The incoming Dublin government may have already struck an iceberg after Taoiseach Micheál Martin suddenly fired his Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen in connection with motoring offences dating from four years ago.
The explosion of a relatively minor controversy into a government-threatening scandal has come at a disastrous time for Micheál Martin (pictured, right), who is already facing criticism over his public appointments, his handling of the Covid-19 crisis and his pro-unionist statements on the issue of Irish Unity.
A 2016 conviction for drink driving, for which Mr Cowen (pictured, left) had been penalised in the usual manner, had previously been unknown. Publicised last week, likely as part of a whispering campaign against him by party rivals, the transgression brought about a showdown with Micheál Martin which last night ended his Ministerial career.
Last night Barry Cowen issued a stern statement in his defence. “The decision of the Taoiseach to remove me from office, when he supported me this afternoon in the Dail, has undermined and potentially prejudiced my entitlement to fair process,” he said.
Murmurings over the appointment of Mr Cowen, a brother of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, continued for two weeks amid resentment within Fianna Fáil over the exclusion of more senior party figures from the newly constituted coalition Cabinet.
Martin insisted today that Cowen’s refusal to address parliament on the matter had given him “no choice” but to sack him, ending one of the shortest tenures of a Minister in Irish history.
However, the incoming Taoiseach is now in a controversy of his own over his access to Mr Cowen’s police record and his sudden u-turn on the issue. Speaking in the Dáil today, Mr Martin faced a barrage of questions from the opposition, including what he knew and when about the drink-driving incident and the Garda report about it.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald asked Mr Martin if he had misled the parliament over his knowledge about the incident.
The Taoiseach denied that he knew the full “sorry story” over a week ago. He claimed he was unaware until yesterday morning of the details of the file or allegations -- strenuously denied by the Offaly TD -- that he had attempted to evade a Garda checkpoint.
Explaining his decision to sack Mr Cowen after publicly backing him just hours earlier, Mr Martin said the former minister had taken “a legalistic approach to defend his rights”.
“If you are a minister, an office holder, you should come before the House,” Mr Martin declared. When the former Minister declined to come to the Dáil to answer questions, Mr Martin said he had no choice but to sack him.
“In the afternoon, when he still refused, I was left with no alternative,” he said.
Martin’s decision today to appoint the former deputy leader of the party, Dara Calleary, into Cowen’s post has fuelled speculation of the involvement of party insiders in the scandal, many of whom had been shocked at the decision to leave the Mayo TD without a Ministerial post.
Offaly Fianna Fáil activist Robert Kellaghan predicted that Martin “will end up with egg on his face”, and raised the issue of whether Mr Martin had discussed Cowen’s record with the Garda Commissioner.
“Barry Cowen was under no obligation to make [the conviction] public four years ago,” he said.
“This is sour grapes that Fianna Fáil is back in government and that there is a Cowen at the Cabinet table, ‘let’s go get him.’”
The scandal has handed a significant scalp to Sinn Féin in their first outing to question the Taoiseach as Leader of the Opposition.
Sinn Féin deputy Dáil leader Pearse Doherty described Martin’s handling of the allegations as “chaotic and a failure of leadership”.
He said it was “incredible” that the Taoiseach did not challenge the failure of Mr Cowen to make a full disclosure to the Dáil, when the Taoiseach had been aware of the matter for more than 10 days.
“The Taoiseach has questions to answer,” he said. “Why did he not challenge Barry Cowen on making an incomplete statement to the Dáil? This chaos needs to end.”