Sunday 25 August 2019

Varadkar has options to avoid a general election

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

There are several ways in which the current political crisis can be resolved - but is Leo Varadkar wise enough to accept any of them? That's the question being asked at the highest political level this weekend.

Here is a ready-made solution: Frances Fitzgerald temporarily steps aside as Business, Enterprise and Innovation Minister pending hearings at the O'Higgins tribunal, in January, into the alleged smear campaign against Maurice McCabe.

Depending on what emerges, specifically in relation to what she knew, when she knew it and what she did about it, Fitzgerald can either resume her functions and duties or resign (or be sacked) from Cabinet.

A judgment can be made by the Taoiseach and Fianna Fail in the New Year, toward the end of January or into February.

To facilitate such an arrangement, Fianna Fail would withdraw, or suspend, its confidence motion this week pending an assessment of Fitzgerald's evidence.

Should Sinn Fein press ahead with its motion on the former justice minister and/or her successor, Charlie Flanagan, Fianna Fail could abstain, pending an assessment on the stood-aside Fitzgerald's evidence to the O'Higgins tribunal.

At that point, the Fine Gael minority government will either continue, albeit badly shaken, or a general election be called.

The public also benefits, because an election in the run- up to Christmas will be avoided and the Taoiseach can fully concentrate on two EU summits on Brexit in December and in the New Year.

Another solution: Fianna Fail withdraws its motion and Varadkar simultaneously announces his intention to reshuffle the Cabinet after the Christmas Dail recess.

Therefore, Fitzgerald is not sacked, but nor is she reappointed. So her CV remains clean. An upside for the Taoiseach is that he gets to appoint his own - as opposed to reappointing Enda Kenny's - Cabinet.

But is Varadkar prepared to relent, even somewhat, to facilitate a de-escalation of the current crisis?

Well, that's the great imponderable. The Taoiseach is faced with the most difficult - some would say no-brainer - decision of his relatively charmed political career.

Here is a young man who has sailed through political life, displaying a flamboyance and abandon, not unlike a chess prodigy making dramatic moves with a certainty that he has nothing or little to lose.

Before now, his most difficult decision was whether or not to support Kenny in a Fine Gael leadership heave in 2010.

He chose the losing side then, but such was the young man's reputation in the relative shallows of backbench politics that he sailed through that too to emerge a Cabinet minister.

His achievements in three government departments have been patchy, at best, but he continued to enhance his reputation through a mixture of charm, communication and a Machiavellian-like ability to excel at the cut and thrust of politics.

He has taken those finely honed skills into the Taoiseach's office, where he is increasingly accused of 'spin' and promising a lot but failing to deliver. That said, perhaps through his ability to communicate directly, he still has the commentariat on his side.

But now he is discovering that there is no hiding place at the top. The modus operandi which has seen him live such a charmed political life is being found to be increasingly threadbare. Next month he faces one of the most difficult decisions a Taoiseach can make - whether or not to use Ireland's veto in Europe.

The current controversy has overshadowed one of the most brazen developments in recent political history here.

Last week highly sensitive Department of Foreign Affairs documents were leaked in advance of a crucial Brexit summit next month.

The leak exposed Ireland's quietly efficient diplomatic work throughout Europe, the intention, one supposes, being to increase pressure on the UK.

It also had the effect of exposing Ireland's diplomats, and their sources abroad.

Whether the leak will achieve its unstated intention is also a moot point.

In short, the manner in which Varadkar is approaching the Brexit negotiations could as easily backfire as succeed.

Probably, the Department of Foreign Affairs leak did not come as a total shock to EU negotiators, but still, if we end up with a hard Brexit, this country will suffer more than Europe and searching questions will be asked.

The manner in which Varadkar is dealing with the Frances Fitzgerald question and, more broadly, the manner in which he is bestriding the international stage, may, he feels, be good for his image - but will it ultimately be good for Ireland?

The country looks on with a certain frisson of excitement, and also, more so after his handling of the Fitzgerald situation, with an increasing sense of nervousness.

Varadkar may feel he is about to soar, but more likely, he could be about to fly too close to the sun.

Sunday Independent

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