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Monday 19 August 2019

Fresh criticism for Frances Fitzgerald as Varadkar again corrects the Dail record

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Kevin Doyle and John Downing

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald today faced huge criticism over her alleged “failure to protect” garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

In a renewed tense Dáil debate on the crisis, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin each were scathingly critical of Ms Fitzgerald’s behaviour in 2015.  At that stage she was Justice Minister and Sgt McCabe faced hostile questions and false accusations at a judicial inquiry led by Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, again defended his deputy prime minister. But in another serious development he was again obliged to correct the Dáil record about events surrounding the controversy.

On this occasion Mr Varadkar said Ms Fitzgerald was in fact aware of lawyers’ moves against Sgt McCabe before he was cross-examined at the O’Higgins Commission of Inquiry in May 2015.

The Taoiseach also said he had spoken for up to 20 minutes on phone with Sgt McCabe yesterday.  He was mainly concerned that Sgt McCabe would know in advance of information concerning him which would emerge soon afterwards in Dáil debates.

Mr Varadkar said Sgt McCabe challenged assertions that the O’Higgins inquiry proceedings ever dealt with false allegations of sex abuse against him. The Taoiseach said this appeared to conflict with the text of the controversial Justice Department email which emerged in recent days.

“So, that leaves us all  in a position where we are all a little bit confused,” the Taoiseach said.

Mr Varadkar said Ms Fitzgerald had done everything possible to protect Sgt McCabe and followed model procedures to do this.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the revelations of the past few days, which showed Ms Fitzgerald knew about events at the O’Higgins inquiry a full year before she had previously admitted, raised very serious questions.

Mr Martin said the then-Justice Minister had “positively acquiesced” and “become a bystander” in moves by lawyers acting for then-Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan.  These actions were designed to wrongly undermine the integrity and character of Sgt McCabe at a time when the Commissioner and Justice Minister were publicly praising him.

Sinn Féin deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said the allegations levelled at Sgt McCabe had been disproven but Ms Fitzgerald had failed in her duty to protect him. Ms McDonald accused the Tánaiste’s failure to act raised concerns about her “competence, judgement and honour.”

“It raises very serious questions over the Tánaiste’s fitness for office,” Ms McDonald told the Dáil.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted that neither he nor the Government had anything to hide in these matters. “There’s nothing here to hide and neither I nor the Government are trying to protect anybody,” Mr Varadkar said.

The Taoiseach added that he had again asked for a renewed “trawl of documents” at the Justice Department and has also asked for an update on the “Toland recommendations” for reform of that department.

Mr Varadkar said he had been given incomplete information by the Justice Department which led him to inadvertently give wrong information in the Dáil last week. He said the crucial memo which emerged in recent days had been written by an assistant secretary at the Justice Department.

The Taoiseach stressed that the advice for Ms Fitzgerald in that memo was that she could not intervene in the judicial inquiry and risked breaking the law if she did. “If she had that we’d be asking a whole different set of questions here today,” Mr Varadkar said.

Earlier today, the Labour Party claimed Mr Varadkar was wrong to say the Department of Justice only learned of attempt to challenge Sgt Maurice McCabe’s motion after he was cross examined at the O’Higgins Commission.

It has now emerged that an email alerting Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald to a dispute between lawyers for the then Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan and Sgt McCabe was dated three days before he took the stand. 

“I am not satisfied that the Dáil received accurate information from the Taoiseach on two occasions last week regarding the timelines of when the Department of Justice was made aware of the then Garda Commissioner’s legal strategy surrounding Sergeant Maurice McCabe,” Labour TD Alan Kelly said.

“The Taoiseach told the Dáil twice last week that the legal strategy of the then Garda Commissioner was made known to the Department of Justice after the cross-examination of Maurice McCabe took place.

“Yesterday, the Tánaiste circulated an email to the Dáil stating that she was made aware of the legal strategy ‘ in a general way’ on May 15th, 2015. Given that the cross-examination of Maurice McCabe took place on May 18th 2015, it is very clear that the Tánaiste was made aware of the legal strategy before the cross-examination of Sgt McCabe took place.”

Mr Kelly said it is “now vital that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to come into the Dáil and correct the record and give a full account of what happened”.

The O’Higgins Commission was set up by Ms Fitzgerald to investigate allegations made by Sgt McCabe of malpractice in the Cavan/Monaghan district.

The email alerted Ms Fitzgerald that the issue of “a serious criminal complaint” which had always been denied by Sgt McCabe, was raised at the Commission.

The Tánaiste told the Dáil last night that it was “understandable” that she doesn’t remember the email because it concluded by stating that she had no function “relating to the evidence a party to a Commission of Investigation may adduce”.

But Ms Fitzgerald admitted: “I can only assume that I did read it.”

The Tánaiste survived almost an hour of intense questioning from Opposition parties during which she insisted the content of the email did not mean that she was aware of an overall strategy to discredit Sgt McCabe

The Taoiseach is set to face further questions on the controversy in the Dáil this afternoon. Sinn Féin are considering a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste.

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