This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 24th as the Frances Fitzgerald saga was coming to a peak:
How did we get to this situation? Well, as with any crisis, we got to it one step at a time.
Leo Varadkar did not start this week with a plan to trigger a snap election, no more than Micheál Martin did, but with a series of serious missteps Leo Varadkar walked this government to the brink and last night whipped things up to a point that the country is now on a course that means a general election either before Christmas or early in 2018.
Misstep number one came with the Taoiseach’s opening comments on Leader’s Question in the Dáil last Tuesday. when he attempted to address the issue
“The House will appreciate, once again, that I do not have first-hand knowledge of any of these matters.”
With those words it was clear that an Taoiseach was approaching the issue of Minister Fitzgerald’s level of knowledge on the campaign against Sgt McCabe satisfied that it had nothing personally to do with him and, so it was not something for him to be worried about.
In his own view he had not been directly embroiled in any of the Garda Sgt McCabe machinations that had brought down a Garda Commissioner, a Minister and dispatched a Department Gen Sec, in fact he had been the first Fine Gael minister to speak out in support of Sgt McCabe, so how could he be personally damaged by this issue?
What he had forgotten is that he answers for the actions of the whole of his government, not just the bits he has personal involvement in.
Misstep Two came a few minutes later in an exchange at the Order of Business between An Taoiseach and the Leas Ceann Comhairle, Pat The Cope Gallagher that inadvertently revealed part of the problem with how his government and ministers had approached this and other issues.
As a row ensued about whether the Dáil should require the Tánaiste to make a statement and answer questions on the unfolding email saga, the Taoiseach attempted to chide the Leas Ceann Comhairle, a TD of very long standing, saying:
“I do not wish to tell the Leas-Cheann Comhairle how to do his job here – he should not take me up in that way – but I believe it is important that he, his office or somebody get some legal advice”
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Hold on. I do not need legal advice on a simple question. Deputies are requesting that an opportunity be given to make statements. It is a matter for the House, not a matter of legal advice for me…
I might not be a lawyer but I have common sense. I have been here for 36 or 37 years and I will not be dictated to by anybody in this House, not even the Taoiseach…
It is rare you see a Taoiseach so openly and roundly scolded in public. But more than that’ it is rare to see a Taoiseach having to be schooled on their role and reminded that Ministers are there to use their judgement and common sense, not to sit with a lawyer at their shoulder 24/7 and do nothing but to follow their legal advice.
If that is how government is to operate why not cut out the middle man, drop all ministers and simply appoint a panel of lawyers to oversee Departments and exercise neither judgement nor political common sense.
The surest way to never do the wrong thing, especially the wrong thing legally, is to do nothing. That is the basis of the charge against the Tánaiste. She did nothing and is championing her inaction while the State pursued an innocent man as a defence. This crisis is about what type of government we want.
There were another series of missteps with the Taoiseach having to come back into the Dáil again, and again, and correct the record. Did it never occur to Taoiseach that the volume of misinformation that his ministers was conveying to him and, in turn, to the public signalled a much greater problem? Did the Taoiseach and his advisers ever think to look at the timeline of the email revelations and maybe consider its implications? (courtesy of the Indo’s Kevin Doyle):
- Nov 8 – Alan Kelly submits PQ
- Nov 9 – Justice find the email
- Nov 13 – Email is “mentioned” to Charlie Flanagan (but he didn’t see it)
- Nov 15 – Flanagan alleges “smear campaign” in Dáil
- Nov 16 – Fitzgerald phones Justice & is told about the email
- Nov 20 – Taoiseach sees email.
These were then followed by two major missteps by the Taoiseach that border on reckless.
The first of these was not to respond adequately to Michael Martin’s contacts on Wednesday and Thursday which initiated the clause in the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael confidence and supply agreement that was specifically drafted to address emerging crises like this:
Should an event arise that has potential to undermine this arrangement, efforts will be made to have it resolved by the two Party Leaders.
This was then followed by another major misstep by wrongly supposing that Micheál Martin and Jim O’Callaghan were bluffing when Deputy O’Callaghan went on to Thursday’s RTE News to set out Fianna Fáil’s absolute lack of confidence in the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Rather than acting to calm things down, Varadkar chose to act like an arrogant Young Fine Gael branch secretary, not a Taoiseach, and ramped things up.
This catalogue of Varadkar’s missteps, his bad judgement calls and clear political naivete come on top of the rolling revelations from Katie Hannon, Alan Kelly TD and others.
The bottom line is not whether there will be a general election, it is when will it be. Will it be between now and Christmas or will it be in early 2018.
As for the next steps… it is just possible that some sanity and calmness will reassert itself within Fine Gael today and tomorrow and that someone, though almost certainly not the Taoiseach, will see that the Tánaiste’s position is untenable and that it is in everyone’s interests in the short and medium term for her to gracefully resign, recognising that it was never her intention to do anything that undermined Sgt McCabe.
If that happens, then maybe Varadkar will think back to what The Cope said to him on Tuesday and exercise some common-sense and approach Micheál Martin and other leaders to agree an orderly pathway to an early 2018 election that will see the Social Welfare, Finance and other key legislation passed and allow Ireland’s interests to be protected at the December EU Council meeting on Brexit.
The Taoiseach has taken the wrong step at almost every juncture this week. The step to take us back from the brink in now in his rear-view mirror – but he still has one last opportunity to somewhat redeem his reputation by taking some right steps now.