High Court Sipo decision is a bad outcome for Leo Varadkar - and ethics watchdog

The former taoiseach faces more scrutiny of questionable actions when he first led the Government.

A High Court ruling could lead to the State’s ethics watchdog looking again at Leo Varadkar’s leak of a draft medical contract during his first term as taoiseach. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Paul Murphy TD has secured a notable legal and political victory in the High Court.

In a long-awaited judgment, Mr Justice Barry O’Donnell said the People Before Profit deputy can have an order requiring the State’s ethics watchdog to look again at Leo Varadkar’s leak of a draft medical contract during his first term as taoiseach.

According to the court, the explanations of the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) for not carrying out an inquiry were inadequately reasoned. Its original decision on the former taoiseach has now been quashed.

This is a bad outcome for Varadkar, who faces yet more scrutiny of questionable actions when he first led the Government. But with his career past its heyday after his abrupt resignation as taoiseach, the court’s ruling on Friday will have little impact on the former Fine Gael leader as he mulls his future from the backbenches.


For Sipo, however, the ruling deals a severe blow to its reputation and credibility. What is more, this very outcome was foreseen when two of the most senior independent officials in the State dissented from the commission’s decision not to carry out an inquiry into Varadkar’s decision to leak an important document to one of his doctor pals.

In private statements two years ago questioning how Varadkar defended the leak, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) Seamus McCarthy and Ombudsman Ger Deering dissented from the Sipo’s decision to refuse a preliminary inquiry into the affair. They were outvoted by three other Sipo commissioners: the chairman Garrett Sheehan, a retired Court of Appeal judge; Peter Finnegan, clerk of the Dáil; and Martin Groves, clerk of the Seanad.

McCarthy made a note saying some of Varadkar’s assertions “represent low-grade evidence at best” and Deering said his claims that the draft contract was no longer confidential were not supported by his own statements or public records.

All of this was set out in records Sipo released under the Freedom of Information Act.

But Sipo redacted some of the files. It was only after an appeal to the Information Commissioner – an office held by Deering – that further disclosures were made. These showed McCarthy’s concern about the potential for Sipo facing “credibility” issues as a result of the Varadkar case.

“Would our arguments be enough to satisfy a judge in a judicial review proceeding (whichever way we go)?” McCarthy asked as Sipo considered its stance.

“A court order to reconsider rejection of a complaint would be appalling, and would compromise the credibility of any subsequent decision we made. A court order to stop an inquiry would at least explain why we had no power to pursue a complaint in this matter.”

With Mr Justice O’Donnell’s ruling, that “appalling” prospect has now come to pass.

This very bad for the standards commission, the body that is supposed to promote transparency and accountability in public life. That it relates to a decision concerning the actions of a taoiseach makes it all the worse.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times