Stephen Collins: How the truth became irrelevant to Frances Fitzgerald’s fate

Once the opposition and media set off down a false trail her resignation was inevitable

The question became why Fitzgerald, as minister for justice, had not intervened to try and stop this non-existent aggressive stance towards Sgt Maurice McCabe.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The question became why Fitzgerald, as minister for justice, had not intervened to try and stop this non-existent aggressive stance towards Sgt Maurice McCabe. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Charleton tribunal has demolished the claims made by the Opposition and elements of the media that effectively drove former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald from office almost a year ago, but there is not the slightest sign of self-analysis, never mind remorse, on the part of those who were most vociferous in demanding her head.

The leading Opposition politicians who did most to damage Fitzgerald were Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, Jim O’Callaghan of Fianna Fáil, and Labour’s Alan Kelly.

It is pointless to expect apologies from them, but the episode should prompt at least some examination of conscience in the media about how accusations made for political gain can so easily be recycled as statements of fact.

It is worth recalling how a number of mistaken and false claims compounded each other to create a situation in which the choice facing the Government at the end of last November was for Fitzgerald to resign or else plunge the country into an election during Christmas week.

Once the trail had been laid, though, the hunt for the minister was never going to end until she was driven from office

The chain of events started with the mistaken claim that the then Garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, had instructed her lawyers to adopt an aggressive stance towards Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins tribunal in 2015. As it turned out O’Sullivan, whose reputation was also traduced by Opposition politicians and media alike, had never instructed her lawyers to adopt an aggressive stance towards McCabe.

As the Opposition and media set off down this false trail, the question became why Fitzgerald, as minister for justice, had not intervened to try and stop this non-existent aggressive strategy. An entire narrative then developed about emails the tánaiste had either not seen, or had seen and not acted on.

In fact it did not matter what she had or had not seen, as it would have been entirely inappropriate for her to intervene in the work of the O’Higgins Commission. Once the trail had been laid, though, the hunt for the minister was never going to end until she was driven from office.

False accusations

It was reminiscent of what happened to her predecessor as minister for justice, Alan Shatter, who was similarly hounded from office on the basis of a range of accusations that also turned out to be false. He was one of the most energetic and reforming ministers in the history of the State, but that was no defence once the remorseless tide of scapegoating had begun.

As far as the Opposition is concerned, driving a minister from office is accepted as part of the business of politics. Sometimes it is justifiable, as in the case of Denis Naughten who resigned as minister for communications last week when his position had clearly become untenable, but this was not the case with regard to Fitzgerald or Shatter.

Making life as difficult as possible for ministers is what Oppositions have traditionally done in our adversarial system, but what is new in recent decades is the way much of the media automatically joins Opposition TDs in the clamour for heads. This is justified on the basis of holding power to account but it means, in effect, attacking the government of the day rather than reporting the facts and giving equal consideration to competing claims.

Attacking mainstream politicians is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel

Of course it is the media’s job to be sceptical of government and to cast a critical eye on its actions; but the same sceptical approach is not adopted to Opposition claims, no matter how outlandish. Just look at how a range of politicians took up the cause of Garda Keith Harrison and portrayed him as an honourable whistleblower.

In the event the claims were shown by Mr Justice Charleton to be entirely spurious, and the various TDs who championed Gda Harrison have kept their heads down since he was exposed. There has been no question of the media holding them to account for irresponsible claims they made.

Vested interests

It is not just Opposition politicians who get an easy ride. Vested interest groups of all kinds are regularly given a platform to promote their views with little in the nature of critical examination. Compare the standard aggressive interviewing approach towards leading politicians with the sympathetic hearing given to those attacking the Government of the day for either personal or sectoral advantage.

Now making life difficult for Government politicians is a necessary part of the media’s job, but there is something wrong when it becomes the dominant and sometimes the only narrative drowning out reasonable discussion on a variety of issues from the culture of the Garda to cervical cancer screening.

The real danger is that over time it can undermine belief in basic democratic standards. We have ample evidence of this in the world today. Look at the way the mainstream media’s hounding of Hillary Clinton over the relatively unimportant emails controversy paved the way for the victory of Donald Trump. Closer to home, contrast the way the British media hound Prime Minister Theresa May at every turn over Brexit while indulging the dangerous buffoon Boris Johnson.

Attacking mainstream politicians is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Over time, the incessant misrepresentation of those who are doing their best to deal with the complexities of exercising power will corrode the fabric of our democracy.

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