Sunday 22 September 2019

Fine Gael ministers now criticise 'naive' Varadkar as tensions surface

  • Leo Varadkar's authority within Fine Gael severely damaged - according to ministers
  • Number of ministers spoke up in defence of Ms Fitzgerald at Cabinet
  • He will face TDs and senators at a scheduled private meeting in Leinster House
Leo Varadkar AFP PHOTO / Jonathan NACKSTRANDJONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
Leo Varadkar AFP PHOTO / Jonathan NACKSTRANDJONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Niall O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

Leo Varadkar's authority within the Fine Gael party has been severely damaged as a result of his handling of the Frances Fitzgerald affair.

That is according to a significant number of ministers, TDs and party officials who have strongly criticised Mr Varadkar's failure to sack Ms Fitzgerald.

During a bruising day for the Fine Gael leader, Cabinet members and backbenchers openly questioned Mr Varadkar's judgment.

It was the first time such dissent has been seen since Mr Varadkar took over as Taoiseach in the summer.

Frances Fitzgerald arrives at the FG selection convention in Dublin last night. Photo: Arthur Carron
Frances Fitzgerald arrives at the FG selection convention in Dublin last night. Photo: Arthur Carron

The disquiet grew on Monday night after the release of the chain of emails by the Department of Justice, which showed Ms Fitzgerald was aware of the Garda strategy to take an "aggressive stance" against Sgt Maurice McCabe.

Cabinet ministers spoke to each other over the phone and via text, and questioned why they had been directed to publicly back Ms Fitzgerald when it was clear her position was becoming untenable.

Then Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughton became the first backbencher to state that she believed Ms Fitzgerald would struggle to remain in situ.

The interview was given to Raidió na Gaeltachta ahead of Ms Naughton's selection convention, and was broadcast yesterday morning.

Former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald departs from Government buildings after she gave her resignation to the Taoiseach Picture: Gerry Mooney
Former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald departs from Government buildings after she gave her resignation to the Taoiseach Picture: Gerry Mooney

Later on Monday night, Dublin North West TD Noel Rock pulled out of a scheduled TV3 interview because he wasn't happy with the party's stated position.

Despite efforts by the Taoiseach's officials to persuade Mr Rock to go ahead with the appearance and defend Ms Fitzgerald, the young backbencher refused. But from early morning, other deputies discussed the prospect of demanding Ms Fitzgerald's resignation if she did not step aside.

A number of deputies, including junior minister Damien English and Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd, called for Ms Fitzgerald to answer questions about her handling of the email controversy.

Then Mr Varadkar cancelled the weekly meeting of Fine Gael ministers, which takes place before the Cabinet meeting.

Interview: Hildegard Naughton
Interview: Hildegard Naughton

A number of ministers spoke up in defence of Ms Fitzgerald at Cabinet, including Health Minister Simon Harris, who said she should have been afforded due process.

But others were scathing of the ex-tánaiste, with one minister describing her resignation at Cabinet as "cold" and "unapologetic".

Justice in crisis: (L-R) Minister Charlie Flanagan, former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and secretary general Noel Waters
Justice in crisis: (L-R) Minister Charlie Flanagan, former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and secretary general Noel Waters

Fine Gael TDs and senators are due to meet today for the first time since Ms Fitzgerald's resignation.

However, it's widely accepted that Mr Varadkar's standing within the party has been damaged.

One minister questioned whether Mr Varadkar had been "naive" not to spot that the second tranche of emails would be fatal for the ex-tánaiste.

"What were they thinking? How did they not know it would end this way once they saw those emails. It's hard to understand," said one Cabinet minister.

Sources say Mr Varadkar was "very frustrated and annoyed" by the way the controversy has ended.

He will face TDs and senators at a scheduled private meeting of the party in Leinster House.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach sought to defend his handling of the crisis, saying: "I certainly am not in any way happy about how the last couple of weeks have played out.

"Notwithstanding the enormous distraction this has been for the Government and for the country, we did not have to end up in the situation we are in today," the Dublin West TD added.

Mr Varadkar said if questions had been answered "properly and fully", he would not have come into the House on two occasions to correct previous statements.

Irish Independent

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