to add insult to injury, he had to suffer the indignity of a humiliating slap-down from the Leas Ceann Comhairle over his grasp of Dáil procedure.

Tense exchange

The Taoiseach leaned in to his Minister and had a few words. It looked like a tense and terse exchange.

After trying everything to avoid committing to a formal discussion about who knew what and when about this plan to attack the character of a man being lauded in public by the very same people who intended going after him in a inquiry held behind closed doors, Leo caved in.

After all, Enda Kenny was Taoiseach when all this stuff happened. Leo has a different Minister for Justice now. Charlie Flanagan, funnily enough, threw quite a wobbler in the Dáil last week when he started thundering about people casting aspersions on his character and making unfounded allegations about him in his actions as Minister.

It came out of the blue and was an unexpected outburst. But it made more sense yesterday. Was Charlie laying down a very clear and obvious reminder that anything arising from the investigation into McCabe’s allegations of Garda malpractice happened during Fitzgerald’s time in office?

After his little tete-a-tete with Frances, Leo was able to inform TDs that he had just discussed the matter with his Minister and he could confirm she was willing to make herself available for a thorough grilling later on.

Which is precisely what happened last night. Most of us are still none the wiser.

Complicated business

The whistleblower email and the story around it is a devilishly complicated business. As he was assailed with questions that he take action over his former minister for justice’s lack of response to a communication from her own officials that a deliberately confrontational approach to Sgt McCabe was being taken by the Garda top brass, the Taoiseach seemed exasperated.

“I’m really not clear exactly what sort of allegation is being made against the Tánaiste by members of this House,” he remarked.

He wasn’t alone. It was hard to fathom what the controversy was actually about, apart from the fact that Fitzgerald says she forget all about the email and didn’t tell anyone about it. A line at the end of it said that neither the minister nor the Attorney General needed to act on its contents.

That might have been viewed as an escape clause for a minister who had taken over from a predecessor who lost his job as a result of the McCabe affair and Garda handling of misconduct allegations. The issue also did for a Garda commissioner and saw a number of public officials hang up their boots.

So perhaps it’s understandable that Fitzgerald ignored it. But, given its toxic subject matter, that course of action might be considered folly. Should she not, at the very least, have confronted the Garda commissioner and demanded to know why the man everyone had praised and pledged to protect was going to be ballyragged in private?

One phrase was resurrected for the occasion. The Taoiseach, the Minister or the department “had no hand, act or part” in formulating the strategy against McCabe.

That phrase has been uttered down through the years in both the Dáil chamber and various tribunal chambers by witnesses under very serious pressure. It hasn’t always gone well for the people protesting about hands, acts and parts.

It seems this email, which the Tánaiste quoted from on the one o’clock news, was only seen by the Taoiseach at 11.30pm on Monday night. But his minister knew about since at least the previous Thursday. Why didn’t she inform him?

“She was away at the time in Dubai. I was subsequently away in Sweden. She was away in Boston,” he explained, as Sinn Féin’s Pat Buckley waved his arms, pretending to play the violin.

“Phones, ” bellowed Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy. “Phones!”

Selling the legal line

For some reason, Leo kept cautioning people about the legal issues surrounding the current Charlton tribunal. They should watch what they are saying. At one point, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle was dealing with requests that Fitzgerald should address the matter personally, Leo offered him some advice.

“If we are going to have statement on this, followed by questions, I think it would be important – and I don’t wish how to tell you how to do your job here and don’t take it up this way – but I think it would be important that the chair, or your office, or somebody get some legal advice.”

Pat “The Cope” Gallagher was having none of it.

“Ah, hold on. Hold on, Taoiseach! I don’t need legal advice on a simple question,” he informed him. Deputies were just asking that an opportunity to be given to make statements. “I may not be a lawyer, but I have common sense. I’m here 36 or 37 years and I won’t be dictated to by anybody in this house, even the Taoiseach.”

Leo began to interrupt.

“Hold on, Taoiseach. Hold on. You’re not in the chair!”

Sealing the deal

There was a spontaneous round of applause in the back row of the Fianna Fail benches, led by Éamon Ó Cuív, who was clapping like an ecstatic seal about to dive into a bucket of haddock.

That softened Leo’s cough. He took to timidly raising his hand like a boy in High Babies every time he wanted to “respectfully” speak.

After his long stint in the chamber (he had to deal with Taoiseach’s questions, too), Leo left through the ground-floor double doors. He spied Micheál Martin as he exited, quickly barrelling back through the adjoining door for a chat.

The two leaders stayed chatting for more than 15 minutes.

Martin has the power to take out the Tánaiste, should he wish. He could flex his party’s muscle while not touching his precious confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael.

No wonder Frances Fitzgerald looked very worried.

The jury was out last night as to whether she did enough to keep her job. If the controversy isn’t contained quickly, she may not survive.

Even if people are still trying to work out what exactly the whole furore is about.