Varadkar leak controversy shakes Coalition but unlikely to be fatal

‘Game-playing he constantly engages in has to end,’ says senior Fianna Fáil figure

Leo Varadkar’s leak ‘not a mortal sin but certainly a venal one’. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

Leo Varadkar’s leak ‘not a mortal sin but certainly a venal one’. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

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There is unease at Government and official levels over the controversy surrounding Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s leaking of a draft €210 million deal negotiated with the Irish Medical Organisation in 2019 to a rival body.

However, it is not expected that the controversy will result in Mr Varadkar’s resignation, unless new and damaging information about the affair emerges. He is due to give a statement to the Dáil on Tuesday.

Several Fianna Fáil figures were privately highly critical of Mr Varadkar, but conceded that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was likely to stand by his Coalition partner. Sources said Mr Varadkar’s actions raised serious issues, and that while there were mitigating factors that favoured his survival, the Tánaiste had been damaged politically.

“It’s appalling that anyone would conduct themselves in office like that,” a Fianna Fáil Minister said. “The game-playing he constantly engages in has to end. He has to knuckle down and do the job.”

A senior Fine Gael source said: “There is disquiet because he is our star player, he is our leader, and in many ways the strength of the party is build around him. We’ve never had a situation around questions for Leo before.”

A Green Party source said the party would be slow to prejudge the Tánaiste, but that the situation could change rapidly depending on what might emerge in the coming days.

Fianna Fáil backbencher Jim O’Callaghan called over the weekend for Mr Varadkar to respond to the Village magazine story, but party nerves calmed somewhat yesterday when influential former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen said that he did not believe “a grave should be prepared” for the Tánaiste.

Government officials were of a similar view. “I don’t think it’s a mortal sin,” said a senior official. “But it is certainly a venal sin.”

‘Sensitive’ document

One person with knowledge of the negotiations said the deal had essentially been concluded with the IMO by the time Mr Varadkar sent the document to his friend Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who was then head of the NAGP, a rival association.

However, he said, the document was certainly “sensitive”. The person added that had the negotiations been ongoing, it would have been a resigning issue.

Another source, also close to the talks, said the politicians would have been asked by the officials conducting the negotiations not to operate any “back channels” that would undercut the government’s position.

However, another senior official played down the significance of the revelations. “I think it was a reasonable political decision to share the document to try to get more support for the contract,” the official said. “And if the taoiseach decides it’s not a confidential document, then it’s not a confidential document.”

This view was in a minority among senior politicians and officials who spoke privately to The Irish Times. One senior Government figure said the events displayed “a serious lack of judgment” by Mr Varadkar.

Another noted that Mr Varadkar did not accept the explanations from former minister for communications Denis Naughten – who resigned after it emerged he had met privately with the sole bidder for the Government’s broadband contract – that there was no commercial advantage gained from the meetings.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe defended the Tánaiste on Sunday, saying the draft deal was shared by Mr Varadkar “after agreement had been reached on that particular new GP contract”.

Reaction from Fine Gael’s Coalition partners was more muted, with Minister for Education Norma Foley saying the Tánaiste “needs to give a very frank” statement on Tuesday. Ossian Smyth, a Green Party Minister of State, said the party wanted to see a “full explanation” in the Dáil on Tuesday. He said Mr Varadkar should address whether the document could have conferred an advantage on the organisation that received it.