Monday 20 January 2020

Fionnan Sheahan: Sargent's graceful exit is a rebuke to foot-dragging FF

Fionnan Sheahan

THE Green Party was supposed to be celebrating the arrival of a new senator into the party's ranks yesterday.

The nomination to the Seanad of Mark Dearey from Louth was intended to draw a line under the controversy caused by the bitter resignation of Deirdre de Burca.

Instead, they were mourning a blow to their father figure as Trevor Sargent was forced to resign after an unforgivable error of judgment.

The reaction to Sargent's difficulties was a mark of the esteem with which he is held across Leinster House. There was a large degree of incredulity and a sense the former Green Party leader had to be given a chance to explain his position.

The high moral standards set by Sargent over the past two decades in politics -- at local and national level -- meant his integrity had to be maintained.

The then party leader had been severely critical of then PD junior minister Bobby Molloy before the 2002 General Election when it emerged someone representing him had approached a judge in connection with a rape case.

"The time is long overdue when representations which jeopardise or may jeopardise the separation of the Executive from the Judiciary should be ruled out of order. The Ceann Comhairle, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle well knows, has a well-established practice when replying to all deputies who attempt to put a parliamentary question that is out of order," Sargent said at the time.

Molloy had to resign amid the furore and he stood down from politics -- a marker seemed to be set down for TDs or ministers getting involved in court cases.

While there are parallels, there are not direct comparisons between the two cases.

Recognising immediately that his position was untenable, Sargent stood down.

The dignity and speed of the Green TD's departure was in marked contrast to the behaviour of former Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue and former Defence Minister Willie O'Dea.

Both these former Fianna Fail cabinet ministers fought hard to remain in office, despite their own practices, and were largely supported by their own party.

Dan Boyle spoke last week about the "different political cultures" between the Green Party and Fianna Fail.

Sargent highlighted the different political cultures between the Greens and everybody else in 2007 when he stood down as party leader as they decided to go into coalition with Fianna Fail, which was contrary to his pre-election pledge.

Sargent was, in effect, also giving up a cabinet position, which would have been his for the taking as he was the leader of a party.

His resignation was viewed with astonishment on all sides of Leinster House as it was so unprecedented.

Coalition options always dominate pre-election debates, with leaders being asked to rule in and rule out respective partners. In the event of such promises being broken, there's always a get-out clause to be concocted.

But not in Sargent's case, as he stood by his commitment to not lead the party into coalition with Fianna Fail.

Against this background came the surprising news that Sargent was involved in a case of attempting to influence a garda in a prosecution.

Trevor Sargent would be the last name on any list of potential TDs to engage in this type of practice.

Sargent did cast his actions upon the court of public opinion last night, by pointing to the specific circumstances of the case. And he will get a great deal of sympathy from many members of the public for standing by a constituent who was trying to protect his neighbourhood and got a headbutt for his troubles.

Nonetheless, Sargent made the honourable decision to resign and left the Green Party genuinely shell-shocked.

Environment Minister John Gormley was extremely emotional last night as he paid tribute to his friend of 25 years.

The junior coalition party was left picking up the pieces from a devastating fortnight where it suffered two losses of status.

The wider implications for the Government are encompassed in the weakened position of the Greens.

The breakdown of trust between Fianna Fail and the Greens as illustrated by the Willie O'Dea affair a week before won't be helped by accusations of the origin of the Sargent letters.

It speaks volumes of the lack of respect for Fianna Fail that it can even be contemplated that they were involved in the taking out of a minister.

Gormley's failure to dismiss the speculation of Fianna Fail involvement was less than inspiring but he was upset and will have to revisit the issue again.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his FF ministers will be well advised to tread softly around their wounded partners for a while.

The series of unexpected events of the past few weeks have left the coalition in need of some TLC for the foreseeable future.

Sargent's legacy will be to show his political counterparts there is a graceful way to make your exit, without dragging the reputation of your party through the mire.

Fianna Fail, take note.

Irish Independent

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