The 26 County minority government could collapse on Tuesday after Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar refused to back down over a motion of no confidence in the deputy prime minister, Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence this week after it emerged that Fitzgerald had been informed of a plan to smear the reputation of a police whistleblower during an inquiry into his allegations of corruption. The false accusation of child sex abuse was designed to discredit Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe at an inquiry into his account of widespread corruption in the force.
The Tanaiste, who has said she cannot remember getting the email, has already been at the heart of of a number of policing scandals in her three years as Minister for Justice. She has claimed to have had no involvement in wrongdoing, illegal acts and cover-ups by senior Gardai and by Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan, who finally resigned in disgrace in September of this year.
Fitzgerald had previously claimed she only became aware of the strategy to use false allegations of chid sex abuse to damage Maurice McCabe only in 2016, when it became public.
Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dail: “I spoke to the Tanaiste, who told me that she had no hand, act or part in this decision and that she was not aware of it until after the fact around the time it entered the public domain.”
However, it has now been confirmed the email was sent in 2015, a full year beforehand, and was sent to Fitzgerald’s entire team for the purpose of informing the Minister. Despite her claims of ignorance, it has also been confirmed today that she personally read the email.
Undoubtedly prompted by Sinn Fein’s stance, Fianna Fail, which props up the government, moved to table its own motion of no confidence rather than try to defend an unmistakeable example of the abuse of power. Party leader Micheal Martin said the evidence against Fitzgerald was “damning” and that her account was “simply not credible”.
“She may not have thrown him [McCabe] to the wolves but she allowed them free rein,” he admitted.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Friday evening that if the motion was not withdrawn, he would be forced to hold an election before Christmas. He dismissed demands for Fitzgerald to quit ,and insisted she had none nothing wrong.
“What that would mean is me throwing a good woman under the bus to save myself and my own government, and that would be the wrong thing to do,” Varadkar told RTE.
He said he would not seek, nor did he expect to be offered, a resignation. In the absence of a compromise, Fine Gael are considering holding a general election in late December, likely Tuesday, December 19th.
There is speculation that a pre-Christmas election, as Varadkar plays a critical role in a Brexit summit, could suit the government. Varadkar is likely to win strong popular support as he defends Irish interests against a British plan to reinforce the partition of Ireland as part of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Without a mandate to govern since taking over from Enda Kenny in June, Varadkar could thereby capitalise on a recent rise in Fine Gael support to strengthen his hold on power. While many had predicted a snap election would help turn the tables in favour of Fianna Fail, the odds of that have fallen in recent weeks.
An election could also present an opportunity for Sinn Fein to test the leadership of deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, who is to head them into the election following confirmation that Gerry Adams is stepping down.
Varadkar and Martin met on Friday and were due to speak again over the weekend ahead of Tuesday’ motion of no-confidence in Fitzgerald. There was speculation today [Saturday] that Fianna Fail might be first to blink.
“We don’t feel that there’s a need for a general election on this issue,” Fianna Fail’s Dara Calleary told RTE Radio. “What we don’t have is confidence in the Tanaiste’s ability, based on her lack of commitment to her promise that whistleblowers would have the full protection of the state.”
Mr Calleary said the issue was a lack of confidence in Mrs Fitzgerald and her competence, after she did not inform the Taoiseach about the existence of the email for several days after she was reminded of it.
Sinn Fein has said the only way for the government to avoid an election is for the Tanaiste to go. The party has also noted there are questions over the actions of the current Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan.
Finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty TD said the Tanaiste’s position is absolutely untenable and that this is a symptom of a dysfunctional government and a culture of no accountability.
Speaking from the Dublin parliament yesterday, Mr Doherty said; “What we have here is a dysfunctional government that is presiding over massive crises in health, housing, childcare, and policing.
“There is no accountability. Sinn Fein has been holding this bad government to account from day one. That is our job and we make no apologies about it.
“It is clear that the Tanaiste’s position is untenable. She continued to express confidence in a Garda commissioner despite having knowledge of an attempt to smear, in the most unimaginable way, a Garda whistleblower who highlighted the culture of corruption in the Gardai.
“How can we ever reform our justice system if we cannot hold people accountable at the very top of the system?
“This government doesn’t do accountability. Instead of moving to deal with this issue, it has circled the wagons and now risks a general election.
“So, let me be clear, the only way for the government to avoid a general election is for the Tanaiste to go. There has to be a level of accountability on government.
“If she doesn’t go, there will have to be an election and Sinn Fein will fight that on the basis of bringing accountability to government, dealing with the health and housing crisis, tackling the challenges posed by Brexit, delivering a referendum on Irish Unity, and tackling climate change.”