Saturday 16 December 2017

Cabinet fears judge saga will bring the Government down

FG ministers confront Kenny and Fitzgerald in private meeting over Whelan controversy

Ex-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald came under fire over appointment of Máire Whelan to Court of Appeal. Picture: Collins
Ex-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald came under fire over appointment of Máire Whelan to Court of Appeal. Picture: Collins

Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan

Several Fine Gael Cabinet members believe Máire Whelan's controversial appointment to the Court of Appeal will result in the party crashing out of Government.

The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, now believes that his predecessor Enda Kenny has handed him a "hand grenade" that could result in a general election.

The Irish Independent can reveal that at a private meeting of Fine Gael ministers, Mr Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald were openly questioned over the appointment, which was ratified by President Michael D Higgins on Monday.

It is understood that Mary Mitchell O'Connor confronted Mrs Fitzgerald, saying: "Why didn't you wait a week before pushing through this appointment?" But other ministers raised questions over Mr Kenny's role and the reason why the appointment was done in haste.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor also made a passionate address about her performance in Government and was defended by ministers Michael Ring, Regina Doherty, Charlie Flanagan and Eoghan Murphy.

Sources close to Mrs Fitzgerald played down the confrontation.

However, other ministers present confirmed it took place.

The controversy surrounding Ms Whelan's appointment dominated yesterday's Dáil proceedings and has also led to serious tensions among Cabinet members just days into Mr Varadkar's tenure as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader.

Mr Varadkar's tumultuous week saw Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin tell his TDs that trust between the two parties had been eroded because of the events surrounding Ms Whelan's appointment.

Aspersions

The two main leaders were also embroiled in heated exchanges in the Dáil, with Mr Martin being accused of casting aspersions on the "competence, capacity and suitability" of newly appointed judge Ms Whelan.

Mr Varadkar divulged details of a private phone conversation he shared with Mr Martin at the weekend, telling his opposite number he had brought Ms Whelan's capabilities into question.

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Speaking during 'Leaders' Questions', Mr Martin asked why Ms Whelan's appointment was rushed through by Mr Kenny and Mrs Fitzgerald. He said it was clear there was "collaboration" between them to ensure Ms Whelan's appointment was secured.

Mr Varadkar then claimed that in a private phone call with Mr Martin on Sunday, the Fianna Fáil leader had questioned Ms Whelan's capabilities for the role but allegedly said he would not say this publicly.

"You did say it publicly," Mr Varadkar said.

"You mightn't have meant to but you did."

Senior Fianna Fáil figures now predict that an early election is far more likely under Mr Varadkar than Mr Kenny.

But there remain major tensions within Fine Gael, with several senior ministers questioning the reasons behind Ms Whelan's "rushed" appointment.

One theory shared by a number of ministers is that Ms Whelan's appointment means she would be exempt from giving evidence at any future inquiry involving senior Cabinet members.

Both Ms Whelan and Mr Kenny were central to the Fennelly Inquiry, which investigated the departure of former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, as well as the recording of phone calls in and out of Garda stations.

In the Dáil, Mr Martin claimed that he was not being "personal", adding: "I have no axe to grind with the individual."

The Cork South Central TD also criticised Mr Varadkar's Dáil performance on Tuesday, during which he named a number of other judges who were appointed under a Fianna Fáil government for which he served.

"You tried to create (the) impression of precedent with these individuals and there wasn't," Mr Martin said. "You shouldn't have done it."

But Mr Varadkar turned the tables on Mr Martin and asked on two occasions that he withdraw his comments.

On Tuesday, Mr Varadkar said that in the past Fianna Fáil had appointed individuals such as Supreme Court judge Frank Clarke and former Supreme Court judge Adrian Hardiman.

But Mr Martin replied: "Máire Whelan is no Frank Clarke. Máire Whelan is no Adrian Hardiman."

Irish Independent

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