Phonecall from Varadkar to whistleblower McCabe helps Frances Fitzgerald survive political crisis
GARDA whistleblower Maurice McCabe pulled back from issuing a statement that could have ended Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s career last night.
Just minutes before Mrs Fitzgerald’s Dáil showdown with Opposition TDs, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rang Sgt McCabe to brief him on the contents of an email received by the Tánaiste in 2015.
The correspondence shows that the then-justice minister was made aware of aggressive tactics being adopted by lawyers for the then-Garda commissioner at the O’Higgins inquiry into malpractice in the Cavan/Monaghan district.
The email alerted Mrs 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 Mrs Fitzgerald said: “I can only assume that I did read it.”
She 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.
However, her standing in Fine Gael has been dramatically damaged by her handling of the controversy.
While Mr Varadkar is standing by her, a number of other ministers told the Irish Independent they see her as “isolated”.
Ministers are particularly angered that they were forced to repeatedly defend former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in public, even though Mrs Fitzgerald had been made aware of legal clashes at the inquiry.
One minister said the Tánaiste, who is now Enterprise Minister, is a “liability” and should be “cut loose” over the controversy.
Another accused Mrs Fitzgerald of “blind-siding” and “embarrassing” the Government.
Senior Fianna Fáil figures yesterday held talks to discuss their response to the crisis, but remain cautious in their approach. Forcing Mrs Fitzgerald from office runs the risk of sparking a general election in the short-term, as it would undermine the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement Fianna Fáil has with Fine Gael.
Sources stressed that the issue is likely to run into today “before we get all the answers”.
Among the outstanding questions is why wasn’t the Taoiseach made aware of the email when it was first discovered last Thursday.
Mr Varadkar only learned of its existence at 11.30pm on Monday.
Questions also remain about why the email wasn’t handed over to the Disclosures Tribunal, which is looking into an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe, until yesterday.
Sgt McCabe had indicated he would release a statement on the controversy after hearing Mrs Fitzgerald struggle to explain her position on RTÉ’s ‘News At One’.
However, it is understood that he later decided to hold off on issuing any statement.
In the Dáil, the Taoiseach described Sgt McCabe as “one of the bravest people that I have ever encountered in public life and he is somebody who has been very much wronged by the State on a number of occasions because of his bravery and because of his willingness to shine a light into some dark places”.
He urged the Dáil to accept the explanation offered by Mrs Fitzgerald, and to allow the matters be dealt with by the Disclosures Tribunal.
“This is an email from two-and-a-half years ago between officials,” said Mr Varadkar.
“It is not inconceivable and certainly should not give rise to conspiracy theories that it may take a few days for somebody to find such an email.
“It should be borne in mind that it is an email between two Department of Justice and Equality officials in which one official relates a third party conversation he had with an official from the Office of the Attorney General,” he added.
Mrs Fitzgerald also paid tribute to Sgt McCabe during her Dáil contribution.