Varadkar may be powerless as wolves circle Fitzgerald

Analysis: Tánaiste’s fate depends on attitudes of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Taoiseach

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he is "happy to correct" the Dáil record if his comments on Frances Fitzgerald were deemed misleading.


The judgments of politics are quicker and more brutal than the judgments of legal tribunals. Sometimes they can be unfair, and questionable in the light of calmer assessment over a long period of time. Ask Alan Shatter.

Frances Fitzgerald became minister for justice after the defenestration of Shatter in 2014. Subsequent reviews, judgments and reports found he had acted correctly and properly but in the fervid atmosphere of a political storm his resignation became a political necessity. It is a messy kind of accountability, but politics is messy, imprecise and clamorous.

Fitzgerald now faces a similar fate unless she can satisfy Sinn Féin’s requests for better answers about the controversy than she has managed over the past two days. Sinn Féin has held off on tabling a motion of no confidence in her, saying she has one more chance and one more day to satisfy the party’s concerns.

You’d wonder how she can manage this: if she had better answers, she would surely have given them before now. Her defence is clear: she didn’t remember the accusatory email, she had no knowledge of or involvement in the aggressive Garda legal strategy employed against Sgt Maurice McCabe; she introduced mechanisms to get to the truth about the whistleblower’s claims and reform the Garda.

Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have already dismissed all this.

Fitness for office

At times of high drama it is wise to listen carefully to the words of political leaders on the floor of the Dáil; that is where they choose their words most carefully. Yesterday, both Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald were clear about their views. McDonald said that there were serious questions about her “judgment, credibility and competence” and her “honour” – and most revealingly of all about her “fitness for office”.

Martin said the evidence against her was “damning” and that her account was “simply not credible”. “She may not have thrown him to the wolves but she allowed them free rein,” he said.

These are not the words of political leaders who are preparing to back off.

Fitzgerald’s fate depends on the attitudes of Sinn Féin, of Fianna Fáil and of her boss, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – in that order.

By holding off on a motion – for now, at least – Sinn Féin has placed itself at the centre of events. If it decides to exercise clemency today, it will be a departure in the way the party has operated in Leinster House. Given the changes afoot in the party, that is a possibility that cannot be discounted.

Or the party could simply be stringing it out. From the point of view of Sinn Féin – according to a number of its TDs – a motion is a win-win option for Sinn Féin: either the Tánaiste is forced to resign or Fianna Fáil is forced to save her.

Would Fianna Fáil save her if Sinn Féin puts down a motion? The signs are it will not.

Fianna Fáil TDs – no more than anyone else – don’t much fancy an election before Christmas. But there is and has been for some time a strong election lobby within Fianna Fáil, too, even if this has chuntered away under the radar, largely unregarded.

And some subscribers to this school of thought believe that Martin – about whose backbone they have harboured doubts for many years – should have pulled the plug on the Government earlier this year, when the revelations about the false allegations of sexual abuse against Sgt McCabe first surfaced.

Appetite for election

Their enthusiasm for an election at that point was significantly fuelled by the prospect of fighting it against a Fine Gael led by Enda Kenny, but the disappearance of that prospect has not dulled their appetite for the fray entirely. They believe they can win, and form a government of some sort. And they believe, not to put too fine a point on it, that Martin bottled it last time. The existence of this view will make it harder for Martin – even if he wanted to – to give Fitzgerald a pass. Fianna Fáil is unlikely to be scared off by the threat of an election.

So if a motion goes down, and Fianna Fáil indicates that it will not facilitate a vote for confidence for Fitzgerald, the decision will come to the Taoiseach. Does he believe that Martin is bluffing? Or is he prepared to risk sacrificing his Government to save a Minister?

The history of these matters suggests that the Minister is always discarded, whatever the circumstances. It’s a tough business, sometimes.

Varadkar has noticeably been at pains to distance himself from the affair. Time and time again in Dáil statements in recent days he has stressed he has nothing to hide, and that he is not trying to protect anyone. At times, you could be forgiven for wondering if this includes his Tánaiste.

There is little doubt that if this Government had a majority it would toughen out the storm currently raging around Fitzgerald. But the single biggest fact about the Government remains that it does not have a majority. That has changed the rules of political combat. Whether the Tánaiste is a casualty of that combat could be decided in the coming hours.

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