Varakdar faces a choice: his Tánaiste or his Government
Even if Government finds a way through Fitzgerald affair, there will be a toxic legacy
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald along with the Cabinet. Photograph: Maxwell
When you’re pleading that it’s a matter for the tribunal, you’re at the last redoubt of your defences.
Simon Harris told reporters that he didn’t expect any better from Sinn Féin, but he trusted that Fianna Fáil believed in due process and would leave the matters of recent political controversy to the tribunal. Some hope.
It didn’t work for Bertie Ahern. It’s not likely to work for Fitzgerald.
Their cases are hardly comparable on the substance. Ahern couldn’t satisfactorily explain where he got sums of money from; Fitzgerald is accused of forgetting about an email and simultaneously of not realising its significance.
But in a broader political sense she is on the hook – in a general sort of way – for the shameful way Maurice McCabe was treated, not by her, but by various organs of the State.
What the Ahern and Fitzgerald cases have in common is that when these issues become part of partisan political debate, they have a logic, a momentum and a process of their own. That process only ends with a cathartic event. It is usually someone’s resignation. It could also end with an election.
Most Fine Gaelers feel sorry for Fitzgerald and wonder – genuinely and not without some justification – just what it is she has done or not done to merit such a brutal end. But few of them feel sorry enough to prefer a general election.
Because that is the choice that now faces Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Fianna Fáil has made clear to Varadkar that it will not allow the Dáil to vote confidence in the Government next week while Fitzgerald remains in Cabinet. Micheál Martin made this clear to the Taoiseach as early as Wednesday afternoon.
They spoke again on Thursday afternoon. Justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan made it clear on the RTÉ Six One News on Thursday evening.
If those around Varadkar have been wondering over recent days if Fianna Fáil is serious – would Micheál Martin really go to the wire? – Martin has been at pains to assure the Taoiseach that he is very serious; that he would go to the wire – and to the country – if necessary.
There has been a rolling conversation among the Taoiseach’s Ministers and staff in recent days about whether they should take the Fianna Fáil leader at his word.
The Taoiseach himself continued to insist to both his advisers and to Martin that whatever the Tánaiste’s sin, forcing her resignation would be entirely disproportionate. He made that point forcefully at the parliamentary party meeting on Thursday night.
But having gone public and having allowed private conversations to be made public, Fianna Fáil will not change its mind. Neither, he insisted on Thursday night, would the Taoiseach. So, if nothing changes, we are facing into a Christmas election.
There are a few days to go. The dramatic late night rallying of support for the Tanaiste may create the space for Fitzgerald to save the Government and spare the country a general election by resigning. But Fine Gael was adamant on Thursday night that this wouldn’t happen.
The choice for Varadkar remains: his Tánaiste or his Government. No Taoiseach has ever chosen to collapse his Government to save one of his Ministers. That is what Varadkar now proposes to do.
The Taoiseach is a politician who has achieved many firsts. He is now on the verge of another one.
Whatever happens, there will be fallout from the dramatic events of recent days. Sinn Féin played the game cleverly, as it usually does, dragging out its involvement for maximum impact. But Sinn Féin is now peripheral to the affair. This is a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil operation.
As of now, the confidence and supply agreement is in abeyance. Fianna Fáil has withdrawn from the confidence bit of it, and the arrangement will have to be rebuilt if the Government is to continue in office.
That will not be easy, and the sometimes difficult personal relationship between Martin and Varadkar will make it hairier still. Forcing the Taoiseach to sack his deputy is hardly congenial to warming the atmosphere between them.
But some perspective is useful, too. Neither the two men nor their parties are in this together because they like each other, or because they enjoy it. This is not a marriage. They entered the arrangement because in the situation they found themselves after the election, they judged it was in their interests to do so. It will continue until either judges it not to be. It is hard to see how an election now serves the interests of either party, or their leaders.
But for the agreement to function effectively – and for Government to function – there needs to be some measure of trust, and a mode of living together that neither finds unbearable. That can probably be re-established in the short term. But the fact is that the affair is likely to shorten the Government’s life - perhaps dramatically, otherwise substantially. These things always leave a toxic legacy of some sort.
The crisis has also marked the first big setback for the still relatively new Taoiseach. It has been a lesson on how different it is being Taoiseach to being a minister. Varadkar has learned that he is held responsible for lots of things over which he has no control, and that he will be judged by how he handles them.
This controversy has not been handled well. Even allowing for the tendency of the Department of Justice and the gardaí to explode landmines under their political masters, the political management of the past week has made things worse, not better. It may yet make things much worse.
Varadkar’s supporters say he is a quick learner. There are lessons aplenty.