Monday 24 October 2016

Constitution is not the place to deal with matters like abortion, says Frances

Minister Frances Fitzgerald opens up to Daniel McConnell about her two miscarriages, and why she wants to lead FG

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

A VERY CLEAR MESSAGE: Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald at Leinster House. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A VERY CLEAR MESSAGE: Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald at Leinster House. Photo: Gerry Mooney
On shredding the files of former Garda Commissioner Callinan — ‘An Garda Siochana need to say what are the appropriate practices to ensure that the relevant SIM cards, the relevant papers are available ... I think it needs improvement going forward’

On shredding the files of former Garda Commissioner Callinan - 'An Garda Siochana need to say what are the appropriate practices to ensure that the relevant SIM cards, the relevant papers are available ... I think it needs improvement going forward'

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For several years, two names were frequently mentioned as possible successors to Enda Kenny as the leader of Fine Gael - Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

But in recent months a third name has emerged as a so-called compromise candidate - Frances Fitzgerald.

As we reported recently, it seems Kenny and the leadership would favour Fitzgerald as his successor, ahead of the two young pretenders to the crown.

So, when I sat down with the Justice Minister in the Dail last Thursday, I asked her to clarify her intentions, given that Kenny has signalled that he intends to stand down during the next Dail term.

"Do you want to lead the party?" I ask her.

Fitzgerald, firmly, signals her intention to contest for the right to be Fine Gael's first female leader, and possibly Taoiseach, when Kenny does make way.

"Well, you know, I am very busy leading Justice," she says coyly.

"Will you rule yourself out of contention," I ask.

"I don't rule myself out," she replies. "I am very honoured to be elected in the first instance. To have this job, you know, is such a wide agenda I have worked on over 20 years and I am very interested in and believe they can make a real difference if they are handled properly, and so I don't speculate about leadership. I have always enjoyed leading when I had the opportunity to lead in a variety of roles, and I think it is a real privilege to lead.

"So I want to be re-elected, I want to continue my job, in justice, obviously, and do the best I can, but I want to be re-elected. And there is no vacancy. That is the point."

I say I ask the question in the context that the Taoiseach himself did essentially put a time limit on his leadership.

She replies: "Yes, but politics is . . . He said down in Adare that he intended to carry out the term of office if the people supported him in going back and if Fine Gael gets the numbers back that we would like to see."

Following on from last May's same-sex marriage referendum, talk has already shifted to repealing the controversial 1983 Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to life to a mother and her unborn child.

Does she favour repealing the Eighth, as the Labour Party does?

"My own feeling is that the Constitution, you know, has never really been the place to address complex situations," she says.

"I think this is a most sensitive and difficult issue for every individual and also for government, and it needs to be handled with the utmost care and, you know, as somebody who has had five pregnancies myself, two that I lost in miscarriage.

"I can only tell you what my personal view is, that the Constitution is not the place to resolve complex issues like this. That would be my overall view.

"The Taoiseach said he doesn't want to talk about repeal of the Eighth Amendment unless we know what's going to replace it.

"I think that's for us as a party to really discuss, and as the Taoiseach said, he doesn't support a general statement that says repeal the Eighth - it's almost, it would be more meaningful to talk about what do you replace it with.

"I think, you know, that is a highly complex issue. I think we need a process in place that's respectful and thoughtful. That's what we put in place for the protection of life legislation, and that's what would need to be done to consider what the alternatives might be," she says.

Fitzgerald rails against former Fine Gael minister Lucinda Creighton and other former party members who left the party over their opposition to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.

"I'm impressed with the way the Government dealt with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy," she says. "I'm not a bit impressed with people who couldn't support it, because I think we're dealing with women's lives."

"And do you include former members of your party in that," I ask.

"I do, in the sense that I do believe that it was saving women's lives and that it was dealing with the very extreme situations where women's lives were at risk," she says.

In recent weeks, Fitzgerald has had to get to grips with the migrant crisis.

She says the Government is keen to harness the public goodwill towards refugees, and insists she is working to reduce the time people are waiting in direct provision.

However, she adds that many of those who have languished in the system have been refused entry but are appealing that decision.

"The big criticism of direct provision, the critique of direct provision, is more about the length of time that people spend on it, so we've got to deal with that," she says. "What people tend to forget, though, is that those appeals are being held because people disagree with the official assessment that they're not asylum-seekers and they're using the judicial review system, they're trying to delay it.

"The bottom line is that the assessment was that they weren't asylum-seekers and they're appealing that again as they have a right to and again and again. And some of the people are on deportation orders but they haven't been served and there's a couple of legal issues around them."

