Wednesday 21 November 2018

Political Notebook: Leo Varadkar must learn the lessons of his defeat to Micheal Martin

 

Leo Varadkar Photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins
Leo Varadkar Photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

It is being said that Leo Varadkar has been badly bruised by the events of last week. Bruises heal. The damage could be more serious than that, however, akin to a surgical incision. The question is whether a vein has been nicked, and whether Varadkar will slowly bleed out between now and the next election.

In this the season of awards, the Politician of the Year must surely have been taken by Micheal Martin, who at year's end has becalmed Fianna Fail and deftly scalped the Taoiseach, leaving hanging the most serious questions as to Varadkar's temperament and naivety and, consequently, whether he has the required experience for the top job at this stage in his political career.

In some ways, Varadkar's attempt to stand by his Tanaiste, and the former Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald was admirable. She is a personable woman with notable achievements. But as the controversy continued, other issues came into play.

The Taoiseach became more motivated by a need to get one over on Fianna Fail than by evident issues raised by that email, and consequently by the realpolitik of the situation. As such, he has compounded a view that at the root of this ongoing controversy is Fine Gael's measured reluctance to fully accept the import of the issues raised by Maurice McCabe, notwithstanding its lofty words to the contrary.

Therefore, the scapegoat has now become the Department of Justice, when it is not that department alone which is the problem, but rather interactions between the department and the Garda Siochana, and their political oversight, in this case the party of 'Law and Order', Fine Gael.

Varadkar's approach became one of win at all costs rather than a proper reading that should have led him to seek compromise and de-escalate the spiralling tension which was hurtling the country towards a general election.

In this regard, he was ably assisted by his gung-ho Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, and others in the younger generation of Fine Gael, motivated, as they are, more by transient social media emoji than by any real quality, when, in fact, as the controversy raged, the last thing required was emotion at all. As such, Fine Gael played into Micheal Martin's hands, which should have been evident to all as soon as the Fianna Fail leader asked for a full examination of the Department of Justice for other records and documents based on the prescient questions tabled by Labour's Alan Kelly.

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So, when will we have that election? Now that Micheal Martin has lanced and drained the boil, I expect this Government will pass a third Budget, after which the 'confidence and supply' agreement will be reviewed, and an election held shortly thereafter. Opinion poll swings may dictate otherwise, but I expect that to occur slowly too. A positive to last week's events is that 'confidence and supply' is set to become a feature on the political landscape. This will come as a disappointment to Sinn Fein, who, as with Labour of old, will be made to wait as long as Micheal Martin is leader of Fianna Fail.

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Elsewhere last week, the most sensible politician in Fine Gael, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, announced the winners of the 2017 Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Awards. The most deserving of the winners was the Central Statistics Office for the delivery of statistical and analytical expertise to the civil service.

Last week the CSO also released what are called 'Vital Statistics' for the second quarter of the year, which among other things, revealed that there were 310 deaths due to accidents, suicides and other external causes. Accidents accounted for 54.5pc (169) of these deaths while suicides accounted for 37.1pc (115). Of these 115 deaths, 81.7pc were male (94). If suicide is predominately an issue which affects men, then dementia and Alzheimer's mostly affect women: there were 373 deaths due to dementia of which 244 (or 65.4pc) were female while there were 124 deaths due to Alzheimer's of which 82 (or 66.1pc) were female. Diseases of the heart and arteries (2,208), malignant cancers (2,231) and, to a lesser but not insignificant extent, lung disease (370), pneumonia (256) and other respiratory diseases (297) continue to be the greatest cause of death. Grim.

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The Department of Justice featured nowhere in the civil service awards, although in time that may change. The Association of Higher Civil Public Servants has well made a point that senior civil servants will not be made a "scapegoat" as the Government moves towards reform in the department, which, in my view, has been subjected to exaggerated, not to mention convenient accusations of incompetence by politicians and in the media. Throughout the final three decades of the last century that Department, and both the main political parties, with Labour, is all that stood between citizens and threats to national security as mostly represented by the Provisional IRA. As such, the security apparatus of the State was leaned in the direction of counteracting that threat. In large part, it would seem to me, the Garda now needs a mind shift towards more modern security threats, not least in the space of cybersecurity, risks potentially so serious as to not warrant the posting of a photograph on Twitter by the Taoiseach. It may be that the functions of the Garda would benefit from a division of responsibilities into security and home affairs, that is, routine policing, and undoubtedly oversight should not be left in the hands of politicians alone, but nor should politicians be absolved of all responsibility, as happened when the Health Service Executive was established.

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Lawyers for the former Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, meanwhile, have written to Leo Varadkar seeking that he address Shatter's "extraordinary and unprecedented oppressive circumstances" as a "consequence of the actions of government and decisions made by you, your predecessor and your department". It is difficult not to have some sympathy with Shatter, who has steadfastly overturned the political imperative through the courts of the land. In time, Frances Fitzgerald may also show she did nothing illegal, which is not the same as absolving her of the political imperative. The appointment of Josepha Madigan, destined to be Fine Gael's new woman of the pearl necklace, must have rankled with Shatter, whom she pipped at the post to take a seat in Dublin Rathdown. In time, it will dawn on Fitzgerald as it has on Shatter that her political career is over, although a widespread fondness for her will eventually see her re-emerge into public life.

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As to Leo, his 'vital statistics' are not good, but he has an opportunity to staunch the blood flow in the Brexit negotiations. He should resist the temptation, however, to woe betide the UK for targeting him as 'young, innocent' and 'inexperienced', according to their Brexit-flavoured yellow press. We await with interest the outcome of inquiries into the recent leaking of Department of Foreign Affairs documents and, as we do so, wonder as to the source of a leak last week that, ahead of Boris Johnson's visit to Dublin, Foreign Office officials in the UK told the Government here "not to listen to whatever he had to say" and to "not to mind a word of what he says". Now is not a time for leaks, 'spin' or social media emoji, but to show that lessons have been learned, not least that the pursuit of outright victory can sometimes lead to damaging defeat.

Sunday Independent

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