Wednesday 21 August 2019

Taoiseach facing biggest dilemma of his political career as country on verge of Christmas election

Fine Gael passes motion in support of Tánaiste

Leo Varadkar (right) with Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar (right) with Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Tom Burke

Kevin Doyle and Niall O'Connor

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar is facing the biggest political question of his career: sack his Tánaiste or call an election.

With the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement which underpins the Government now on life support, Mr Varadkar must decide whether to cave to Fianna Fáil demands for Frances Fitzgerald to be ousted.

The Opposition party is to table a motion of no confidence in Mrs Fitzgerald today over her lack of response to an email outlining clashes between legal teams for An Garda Síochána and whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe in 2015.

Senior Government sources told the Irish Independent that Mr Varadkar is not prepared to back down in the row as Fianna Fáil’s argument is “based on sand”.

He is set to cancel a scheduled visit to the Irish Defence troops in Mali and a meeting with EU Parliament President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Ivory Coast next week to deal with the crisis.

“The Government is resolute. We do not want an election but Frances Fitzgerald has done nothing wrong. The confidence and supply agreement couldn’t be clearer so Fianna Fáil need to pull back,” a source close to the Taoiseach said.

However, Fianna Fáil is adamant that Mrs Fitzgerald should resign in the national interest so as to avoid an election. If the Dáil is dissolved in the coming days it is likely that a general election would be called at some point between December 15 and 23.

Mr Varadkar is due in Brussels on December 14 for a pivotal Brexit meeting to decide the future of the Northern Ireland Border. And if the Government collapses, tax cuts and social welfare hikes announced as part of last month’s Budget are unlikely to be passed in time for January.

There were cheers from Fianna Fáil TDs in the Dáil bar as their justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan appeared on RTÉ’s ‘Six One’ news to announce: “She should go.”

Asked whether his party was prepared for an election, he said if Mrs Fitzgerald refused to step aside then “so be it”.

A series of emergency meetings took place in Government Buildings after Mr O’Callaghan’s appearance on television during which Mr Varadkar indicated he will fight an election if Fianna Fáil do not back down.

“I think we’re having an election. Genuinely there is no question of the Tánaiste being asked to resign. The Fianna Fail case is built on sand,” said one Cabinet minister.

“We won’t allow a political execution to take place.”

A spokesperson for the Independent Alliance members of Government said they still retain confidence in Mrs Fitzgerald. The chain of events was sparked by Sinn Féin’s decision to place a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste for next Wednesday.

Fianna Fáil refused to be outflanked by Gerry Adams’s party and is in a position to table a similar motion for Tuesday.

Health Minister Simon Harris accused Sinn Féin of trying to turn the Dáil into a Kangaroo court.

He said the email at the centre of the controversy has been handed over to the Charleton tribunal, which is probing allegations of a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe.

Mr Harris said: “I think most citizens in this country respect the fact that when you ask a judge to set up a tribunal, you actually allow the judge to get on with his work.”

Government sources have raised concerns that even if Mrs Fitzgerald stands down, attention may then turn to current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

He is under pressure for not alerting the Taoiseach to the email even after Mr Varadkar told the Dáil there was no evidence the Department of Justice was aware of attempts to discredit Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission.

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