"What I'm saying is it's not going to arise," said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on the prospect of charges being brought against him on the back of the Garda investigation of his leak of a GP pay deal in 2019.
Speaking to LMFM's Michael Reade on Wednesday, Varadkar said: "That's not something I'm considering, and I don't believe it's going to happen."
He added: “It won’t be distracting me from my job…Nor is it distracting anyone else in Government. We’re very busy doing the people’s business, and that’s what we’re paid to do.”
While the Tánaiste may not be distracted, the leak remains a hot topic in political circles, and in Fine Gael in particular.
“Fine Gael prides itself on being a party of law and order,” said a party insider.
Gardaí are investigating allegations that Varadkar improperly leaked a confidential copy of a proposed new GP contract to a friend, Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, in April 2019 when he was taoiseach.
The contract contained details of the deal the government had provisionally agreed with the Irish Medical Organisation. At the time Dr Ó Tuathail was president of the National Association of GPs (NAGP), a rival organisation representing GPs that is now defunct.
Varadkar apologised for his actions in the Dáil, and survived a Sinn Féin vote of no confidence. He insisted he had not broken the law, and defended his actions by saying he had circulated the contract to encourage NAGP members to agree to it.
It is understood the focus for gardaí is establishing whether a criminal offence was committed under the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018.
There are undoubtedly concerns at senior level in Fine Gael over the impact of the Garda investigation. It has provided ammunition to the Opposition; it calls into question the Tánaiste’s judgement; and it compounds what some argue has been a stuttering term as leader, not marked by any particular electoral success.
However, the politics of the ongoing fallout from the leak are not straightforward. Talking to backbenchers and Junior Ministers, both privately and on record, reveals a more complex picture.
The Irish Times sought comment from all 29 backbenchers and Ministers of State.They were asked two questions – should the Tánaiste step aside if he is charged with an offence following the Garda investigation, and do they believe Fine Gael has been damaged by the controversy.
None criticised the Fine Gael leader on the record, and there was vocal support from those who offered public comments.
Even privately, almost all defend Varadkar to a greater or lesser extent.
Many attacked the contention that the document which was leaked was even confidential, having been the subject of newspaper reports and press releases before the leak took place.
Some are hopeful that the damage to the party will be limited, arguing the story is being driven by “fringe elements”.
Others are openly hostile to questions on the damage to the party and Varadkar.
“Due process and natural justice has to take course and prevail,” said one. “If it doesn’t it’s a life of suspicion, doubts and innuendo.”
Another TD offered “we’re all innocent until proven guilty”.
More than one drew parallels with the media and political pressure which ended Frances Fitzgerald’s ministerial career.
Fitzgerald herself, who resigned as tánaiste in 2017 amid a Garda whistleblower controversy, said she “would not speculate” on whether Varadkar should stand aside if charged or if the leak issue was damaging the party, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Disclosures tribunal found that Fitzgerald acted appropriately in the whistleblower matter while she was minister for justice. Fitzgerald, now MEP for Dublin, said “I’ve always been a believer in due process. It stood to me, myself with the Charleton tribunal, and I actually believe it’s the least that we owe anybody in public office is to stand by due process.”
On the leak, many in the party, while not dismissing it, accept Varadkar’s argument that his actions were in the national interest. “He did it with the best of intentions,” said one TD.
When pressed, TDs acknowledge there had been damage. “If there was an election in six months to a year, it would certainly impact on electoral support,” said one.
Another called it “far from ideal” and “a bit of a distraction”.
“When any issue arises you’re always concerned,” says a third.
“No matter what happens, damage can occur,” they added.
Fine Gael Deputies are uncomfortable when asked what should happen if Varadkar is charged. Many prefer not to discuss it; all who addressed it said they do not believe it will happen. However, some believe that if it came it would bring unbearable pressure on the leader.
“If anyone was charged, a file would have gone to the DPP; if they determined they were taking a case to court then he’d have to step aside,” one TD said.
Another, when asked if he would have to step aside if charged, bluntly said: “yes”.
Some who spoke said it could only be considered at the time, if it arose.
Of 12 TDs who spoke privately, three said they believed Varadkar would have to step down if charged. Another three said he should stay; another refused to answer, and five did not outline a definitive view.
Of 10 TDs who offered public comments, Minister of State Josepha Madigan and Dublin Mid-West TD Emer Higgins said they did not believe Varadkar would end up facing charges.
Madigan said the legal advice to the Tánaiste was that he committed no offence. She said the Garda must have the space to do its job, but added: “I do not anticipate any charge nor any damage to Fine Gael.”
Others including Ministers of State Hildegarde Naughton and Peter Burke, Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd and Cork East's David Stanton referred to Varadkar's account of his actions to the Dáil last November, and pointed out that a majority of TDs voted confidence in him at the time.
Naughton said she had “full confidence” in the Tánaiste, and Burke said: “The facts today are no different to the facts then.”
Wexford TD Paul Kehoe said he respected the ongoing Garda investigation and the principle of "everybody is innocent until proven guilty".
Neale Richmond, Alan Dillon and Joe Carey dismissed the questions posed as "hypothetical", with Richmond and Dillon saying there has been no damage to Fine Gael.
Carey said he had “full confidence” in Varadkar “as the next taoiseach of our country.”
The support of Fine Gael people both on and off the record should not be over-interpreted. Political support is contingent on circumstance, and being slow to brief against or publicly criticise a leader should not be taken as evidence of unerring fealty.
Taken in the round, the views of Fine Gael members do not indicate an immediate threat to Varadkar’s leadership. However, once questions about judgement and leadership arise – even quietly – it is very hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
The acute phase of the controversy may die if no charges follow, but there still may be a political price for Varadkar to pay for the leak saga.