Wednesday 21 August 2019

'There is nothing that can't be solved in the next 24 hours' - minister's hope as crunch talks continue

  • Talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil continue today
  • Countdown on with just hours to avoid snap election
  • 'Some progress was made' in Sunday night talks
  • Varadkar makes it clear he does not want former Justice Minister to walk away
  • Minister Doherty 'optimistic' election can still be avoided
  • 'The only resolution to this is Frances Fitzgerald to resign' - Sinn Féin's Donnchadh O'Laoghaire
  • 'Frances Fitzgerald failed in her ministerial responsibility' - Labour leader Brendan Howlin

Denise Calnan and Laura Larkin

With just hours to go to avoid a snap election, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are meeting in Cork.

If Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar fails to end the stand-off with main opposition party Fianna Fail by Tuesday, a snap pre-Christmas election looms.

Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin held talks over the weekend to try to avert a government meltdown at a time when ministers are preparing for December's crunch EU summit, when the fate of the Irish border post-Brexit could effectively be determined.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin met in Dublin on Sunday night and sources close to the pair said "some progress was made". Today, the duo will meet in Cork.

Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast morning Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said it is clear nobody wants an election except Sinn Féin and said the onus now falls on Fianna Fáil to avoid one.

Minister Regina Doherty said she is still optimistic that an election can be avoided.

"What we have all discovered at the weekend is the level of dysfunction in the Department of Justice - I was going to say shocked us all - but it hasn't," she said.

Ms Doherty said it is  "clear to me is that the country wouldn't be in any different position than we are today", except for a weakened position in relation to Brexit and Northen Ireland.

She continued her defence of Ms Fitzgerald and dismissed claims by her constituency colleague Thomas Byrne (FF) who said the fact that the minister did not know of  the call from the Garda Commissioner was enough to warrant her stepping aside.

Ms Doherty said it is clear nobody wants an election except Sinn Féin and said the onus now falls on Fianna Fáil to avoid one.

"When you have people sitting around an table telling you they don't want an election well then it becomes their responsibility to make sure we don't have one," she said.

"I'm always optimistic... there is nothing that can't be solved in the next 24 hours so we don't need an election," she said.

Meanwhile, on RTE Radio One's Morning Ireland, Sinn Féin's Justice Spokesperson Donnchadh O'Laoghaire said the only solution to the crisis is for Frances Fitzgerald to resign.

Sinn Féin Justice Spokesperson Donnchadh O'Laoghaire said he does not think it is a sufficient solution for Frances Fitzgerald to step aside temporarily.

"The Dáil has lost confidence in her, I would say. If it came to a vote, I think it would be clear.

"The Fianna Fáil deputies last week had no confidence in her.

"It could be a situation where she perhaps stands aside, but continues to hold a prominent role in proxy, because she does not have the confidence of the Dáil."

He continued; "Frances Fitzgerald is a likeable woman, but this doesn't mean this issue can be set aside.

"She did wrong. She failed to do anything to support Maurice McCabe."

He also said he did not think an apology or a reworking of the Department of Justice was sufficient.

"While there are issues in the Department of Justice, this is an issue of political accountability.

"It is very clear the Dáil does not have confidence in Frances Fitzgerald.

"It is very clear that the case for defence is unravelling.

"The claim that there was no prior knowledge has been dismissed.

"That she couldn't do anything about it has been disproven.

"The point that it was so insignificant she couldn't remember or didn't know about it has been dispelled.

"The case for the defence has collapsed.

"The only resolution to this is Frances Fitzgerald to resign."

Pressure

Tanáiste Frances Fitzgerald remains under intense pressure to resign over her handling of a 2015 email that revealed attempts to discredit a Garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

The email has raised questions over Mrs Fitzgerald's denials, a year later, that she knew nothing of the contentious legal strategy deployed by the Garda to question the motives of Mr McCabe during a 2015 tribunal that examined his claims of police malpractice.

The controversy took another twist on Sunday when it emerged the then Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan had discussed the strategy in a phone call with a senior Department of Justice official while the tribunal was still ongoing.

The revelation raised further questions about the extent of contact about the matter between the Garda and the Department of Justice at the time.

Mr Martin, whose party is keeping Mr Varadkar's coalition government alive through an 18-month-old confidence and supply agreement, has refused to back down on a motion of no confidence in Tanaiste Mrs Fitzgerald.

It is scheduled for Tuesday night and, if Fianna Fail follow through with it, the confidence and supply pact would be broken and the Government would fall.

One way out of the impasse could be for Mrs Fitzgerald to fall on her sword but Mr Varadkar has made clear he does not want her to walk away.

If the Dail is dissolved, Mr Varadkar would be reduced to the role of caretaker Taoiseach when he travels to Brussels for the summit.

The crisis has erupted at a time when Ireland's stance on Brexit - in particular its call for Northern Ireland to adhere to an EU customs framework - is threatening to thwart the UK government's desire to progress negotiations with Europe on to a future trade deal.

On Saturday, Mr Varadkar provided Mr Martin with an update on an emergency trawl of documents within the Department of Justice to locate any additional information on the whistleblower furore.

That trawl unearthed details of Ms O'Sullivan's phone call to the Department of Justice official.

Mrs Fitzgerald has defended her handling of the email issue amid allegations she was aware of the campaign by lawyers for the Garda Commissioner and took no action.

On Sunday, she faced fresh questions as to whether she discussed the email with Ms O'Sullivan when she attended a memorial event with her the day after she received it.

Additional reporting: PA

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