Fitzgerald says that returning people to their country of origin must be part of Ireland's robust immigration system.

"If you want to have an immigration system that works, you have to focus on returns of people who are not entitled to enter your country, you have to send them back," she says.

Does that mean Ireland will be sending more people back?

"Yeah, I think there has to be," she says. " I think it's, you know, you're a refugee, you're assessed to be a refugee or you're not, and the safe countries of origin that they're bringing up in Europe, so there's going to be a list of maybe up to, let's say, 15 or 20 countries; if you're from X country and they're saying that if you apply for refugee status in that country they say, 'No, that is a safe country of origin', and we'll follow that list."

Fitzgerald, the country's first ever senior Cabinet Minister for Children, was promoted to the Department of Justice to mop up after the crisis that toppled then minister Alan Shatter, his top official Brian Purcell (who Fitzgerald famously refused to express confidence in) and the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

The recent Fennelly Report into Callinan's controversial departure found that he asked a junior officer to dispose of between eight and 10 black plastic bags filled with "personal" files from his office when he suddenly left on March 25, 2014.

The papers, which Fennelly said included Callinan's 2013 diary, were subsequently shredded on April 4, 2014, and cannot be retrieved. The same report also found that a SIM card from Callinan's official Garda mobile phone is missing and believed to have been destroyed, meaning no records of texts or phone calls during a key political period can be examined. Callinan, who told the Fennelly Commission that he regularly communicated by text, was initially unable to locate the mobile phone.

Fitzgerald says those files and the SIM card should not have been destroyed and should have been available to the Fennelly Commission.

"What I would say about that is, Judge Fennelly made the point that it would have been preferable, obviously, if the SIM card [could have been examined]," she says. "He made a lot of efforts and he'd all the legal powers at his disposal to try and get the SIM card and to get whatever papers were relevant.

"I think what An Garda Siochana need to do now, they need to examine what was discussed in Fennelly in relation to those issues; they need to say what are the appropriate features and practices we need to have in An Garda Siochana to ensure that the relevant SIM cards, the relevant papers are available; we need to distinguish between personal and public papers, obviously. I think it needs improvement going forward."

Does she concur with Judge Nial Fennelly's statement that it would be preferable that the files and the SIM card be made available?

"I do, yes, 100pc," she says.

Given the unrest in the North during the summer, I ask her if she accepts that the IRA has "left the stage" or if she thinks elements remain active, as suggested by the PSNI.

"Look, let's be very clear where I'm coming from on this," she says. "I wish the Provisional IRA had never existed. I think the campaign of violence was unacceptable.

"The way I would put it is this: I would say that in terms of a structure around paramilitary or terrorist activity, I accept what the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) said and I accept what the Garda Commissioner says.

"I think when you come from a conflict situation there's a transition; clearly there's been a transition by some people into criminal activity alright.

"You had people who were very close to people who went on to mainstream or went into political activity through parties, Sinn Fein. What I would say is that the transition from one to the other, the IMC made it very clear that there was a transition."

She criticises Sinn Fein for failing to act responsibly, because she says they know the people involved.

"Sinn Fein has a very particular responsibility because they know the people who were involved before, they have access in a way that other people don't have, so they have a special responsibility, whether it's in relation to the Mairia Cahill situation, to do and say more than the usual stereotyped phrases," she says.

Fitzgerald adds that on foot of the PSNI Chief Constable's comments that some Provisional IRA structures still exist, she has asked Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan to examine the evidence.

She says: "What I would say in relation to that is that the Chief Constable made a statement. He said, 'What I asked the Garda Commissioner to do is to link obviously on an ongoing basis to continue to look at the evidence emerging and to see what new evidence is emerging in that jurisdiction in relation to this issue and I await with interest to hear that'."

Another issue: given that some of those republicans were active in the IRA and terrorists, or whatever, they were engaging in fuel laundering.

"Yeah, well, what has been going on is outrageous, clearly. We have the evidence, in fact," she says.

"I think we want to give a very clear message to whoever is involved in this sort of criminal activity that it won't be tolerated. It will be dealt with by people, the PSNI and the Gardai. The relationship has never been better between the two on both sides of the border."

Is the State still turning a blind eye to such criminal activity?

"Absolutely not. No question of a blind eye to anything to do with membership of illegal organisations or to do with criminal activity," she says.

"It doesn't matter who they are, what they've done in the past, how they're involved, there is no blind eye, and no question of it at government level.

"I'm disgusted that some people say, 'Well, you know what was said at the time of the peace process - is there any question of that now?'

"There isn't. And I would want the public to know that."

Sunday Independent

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