Friday 17 November 2017

Downfall: Ten days that toppled a Taoiseach

The Government may have survived a confidence vote, but as the McCabe scandal unravelled this week, Enda's weakness has been in plain sight, proving that the fallout from this saga will soon be a problem for another Taoiseach

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
'We now know the Taoiseach was describing a conversation that never happened'
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

When Margaret Thatcher was evicted from 10 Downing Street in November 1990, one of her former cabinet ministers came up with a striking analogy to describe the drama he had witnessed.

"You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B?" John Biffen asked. "Well, it was like that. Someone pressed a button and all the connections lit up."

Today, many people in Leinster House will understand exactly what Biffen was talking about. The last week has been a truly extraordinary period in Irish politics, one which initially threatened to destroy Enda Kenny's government and ended up effectively toppling the Taoiseach himself. It all began when RTÉ's Prime Time pressed a button, unearthing a false sex-abuse claim in the child protection agency Tusla - and immediately turning the garda whistleblower controversy into a full-blown political crisis.

One television clip in particular this week summed up exactly why Kenny had to go. On Monday evening he was doorstepped by reporters in Cork and asked if he would set up a public inquiry into the smearing of Sergeant Maurice McCabe. "Well," he replied, "I'm going to talk to Micheál Martin in the morning, actually."

For some Fine Gael TDs, this public deference to the Fianna Fáil leader was the ultimate sign of Kenny's weakness - and convinced them that they could not afford the slightest risk of stumbling into a snap general election with his face on their posters.

So how did the self-styled party of law and order end up abandoning its leader in such chaotic circumstances?

At the start of last week, everything seemed to be under control. The Government had received a report on the McCabe affair by retired judge Iarfhlaith O'Neill, which was deemed serious enough to justify a full-blown commission of inquiry. When the Cabinet met on Tuesday, February 7, it drafted the terms of reference for an investigation headed by Supreme Court Justice Peter Charleton - one that would presumably keep the controversy behind closed doors for at least another nine months.

The following day, Labour leader Brendan Howlin provided an intriguing curtain-raiser for the political drama about to explode. Speaking under parliamentary privilege in the Dáil, he detailed his conversation with an unnamed journalist who claimed that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan had personally made allegations of "sexual crimes" against Maurice McCabe. The Commissioner promptly denied this in no uncertain terms and Howlin found himself widely accused of using cheap tittle-tattle to gain publicity for his struggling party.

By Thursday night, everything looked very different. RTÉ's Prime Time (which Howlin had not referenced in his Dáil speech) delivered a spectacular scoop, revealing that wholly fictitious claims of sexual abuse carried out by Sgt McCabe had been contained in a Tusla file sent to An Garda Síochána. The agency's explanation was that one of its counsellors had made a clerical error, copying and pasting details from another report - an excuse that even the most charitable observer found exceptionally tough to swallow.

Now the focus shifted to Government Buildings. Children's Minister Katherine Zappone had met Sgt McCabe and his wife Lorraine on January 25, 10 days before the Cabinet meeting that drew up Judge Charleton's brief. Remarkably, however, those terms of reference made no explicit reference to Tusla - and the opposition immediately demanded to know how there could have been such a glaring omission.

As chance would have it, the US-born Zappone had flown to Seattle on family business just as things were hotting up. This may explain why the communications from her office on Friday were so inept.

At 3.30pm, the Minister issued a worryingly vague statement to insist that she had discussed the matter with "relevant colleagues" after her meeting with McCabe. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald quickly denied having any knowledge of the Tusla file before Thursday night's Prime Time, prompting fevered speculation that they were prepared to throw the Independent TD Zappone under a bus. She responded with a second statement of her own at 8.15pm, insisting that it would have been "highly inappropriate" for her to brief the Cabinet on such a sensitive and confidential issue.

The stage was now set for an exceptionally tense weekend. On Saturday, Sinn Féin announced that they would table a motion of no confidence in the Government, a cynical move designed to embarrass Fianna Fáil as much as Fine Gael. Thanks to the fragile Dáil arithmetic, everything now depended on whether Micheál Martin's thumb would turn up or down.

By sheer coincidence, Saturday evening also brought news of a dramatic opinion poll that showed just how much Fianna Fáil might have to gain from bringing the Coalition down. The Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes gave Martin's party (32pc, up three) a whopping 11-point lead over Fine Gael (21pc, down two), less than a year since the general election in which they won 24pc and 25pc respectively. Scared of looking like opportunists, however, Fianna Fáil stuck to the line that justice for the McCabes was their top priority and refused to support Sinn Féin's motion on the basis of a single poll.

On Sunday, Kenny and Fitzgerald both gave RTÉ interviews designed to show that they were on top of the situation. The politest summary of their efforts is that they did not quite succeed.

Speaking on RTÉ One's The Week in Politics, the Justice Minister became increasingly flustered as she insisted that the Prime Time revelations had come as a complete shock to her. "It's the truth, you can keep saying it's not credible all you like," she protested to a hostile and incredulous panel of political opponents. Although Fitzgerald was still standing at the end, most pundits believe that this controversy has destroyed whatever ambitions she had for either the leadership of Fine Gael or the presidency of Ireland.

