Friday 23 August 2019

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail face backlash over poll threat

FF and FG hit with angry public backlash over election threat

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin Photo: Tony Gavin
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin Photo: Tony Gavin

Philip Ryan, Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were this weekend coming under intense pressure from voters to pull back from the brink of a general election in the days before Christmas.

Deputies from both parties embroiled in a political standoff over a motion of no confidence in Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald have been faced with an angry backlash from constituents.

But neither Leo Varadkar nor Micheal Martin were showing any sign of retiring from entrenched positions.

At a meeting yesterday, the two party leaders discussed the role the Charleton Tribunal would have examining the Tanaiste's knowledge of the legal strategy.

And the Taoiseach handed over a series of documents from the Department of Justice in an attempt to establish the extent of knowledge the Tanaiste and her officials had of the Garda strategy to discredit Sgt Maurice McCabe.

A major overhaul of the Department of Justice is now also on the table.

However, it remains unclear whether Fianna Fail would be prepared to back down if Ms Fitzgerald is found to have acted appropriately after a trawl of departmental files and the Charleton Tribunal completes its work. After the meeting, Mr Varadkar phoned the Tanaiste to reassure her Fine Gael was still fully behind her.

The party has ramped up election preparations by issuing a directive to have 20 selection conventions held by Tuesday and the rest completed by the end of the week. The most likely dates for an election are Tuesday, December 19, or the following Thursday.

However, voters have called constituency offices and approached TDs publicly to tell them they do not want an election during one of the busiest times of the year for families and businesses.

Fianna Fail TDs have faced the most severe criticism, with some constituents telling them they would not vote for the party if an election is called.

As a result, there is growing disquiet in the party over Mr Martin's handling of the situation.

"It's bad judgment for a leader to go off on his own bat and do this without consulting the parliamentary party on an issue that was going to cause a general election," said one Fianna Fail TD who would not normally be critical of Mr Martin.

On the Fine Gael side, one minister said people "don't want to talk about the issues, they just say make it stop".

However, the prospect of a snap general election is intensifying, with Ms Fitzgerald telling the Sunday Independent she will "not bow to summary justice".

"I believe in due process, and as the Taoiseach said due process was important for Maurice McCabe and it is important for me," the Tanaiste said.

Mr Varadkar also continued to back his deputy and said it was not in the interest of the country to hold an election.

"Most people feel that the Government is functioning, that we're in a strong position on Brexit in particular at a very precarious time and the Government should be allowed to continue its work," he said.

Mr Martin continued to stand over his demand that the Tanaiste should step aside.

"The Taoiseach and I continue to have different positions on this issue but we are agreed that we do not want a general election," Mr Martin told the Sunday Independent.

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As things stand, the election campaign would take place against the backdrop of the most important EU Brexit summit since the negotiations began.

The summit is hugely important as Mr Varadkar may use Ireland's veto to prevent talks going to the next stage if issues around the Northern Ireland border are not resolved.

Labour Party TD Alan Kelly said Sinn Fein's attempt to bring down the Government was political opportunism and insisted an election was not needed.

"They have jumped on the bandwagon and seen an opportunity to split this (confidence and supply) arrangement," he said.

Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald after it emerged she received an email alerting her to the aggressive approach being taken by Garda at the O'Higgins Commission towards Sgt McCabe in May 2015. Mr Martin then tabled a separate motion which is a breach of the confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

The Fianna Fail leader's decision to bring the country to a brink of an election has incensed backbench TDs who were not consulted before the diktat was issued to the Taoiseach.

Another TD said Mr Martin's decision was "beyond logic" because no one gave a "flying f**k about that email".

Independent Alliance TD Sean Canney said the public was furious that politicians were talking about an election when they should be focused on Brexit, housing and health.

"These are people who vote and they can't understand why politicians who are supposed to know what is important are in Dublin using the circumstances around an email to call an election," Mr Canney said.

He suggested the parties could draft a new confidence and supply agreement for the next two years so the Government could see out the Brexit negotiations.

In Fine Gael, ministers rallied around Ms Fitzgerald and insisted she should not be forced to resign over the latest Department of Justice scandal. However, one minister suggested that if she did hand in her resignation the party would accept it. "If she does, we won't be happy but we will live with it," the minister said.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Varadkar described Ms Fitzgerald as "someone who helped me to believe that I could be a leader, that I should be judged by my ability and my politics and not on my sexuality or the colour of my skin."

Sources close to the Tanaiste were adamant she would not be stepping down.

"She's not before the tribunal; there are no charges against her so why would she step aside? It's not a runner," the sources said.

It emerged last week that the email sent to Ms Fitzgerald was also forwarded to her senior Department of Justice officials and her political adviser.

Senior government sources this weekend said there was no follow-up meeting to discuss the strategy being used against Sgt McCabe by the Garda legal team.

Questions remain over why Ms Fitzgerald did not take any action on foot of the email. The Government has claimed she was legally prevented from intervening in the tribunal but Fianna Fail has argued this is not the case.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is also under pressure over the role he played in the controversy and his failure to alert the Taoiseach to the existence of the email when he became aware of its existence.

Sunday Independent

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