Taoiseach has confidence in Varadkar amid controversy over document leak
Harris was not told by Tánaiste that he was sharing copy of GP contract
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar issued a lengthy statement on Saturday evening in which he rejected the magazine’s claims that he may have broken the law. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
The Taoiseach has said he has confidence in Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, amid ongoing controversy over the Fine Gael leader’s leaking last year of a confidential document to a group representing family doctors.
Speaking at a jobs announcement at Government buildings on Monday morning, Micheál Martin said the leaking of the document “was not best practice and the Tánaiste himself has accepted that, and this was not the appropriate way to deal with a document of this time in terms of the manner it was sent to the president of the NAGP”.
Mr Varadkar passed a draft of the new deal for general practitioners negotiated between the government and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) in April last year to a friend who was head of a rival group, the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP).
Asked if he had confidence in the Tánaiste, he said: “Yes. Yeah, and I don’t have an issue there in terms of how we’re working together.”
Mr Martin said it was his view, however, that while the leaking of the deal was not appropriate, the terms of the deal “should have been public knowledge much earlier” given the amount of public money involved.
He argued the agreement differed from a commercial contract, but rather “relates to the general health service and expenditure in the health service. In my view it should have been made public much earlier, and in hindsight, that’s the lesson to be learned from this.”
He said there was no financial gain or material advantage for anyone involved in the document being distributed in the manner it was, and that it was his belief that no law had been broken in the sharing of the document.
He said that he had spoken with Mr Varadkar over the weekend but had not “engaged in a cross-examination” of the Tánaiste’s version of events.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has written to Mr Martin requesting all information surrounding the leak which her party described as a “scandalous breach of negotiating protocol”.
Its Dublin Mid West TD Eoin Ó Broin said Sinn Féin wanted all relevant correspondence made available in advance of the Tánaiste speaking on the matter in the Dáil on Tuesday.
Sinn Féin Dublin Fingal TD Louise O’Reilly said what had occurred would potentially break the relationship of trust between government and trade unions.
“The head of government should be held accountable to a high standard,” she said. “We want to see a full and frank statement from the Tánaiste.”
Ms O’Reilly declined to say if her party would table a motion of no confidence.
Mr Ó Broin said senior Fine Gael ministers had spent the past two days “trying to brush this matter under the carpet”.
He said “leak” was not a strong enough word for what had happened.
“This was a scandalous breach of negotiating protocol and also of trust and faith by the then taoiseach.”
Mr Varadkar is due to make his statement to the Dáil around 4pm on Tuesday. A proposal has been made to the Dáil’s business committee for Mr Varadkar to give a 20 minute statement and for the Opposition to then have ten minute time slots after this to respond and ask questions.
Sources in Fine Gael say they believe Mr Varadkar intends to outline the chronology of the events leading up to April 2019 and say he will once again strongly deny acting improperly or unlawfully.
Mr Martin said that at the time the deal was being finalised “there was a general view around the political house and then the Oireachtas in general that this should be something to be encouraged to be accepted by GPs”, and that the objective of getting GPs on board was important.
He said that in a general sense, when it came to confidential documents, the lead minister - in this case Simon Harris - “takes precedence and one is guided by the lead minister’s perspective on given issues”.
Mr Harris has said that he did not know that Mr Varadkar had shared the details of the IMO agreement with the Government on general practice with a member of the NAGP. But he accepted Mr Varadkar’s “bona fides” and what he had been trying to achieve.
Mr Harris, who is now Minister for Higher Education, told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that Mr Varadkar had been passionate about the deal with GPs and wanted more GPs to get behind it.
The Tánaiste had not been undermining him, said Mr Harris. Mr Varadkar’s motivation had been getting the information to as many GPs as possible.
Mr Harris said he agreed that the manner in which Mr Varadkar had shared the information was “not the best way to do it” and that perhaps the NAGP could have “come in” to be briefed. He was satisfied that the agreement had been completed by that stage.
The revelations in Village magazine caused a political storm over the weekend.
Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said it may have been inappropriate for Mr Varadkar to send a document to the NAGP and it was not best practice but he believed Mr Varadkar acted with the best of intentions.
It was an issue that everyone was anxious to see resolved at the time. Mr Varadkar had to “cop on and move on” and learn from the mistake. There were “bigger and broader” issues to be dealt with such as Covid-19 and Brexit. A mistake was made, but it was not a fatal one, “so we can move on”.
The NAGP was lobbying intensely at the time to become a party to the GP contract negotiations. In late February, the NAGP met four Fine Gael TDs and Senators on the issue.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the manner in which Mr Varadkar “delivered” sensitive information on a new deal for general practitioners, “could have been better”.
Speaking on both Newstalk Breakfast and RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland on Monday, Ms McEntee said that Mr Varadkar had not had an “agenda” and that it was inaccurate to suggest that important information was being circulated to try to change the details of the agreement.
The Minister said that the only gain was for patients and for the tax payer when a good deal with general practitioners was agreed. The information in question had already been widely circulated and Mr Varadkar had just been trying “to keep the NAGP up to speed.”
“The manner in which he delivered this could have been better, he has said himself that he realises this wasn’t best practice.”
There had been no breaking of the law, she said. The document had already been widely circulated and Mr Varadkar had given it to the NAGP “to get them to sign” the agreement between the Government and general practitioners.
Ms McEntee said trust was not an issue when it came to Mr Varadkar, whom she described as “an honourable person.”
His motivation in sharing the details with the NAGP had not been for personal gain, she said. “The only motivation here was to get a good deal.”
Green Party TD Patrick Costello there were questions that needed to be answered and Mr Varadkar would do so on Tuesday in the Dáil. “The Tánaiste needs to answer questions and we need to let the process play out.
“There are questions to be answered and it is important to get the further scrutiny that is needed. We need to let this play out and get full disclosure.”
On the same programme, Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan said Mr Varadkar’s motivation was to ensure there wasn’t a break in general practice service.
Mr Varadkar issued a lengthy statement on Saturday evening in which he rejected the magazine’s claims that he may have broken the law. He said he passed on the draft document in a bid to secure wider backing among doctors for the new contract.
Mr Varadkar accepted that his provision of the document, which he had couriered to the home of Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, a personal friend, was “not best practice” and he expressed regret “that he did not ensure that it was provided in a more appropriately formal manner.
Maitiú Ó Tuathail
Dr Ó Tuathail said in a statement that the document was given to him as part of a pre-existing arrangement to share information on the deal.
The statement matches elements of the version of events outlined by Mr Varadkar on Saturday – including the contention that the content of the leaked document had largely been finalised at the time he received it.
“We received a copy of the finalised, agreed and announced programme for chronic disease management from the then taoiseach in mid-April. This was seen as a continuation of the decision by the government to consult with the NAGP and its GP members and keep them informed throughout.”