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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Coalition in crisis: Now it's 'coming for a head' time

Labour ups the ante as support for Varadkar grows – Shatter and Callinan on the rack

JODY CORCORAN, JOHN DRENNAN and FIONNAN SHEAHAN

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

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CALLING FOR CALM: Taoiseach Enda Kenny is keen to defuse
growing tension in the Coalition over the whistleblower row
CALLING FOR CALM: Taoiseach Enda Kenny is keen to defuse growing tension in the Coalition over the whistleblower row

GARDA Commissioner Martin Callinan has 48 hours to defuse the crisis in Government caused by his reference to the actions of the Garda whistleblowers as "disgusting".

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Should he fail to do so, government sources fear the positions of the Commissioner himself and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter will quickly become untenable.

Yesterday, Mr Callinan declined to take another opportunity to withdraw his "disgusting" comment on the actions of the whistleblowers, who have been described as "credible" by the Garda Inspectorate following an investigation into the penalty points scandal.

Labour deputy leader Joan Burton upped the ante last night, saying the party regards the protection of whistleblowers as a "core value".

Ms Burton told the Sunday Independent: "Labour are determined to see this matter resolved. The treatment of whistleblowers cuts to the heart of a modern democracy. The protection and respect of whistleblowers is a Labour core value."

And in his first public utterance on the crisis, the Tanaiste yesterday said it would be "helpful" if the Commissioner withdrew the comment.

"There are always times that an office holder or public official can use a word that is unfortunate," he said.

"They [Ruairi Quinn and Joan Burton] have expressed the view that it would be helpful if it were withdrawn, and I agree with that," he said.

Yesterday, Brendan Howlin also said he supports the call for an apology.

In a further dramatic development last night, a senior Labour party source told the Sunday Independent: "We are heading towards a 'we're coming for a head' moment," a reference to events that led to the collapse of the Fianna Fail/ Labour government in 1994 when Labour forced the resignation of then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

The crisis has been brought to a head by the dramatic intervention of the Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, who last week called on Mr Callinan to withdraw his controversial remark in relation to whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson.

Mr Varadkar has been at odds with Mr Shatter for months over the Justice Minister's handling of the penalty points controversy.

Sources close to Mr Varadkar yesterday claimed Mr Shatter refused to engage with his cabinet colleague on the penalty points issue, either face-to-face or even by text message.

Mr Varadkar's carefully judged intervention also forced Labour ministers to finally back the whistleblowers in public.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Labour ministers Ms Burton, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn subsequently supported Mr Varadkar's position that the word "disgusting" should be withdrawn.

The tense stand-off was provoked by Mr Varadkar's dramatic intervention last Thursday, when he described Mr McCabe and Mr Wilson as "distinguished" at a conference of the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

Despite reports that Mr Varadkar now finds himself isolated among a majority of Fine Gael ministers, sources close to the minister last night said he has "no intention" of backing down on the issue.

No other Fine Gael minister contacted by the Sunday Independent this weekend would publicly back Mr Varadkar, or even comment on the issue. However, according to sources, Mr Varadkar believes he has the support of a clear majority of the Cabinet for his stance.

One senior Fine Gael source told the Sunday Independent: "In some ways it's a case of Shatter and Callinan versus the Government."

The source added: "Leo has the support of all the Labour ministers and Simon Coveney has also been supportive of the whistleblowers, as has – don't forget – the Taoiseach, who has also commended the whistleblowers."

However, other Fine Gael source yesterday indicated that senior figures in the party are dismissive of Mr Varadkar's stance. "Is it Gay Byrne running his department?" one source said of the broadcaster and chairman of the RSA.

Apart from Mr Varadkar, Fine Gael ministers are so far publicly standing by the Garda Commissioner.

"If the Commissioner apologises, he's saying he did something wrong," one minister said last night.

At the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis yesterday, the party's justice spokesman, Niall Collins, sought to expose the crisis within Cabinet and between Fine Gael and Labour ministers.

He said the Justice Minister had "ignored" the whistleblowers' reports and the concerns of the RSA.

"Clearly his only interest is in suppressing dissent rather than proper management of the administration of justice in Ireland," Mr Collins told the Sunday Independent.

"Instead of engaging with whistleblowers, he went out of his way to undermine them. The publication of the Garda Inspectorate report last week vindicates their concerns about the penalty points system. After attacking Sgt McCabe in the Dail chamber, Alan Shatter owes him an apology. No ifs, no buts, just a simple apology."

The Sunday Independent has learnt that Mr Varadkar's intervention came after months of what is said to be his "increasing frustration" with the Justice Minister.

A senior Fine Gael source said: "It has been extraordinarily difficult to get Alan to address this issue. Whether getting a discussion person-to-person or on the phone, Mr Shatter seemed to find it very difficult to talk about the matter or even deal with it by text." He added: "It has gone on for quite a long time. The difficulty has been quite astonishing."

The Garda Commissioner is this weekend understood to be acutely aware, and deeply uncomfortable, that he is now at the centre of biggest public fallout between the coalition parties since the formation of the Government.

He is expected to ascertain the views of Mr Shatter and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, before he decides what to do next.

The Sunday Independent yesterday provided Mr Callinan with another opportunity, his fourth so far, to withdraw the word "disgusting" which he applied to the actions of the whistleblowers at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on January 23.

The opportunity was offered in the context of the "escalating political crisis" and following a declaration by the now six cabinet members that the word should be withdrawn.

In a response, issued through the garda press office, Mr Callinan stood firmly behind his position that he had last week "clarified" his use of the word "disgusting" and gave no indication that his position was likely to change.

However, the Sunday Independent also understands that the Garda Commissioner is likely to use the next 24 to 48 hours to ascertain the position of his political boss, Mr Shatter, and that of the Taoiseach.

Highly placed sources have indicated the possibility remains open that a "formula of words" may be arrived at before a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to meet a minimum requirement that the word "disgusting" be withdrawn.

If this happens, Labour is not expected to push the matter further, but will press hard for the creation of an independent garda oversight body, similar to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, a development which Fine Gael this weekend is also said to be "coming around to".

Such a development would also allow the position of Mr Shatter to be made more secure pending the outcome of a further inquiry into the penalty points scandal by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission and a further report into the suspected bugging of the GSOC office.

Sources close to the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe, meanwhile, have indicated that he hopes that the Garda Commissioner will apologise for the remarks.

A family source said that despite the Commissioner's suggestion that the remark was not personal, the whistleblowers have taken it personally.

Sunday Independent

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