McCabe controversy: Tánaiste’s fate in the balance

If there is a prospect of the Government falling, Varadkar may seek Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at Templemore Garda College. The most damaging aspect of the controversy is not so much the detail of the email shown to Fitzgerald but her failure to remember it. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at Templemore Garda College. The most damaging aspect of the controversy is not so much the detail of the email shown to Fitzgerald but her failure to remember it. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Frances Fitzgerald’s future in government depends on whether Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin come together to vote no confidence in her stewardship at the Department of Justice over the latest controversy relating to Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Under the confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Government, Fianna Fáil is committed to abstaining on no confidence motions in Ministers. But there is serious pressure on Micheál Martin from his own backbenchers to make an exception in this case. If Sinn Féin decide to press ahead with such a motion next week and it is backed by Fianna Fáil, the options facing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be to sacrifice Fitzgerald or risk a general election.

It is astonishing that the fallout from an email from a Department of Justice official about events at the O’Higgins commission into allegations made by McCabe has come to this. The most damaging aspect of the controversy is not so much the detail of the email shown to the Tánaiste but her failure to remember it.

That error was compounded by not informing the Taoiseach when all the details were brought to her attention late last week. By that stage Varadkar had given a misleading account of the affair to the Dáil on the basis of the information at his disposal. He corrected the record yesterday but is understandably unhappy. If there is a real prospect of the Government falling, he may ask for the Tánaiste’s resignation rather than plunging the State into a political crisis.

There is no suggestion that Fitzgerald did anything wrong during her period as minister for justice. What has emerged is that she was shown an email suggesting lawyers for the gardaí were about to adopt an aggressive approach against McCabe at the commission hearing. In the event the lawyers did not pursue this line. The email shown to Fitzgerald also suggested that she should not intervene and she followed that advice.

Her problem is that she appears to have exhibited a curious indifference to a hugely controversial strategy and, then, to have forgotten about the email. She had insisted up to this week that she was not aware of the discussion about Garda legal strategy until after the McCabe cross examination but it has now emerged she was shown the email three days before it.

Fitzgerald would not be the first senior politician to forget something important. As far back as the 1970s, Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch had to ride out a storm when he forgot a crucial security conversation with his attorney general. The crucial difference in Fitzgerald’s case is that the Government doesn’t have a majority in the Dáil. It means that if Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil combine they have the capacity to force it to do their bidding or bring it down.

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