Monday 21 October 2019

O'Callaghan left wrong-footed as 'cronyism' catches all on the hop

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Shane Coleman

The controversy over Máire Whelan's appointment brings to mind Mary Harney's famous line about the worst days in government being better than the best days in opposition.

Fianna Fáil tried, with some initial success, to put the squeeze on the Government on the issue. Yet it ended up coming across as looking hopelessly weak when Leo Varadkar faced it down by brazenly fast-tracking the formal appointment of Whelan on Monday.

To be clear, the Government's response to the controversy has been shockingly inadequate. Ministers, one after another, parroted the mantra that what had happened was entirely legal and that Whelan was eminently qualified for the position.

It displayed an attitude bordering on contempt for those who legitimately queried what had happened. They were answering questions that were never asked and wilfully ignoring the key issues - in particular the handling of the three High Court judges who had reportedly written to the then AG to express an interest in the vacancy.

The person leading the charge in raising those questions was Fianna Fáil's Justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan. With his legal background, O'Callaghan was uniquely qualified to pick holes in the Government's defence. He rightly accused ministers - clearly caught on the hop by Enda Kenny's final day move - of being "asleep at the wheel".

But the feeling in his own party is that he blundered, and let the Government off the hook, by stating that the appointment represented a breach of the Confidence and Supply Agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - because of the 'no surprises' commitment in it - and was therefore a threat to the Government.

Fianna Fáil TDs, and indeed the leadership, must privately have reacted with horror to the suggestion which risked bouncing them into a general election, over a relatively minor political controversy.

Leo Varadkar, in contrast, probably couldn't believe his luck. He swatted aside O'Callaghan's assertion, insisting the agreement between the two parties had nothing to do with appointments, and pressed ahead.

Fianna Fáil had no option but to swallow hard and accept the appointment as a fait accompli, despite O'Callaghan's earlier line that he didn't think it could proceed.

It must have been galling for FF TDs to listen to the tauntings of Mick Wallace on the TV news that they had 'huffed and puffed' on the issue, but that ultimately the Taoiseach had called their bluff and it was Varadkar who was left 'looking good'.

Wallace's assessment was an over simplification. Varadkar certainly doesn't 'look good' on this issue - far from it. His tenure, thanks entirely to the actions of his predecessor at his final cabinet meeting, has begun with a whiff of cronyism hanging over it.

But Wallace was right on one thing: Fianna Fáil had its bluff called. If one of its front-bench members cries foul in relation to the confidence and supply agreement, it better be in a position to follow through on it. And this clearly was not the occasion to do so

While undoubtedly serious, the controversy has barely registered with large chunks of the electorate. They certainly wouldn't have thanked Fianna Fáil for bringing about an election over the issue.

And O'Callaghan should have realised that before invoking the confidence and supply agreement.

Barely a year in the Dáil, it's been a steep learning curve for the Dublin Bay South deputy.

He is well liked personally in his party and is clearly a favourite of Micheál Martin. Circumstances have landed him in the most influential position on the Opposition benches. The various controversies in justice, particularly relating to the Garda, have given him huge responsibility and exposure.

It's early days so the jury is out at this point on how well he has done. He is clearly bright and able and is at ease on television and radio. But there would be a criticism from some in his party that, because of his background and training, he is overly concerned at the legal, rather than the political, implications of issues that arise.

O'Callaghan is certainly not a political street fighter in the mould of a Barry Cowen or a Willie O'Dea - he seems to very deliberately and pointedly avoid such an approach. And there have been times when, with its opponent weakened on the ground, that's perhaps what Fianna Fáil has needed.

Particularly in response to the questions surrounding the future of the Garda Commissioner, where in cold political terms, he has arguably been too timid in his approach and advice to Micheál Martin.

Fairly or unfairly, although his work ethic is not in question, questions have also been raised about whether it's possible to maintain a practice as a top barrister and be a front-line politician.

But perhaps the more pertinent question is if he is too measured and reasonable and if there is a place for that in the Dáil today? Politics, so driven by the 24-hour news cycle, is often about who shouts loudest. Holding the Government to account - the traditional role of the opposition - is now all about 'heads on plates' and 'forcing U-turns'. Today, tomorrow is even too late.

And that makes life difficult, not just for somebody like O'Callaghan, with his more restrained and thoughtful approach, but for all the Fianna Fáil front bench.

In the past, when governments had majority support in the Dáil, O'Callaghan could have raised hell about an issue such as the Whelan appointment, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn't bring about an election.

Today, he and his colleagues need to be far more nuanced. Every time they criticise the Government, the inevitable retort from the media and the other opposition parties will be 'what are you going to do about it?' Unless they actually bring about an election, it leaves them open to the charge of weakness and of wanting to have it every way.

And, in Varadkar, they're now up against a much smarter opponent than Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach has already demonstrated he's willing to engage in brinksmanship and do so skilfully. They have been served notice. Next time, O'Callaghan and Fianna Fáil need to make sure they see him coming.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays at 7am

Irish Independent

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