Varadkar and Martin meetings seek to avoid general election

Parties look to December 19th poll despite idea of Fitzgerald temporarily stepping aside

Harry McGee explains how an email to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald is threatening to collapse the Government.

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are to talk again on Saturday in a bid to avert a snap general election over Opposition demands that Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald step down.

However, both parties will continue intensive efforts this weekend to get ready for a pre-Christmas poll.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin met for an hour on Friday in a meeting described by both sides as honest and constructive.

Neither moved from their stated positions but the fact that another engagement has been scheduled for Saturday was being interpreted in political circles as a sign that an election might yet be avoided.

The two leaders have agreed to continue efforts that might avert the Government’s collapse next week when Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin motions of no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald are due to be debated in the Dáil.

Ms Fitzgerald is at the centre of controversy relating to when she first learned of the Garda legal strategy to attack whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission examining issues in the Garda’s Cavan-Monaghan division. It emerged this week she had received an email about the strategy a year earlier than she and the Taoiseach had earlier stated.

On Friday night, Mr Varadkar told the members of the Independent Alliance he did not want a general election and would be examining compromises with Fianna Fáil to avoid this happening.

Preparation for election

However, both main parties have embarked on a programme of immediate preparation for a general election.

Senior Fine Gael figures confirmed they had intensified their election planning, and a meeting of the Fine Gael executive council will take place on Saturday.

Party strategists have identified Tuesday, December 19th, as the most likely day for the election, although sources say this could slip by a day or two depending on whether the Dáil is dissolved next Tuesday or Wednesday. This would allow time for counts to take place before the Christmas holidays begin on Saturday, December 23rd.

Election preparation in both parties has advanced to the stage of ordering posters and identifying constituencies where candidates have to be selected. Remaining Fine Gael conventions will start once Mr Varadkar has dissolved the Dáil.

The Fianna Fáil leader held a meeting of his front bench on Friday to discuss the crisis at which he advised TDs to stay “calm and focused”, and urged them to remember this was a human issue. He acknowledged the Fitzgerald controversy was a difficult issue on which to go to the country and said it would be difficult to sell emails and timelines to people.

However, Mr Martin insisted there was something “rotten” about the affair and Fianna Fáil needed to be on the side of Sgt McCabe.

Possible solution

Senior figures in both parties said they were more hopeful that a way could be found to avoid an election. One idea being floated was that Ms Fitzgerald might step aside temporarily while the Disclosures Tribunal investigates the controversy.

This option was boosted when Mr Justice Peter Charleton, chairman of the inquiry, announced on Friday he would begin examining the matter on January 8th next. The next module at the tribunal will focus on the legal strategy enforced by former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and contacts with Ministers and Department of Justice officials.

Fianna Fáil sources said it could be acceptable to them if Ms Fitzgerald stepped aside while the tribunal was examining the matter. Mr Varadkar told RTÉ that if Ms Fitzgerald had questions to answer, “ it was at the tribunal that is starting hearings in next few weeks”.

However, Ms Fitzgerald is understood to be adamant she will not resign, and sources close to her said she will not countenance any suggestion of standing aside temporarily from her position.

Asked on RTÉ if he would accept Ms Fitzgerald’s resignation, Mr Varadkar said: “I do not believe that is going to arise. I haven’t sought her resignation, she has not done anything wrong.”