Fears of a possible pre-Christmas general election were finally quashed when Frances Fitzgerald resigned as Tánaiste on Tuesday. It followed a frenzied (what else?) weekend of political drama with the Government standing by Ms. Fitzgerald, and Fianna Fáil, Sinn Fein and the fearless Alan Kelly (of Labour) calling for her to resign over the latest twist(s) in the Maurice McCabe/Garda Whistleblower saga. The details of the murky stuff within the Department of Justice were just a little complex, but the political narrative was simple: facing a motion of no confidence, and with Fianna Fáil ready to abandon its support for the minority government, either Frances fell on her sword – or we were facing the joys of a Christmas election. Reason prevailed, but what’s the fall-out for some of the principals involved?
So, who are the political winners and losers after the week that was?
Easily the week’s big winner, though it could have gone the other way. The Fianna Fáil leader eyeballed the Government and made it clear early in this crisis that the Tánaiste had to go. High stakes. Martin held his nerve. He was determined, you suspect, to get one over on Leo Varadkar after being completely outfoxed by the new Taoiseach earlier this year over the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.
As the weekend wore on, there were fears within Fianna Fáil that (A) Martin’s bluff might be called and an election would result; or (B) that Martin would back down. Even a compromise between Martin and Varadkar (over Fitzgerald’s position) would have been a big loss of face for the Fianna Fáil leader. However, once damning emails emerged on Monday evening, it was obvious that Micheál Martin was going to win this stand-off.
Just what do you buy at Christmas for the man who suddenly has everything? Mirrors, perhaps? Modest to a fault, our hero barely remembered to mention that it was HIS questions that started all of this. Oh, he may have mentioned it a few times! Still, jaw-dropping self-regard aside, you have to give due credit to Kelly, he set the ball rolling on this controversy, firing in awkward and strategic questions that led directly to the revelations about who knew what.
Most importantly, Kelly’s toil has exposed the shocking fact that the Department of Justice has not engaged in full disclosure with the Disclosures Tribunal (set up to investigate claims that there was an orchestrated campaign within An Garda Siochana to discredit troublesome whistleblowers). Kelly has confirmed for all of us that there’s something rotten in the Department – so we’ll put up with his self-admiration, for he has done the state some service.
Okay, home town decision here: Well, maybe not an obvious ‘winner’…but it seems our local man is the new ‘Teflon Tsar’ of Irish politics. He is now appearing on more television and radio shows than Gay Byrne in his prime. It took until Tuesday – when they could definitively see how the wind was blowing – for Shane Ross, John Halligan and the bould Finian McGrath to play their cards. Did someone say Send in the Clowns? Fitzmaurice, on the other hand, didn’t mince his words when commenting on the saga on TV3’s Tonight Show with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates. Bye bye Frances was the message from the Glinsk man. And no-one in the studio, his fellow guests or the presenters, was going to take on the Teflon Tsar!
A good woman, says Leo, and we’d all agree with that. But she had to go, and there was never any doubt in my mind but that she would. Once Fianna Fáil made it clear they were playing hardball, it was obvious that the Tánaiste would have to be sacrificed. All the talk of an election was mostly sheer hype, the national media laughably over-dramatic about it all. Watching Claire Byrne Live (no different to other shows), I didn’t know whether to scream, laugh or just channel-hop on foot of the relentless solemn declarations.
“An election now seems inevitable.”
“There’s no turning back.”
“Campaigning has begun, we’re facing a December 21st poll.”
“Christmas election now unavoidable.”
All these utterings said with a sense of certainty, when deep down we all knew that…er, it was baloney. From last Friday, it was fairly obvious that, after much strutting between all the principals, the Tánaiste would, come Tuesday, do the necessary “in the national interest.” Of course, this being Ireland, Frances Fitzgerald made it clear that she had done nothing wrong. And Leo backed her to the end, even pre-empting the outcome of the Disclosures Tribunal (since when should a Taoiseach declare in advance that he is confident that a colleague will be vindicated at an upcoming Tribunal?).
Strictly speaking, Fitzgerald may have resigned to avoid an election being held, but she ought to have gone before the emails released on Monday definitively showed that she knew about the plans of the former Garda Commissioner’s legal team to seek to smear McCabe’s good name. And Fitzgerald knew that this strategy stank, because it was based on lies and fabrication.
Yeah, good woman, but she was out or order, and she had to go.
The Taoiseach can talk all he likes about being loyal, about still believing in Frances, etc., but the reality is that he lost this one badly. One could understand Varadkar standing by his Tánaiste for the first couple of days; he might even have had a reasonable expectation that Micheál Martin would blink first. But once new emails emerged on Monday, it was shocking that the Taoiseach didn’t take decisive action. Poor, poor leadership from Leo, a blow to his ego, and a wake-up call for many in his party. Just when it looked like Leo had an upperhand on Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach’s credibility has taken a hit – and it’s game on.
She may be gone, but she’s not forgotten. For many months during her ill-fated tenure as Garda Commissioner, it looked as if she was untouchable. When she finally fell, there was a sense that maybe, just maybe, she was being hard done by. Maybe Nóirín had to go, not because of any flaws or misdeeds, but because, as she said at the time, the ongoing controversies were making it impossible for her to do her job. But this week’s revelations have further damaged O’Sullivan’s reputation.
Flanagan has lost some credibility after a nightmare week for the Justice Minister. Acted petulantly, then went to ground, made a less than convincing apology to Alan Kelly -– through the most gritted of teeth – and his best defence of his own woeful role in the saga is to say that he didn’t grasp the significance of an email. Farcical.
Coveney may privately be delighted at Leo Varadkar’s discomfort, but there was nothing particularly impressive (or wise?) about the Cork man’s performance on Claire Byrne Live on Monday night. Okay, some might say Coveney truly believed everything he said – and that he was also being admirably loyal to a friend and colleague. But he was as disingenuous as the rest of the then-Tánaiste’s defenders. It was an insult to our intelligence to repeatedly tell us that the advice to Fitzgerald had been that she had no role in this matter (due to legal constraints). The real issue (at least the one that sparked this crisis) was the question of whether or not Fitzgerald was aware of the aggressive strategy against McCabe. We wondered a few months ago if Coveney was leadership material. He looked less like a leader this week than he did then.