Political cluelessness will fail to prompt any rolling of heads

Nóirín O’Sullivan, Katherine Zappone and Enda Kenny face down whistleblower fallout

Nobody is resigning. The Cabinet is split and politics is at a standstill; the Taoiseach’s Ministers contradict his account of events; nobody can give a straight answer about whether the minority Government will survive the week; but nobody is resigning.

That was clear from yesterday’s extraordinary episodes of political coming and going as the fallout from the treatment of the Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe continued to convulse Government and Opposition alike.

Nóirín O’Sullivan, the Garda Commissioner, would not be resigning, she confirmed, despite a swivel from the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who had previously seen no need for the commissioner to go. In an amendment to his earlier stance, Martin yesterday advised O’Sullivan to “assess her position”, a slightly more polite form of “consider her position” but O’Sullivan was not for turning.

She would not resign, she said, because she had done nothing wrong. “A campaign of false accusations, repeated and multiplied, do not make me guilty of anything,” she said, sounding altogether like Sgt McCabe himself.


O’Sullivan continues to robustly reject accusations from other Garda whistleblowers that she directed, participated in or approved of a campaign to blacken McCabe’s name. The weekend papers were full of such suggestions, but the commissioner is holding firm.

Next up for not resigning was Katherine Zappone, the Minister for Children. Zappone arrived out to the plinth of Leinster House in the afternoon sun to deliver an impassioned defence of her efforts on behalf of the McCabes.

After her meeting with the McCabes, she said, “I didn’t sleep that night. How could you?”

Determined defence

It was a dramatic presentation, for sure, with Zappone giving a determined defence of her own actions. However, this contradicted accounts delivered on behalf of the Taoiseach.

Government Buildings has previously said that neither the Taoiseach nor the Tánaiste were aware of the Tusla allegations – a false charge of sexual assault contained in a Tusla file because of a clerical error – but now Zappone was categorically saying she told the Taoiseach about Tusla before the Cabinet met last Tuesday.

“I said I had met with the McCabes and discussed allegations that were part of Tusla,” she said. Zappone did not, however, provide her Cabinet colleagues with the same information. Instead she allowed them to discuss the terms of reference for the proposed investigation into the treatment of Garda whistleblowers without telling them that there was a rather more important fact about the campaign against the McCabes that might have a bearing on their decision.

This is, on the face of it, a subversion of the Cabinet’s authority to act collectively as the supreme political decision-making body in the State. But what of it? She batted away talk of her resignation.

“As the only Independent woman at the Cabinet table. I bring a unique perspective and want to continue to do that,” she said.

The currency of political scandal is the offering of heads. Decapitation is cathartic for everyone – politicians, media, public. But if neither of these two powerful women was offering their heads on a plate, then a bigger, more powerful one was not on the menu either.

Precarious power

The Taoiseach will not be resigning either. Nobody who matters to the maintenance of the Government – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Independents – wants to cause a general election. Nobody is ready for it. Nobody has the money for it. Nobody has the stomach for it. But the events of the last week have been notice enough that this government lives increasingly precariously.

On Tuesday, a fearful and divided Cabinet will seek to assume a posture of unity and purpose to fend off the motion of no confidence. Deals will be done and understandings reached between the two parts of the Government and the half-in, half-out third leg of the stool. The to-ing and fro-ing went on until a late hour on Monday night, and will recommence this morning. But the confusion and contradiction of recent days has left this unusual coalition government in its weakest state since its formation last year. Real damage has been done by the cluelessness of the last week.

“I think Zappone has changed her position three times now,” said one Fine Gael Minister with grim humour last night. “The Taoiseach has only changed his twice.”

That’s about the size of it, alright. Voters will forgive much of their governments. Rank incompetence, though, they won’t tolerate for long.