In the long run, however, Kenny's interview on RTÉ radio's This Week turned out to be far more significant. The Taoiseach caused some confusion by suggesting that Katherine Zappone had only met the McCabes "in a personal capacity", forcing a spokesperson to later clarify that he meant "confidentially". He also recalled his own discussion with Zappone before the meeting in some detail, claiming that he had told her to "make sure you have a very thorough account of it".

We now know the Taoiseach was describing a conversation that never actually happened.

Read more: 'The transgression isn't the fatal offence... it is the efforts to cover it up'

Monday morning began with Fianna Fáil ratcheting up the pressure another notch. Jim O'Callaghan, the party's justice spokesman and a rapidly rising star, declared himself "100pc certain" that he had told Frances Fitzgerald about the rogue Tusla file "three or four times" during a conversation in the Dáil bar on the previous Wednesday evening - ie, 24 hours before the Prime Time bombshell.

Fitzgerald acknowledged the conversation but denied just as vehemently that Tusla had been mentioned. An awkward standoff ensued, with O'Callaghan adding the ominous rider: "Sometimes people can have different views about what happened by forgetting things."

Meanwhile, Micheál Martin was signalling a shift in Fianna Fáil's attitude towards Nóirín O'Sullivan. Having given her the benefit of any doubt so far, Martin told Cork's 96FM that it was now time for the Garda Commissioner to "assess where she stands". O'Sullivan responded with a blistering statement later that day, pointing out that "A campaign of false accusations, repeated and multiplied, do not make me guilty of anything… I am innocent." This was interpreted as a warning that the Government should not even think about sending a civil servant out to her house to sack her - as Kenny is strongly suspected of doing to her predecessor Martin Callinan in March 2014.

The political temperature was now approaching boiling point. Leo Varadkar, regarded by many Fine Gael TDs as their leader-in-waiting, returned early from his trip to Colombia with President Michael D Higgins. His internal message to party colleagues via WhatsApp was stark: "Worrying poll and trend. Important not to panic or be seen to panic. Everyone needs to stick together this week." The ambitious Fine Gael backbencher Noel Rock apparently disagreed, since a few hours later he went on RTÉ radio's News at One to complain that Fine Gael was suffering from a leadership vacuum and needed Kenny to set a retirement date.

Read more: Smears, insinuations, allegations and charges

By 4.30pm, Zappone was back in town and determined to give to give her side of the story. She delivered an emotional performance on the Dáil plinth, outlining her meeting with the McCabes and claiming, "I didn't sleep that night. How could you?" She admitted that not briefing the Cabinet might have been overly cautious, but explained that she did not want to play any part in putting such information into the public domain. Crucially, she then appeared to directly contradict Kenny - by insisting that she had told him about Tusla before the Cabinet meeting on February 7.

Zappone, it must be remembered, is a relatively inexperienced politician who was not even in the Dáil 12 months ago (although she had served five years in the Seanad). She has also built up a fund of goodwill due to her crusading work on the marriage equality issue. By effectively pleading guilty to nothing worse than naïvety, the Children's Minister enhanced her chances of escaping with the political equivalent of a yellow card.

The Government itself, however, still seemed to be floundering. It then received a lifeline from a most unexpected source. The McCabe family issued a statement, declaring that they had no interest in another private investigation and demanding a public one instead. They also set out a number of questions that they wanted answered immediately, adding: "We are entitled to the truth today. Justice can follow in its wake."

Suddenly Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both had a cause that they could unite behind. Although ministers had previously rejected calls for a public tribunal of inquiry, they now saw it as the only solution to their problem. The deal was duly sealed at a meeting between Kenny and Martin on Tuesday morning.

Now the Government's short-term survival was assured. Unfortunately for the Taoiseach, he was about to pass the point of no return. Tuesday afternoon saw him give perhaps the most disastrous Dáil performance of his entire career, during which (to borrow a phrase from Sinn Féin TD Louise O'Reilly) he adopted more positions than the Kama Sutra on what exactly had been going on between himself and Zappone.

Kenny at first tried to strike a note of humility, announcing, "Mea culpa. I am guilty here of not giving accurate information." He admitted to only speaking with the Children's Minister on February 7 after she had met the McCabes, not before as he had claimed in detail on radio.

At one point, the Taoiseach insisted that he was "not aware of any of the details of the discussion", then a few seconds later stated, "What Minister Zappone did say to me was that she had met the McCabes and that they had discussed false allegations of sexual abuse that had been sent to Tusla". Later on, Kenny blatantly contradicted himself yet again by saying that he never heard of any such allegations until Prime Time was broadcast on February 9.

If all this sounds thoroughly confusing, that's because it was. Kenny's credibility had rapidly drained away and the glum faces behind him showed that his own TDs knew it. "Paddy likes to know what the story is," the folksy promise he made on the night of his general election triumph in 2011, seemed like an eternity ago.

The end was remarkably swift. While the Government easily survived its confidence motion on Wednesday night, this was just a sideshow. The real action had taken place earlier at Fine Gael's parliamentary meeting where Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, apparently acting in tandem, both declared that the party needed to get ready for an early election.

Everybody in the room knew exactly what this meant - Kenny's choice now lay between resigning soon with dignity or facing an internal heave that he was virtually guaranteed to lose.

"It's a funny old world," Margaret Thatcher told her cabinet back in 1990 when she had finally run out of road. She wasn't laughing - and neither is Enda Kenny at the end of a traumatic week that means this whole, sorry mess will soon be some other Taoiseach's problem.

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