Friday 15 November 2019

The FG response to whistleblower crisis has been disgraceful

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Justice Minister Alan Shatter at Dublin Castle earlier this year. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Justice Minister Alan Shatter at Dublin Castle earlier this year. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Shane Coleman

AT least now Fine Gael should finally appreciate the seriousness of the Garda whistleblower controversy. It's long, long overdue. For months, Fine Gael – from the Taoiseach down – has been sleepwalking through the emerging crisis. They have finally been rudely awakened from their slumber thanks to Leo Varadkar's bold intervention.

The main government party's response to the whistleblowers' allegations, and to allegations about surveillance of the Garda Ombudsman's offices, has been disgraceful.

Alan Shatter's arrogant dismissal of genuine concerns set the tone. He was backed up by his party leader, whose handling of the issue has been extraordinarily weak. And there have been a succession of wholly ill-informed and sycophantic interventions from Fine Gael ministers and TDs in the media, Dail debates and committee hearings.

Like Pavlov's dog, the collective Fine Gael response to all the allegations has been crudely simple: the gardai are good. Anybody remotely suggesting otherwise must be in the wrong.

The gardai, in the main, are indeed very good. We're lucky to have them. But, like any police force, they're not all perfect and problems will arise from time to time. Pretending they don't exist and that people who raise such problems are the enemy is not just stupid, it's dangerous.

It has also proved politically damaging for a Government that has completely misjudged public opinion. That presumably is what prompted Leo Varadkar's extraordinary comments on Thursday. Both his and Simon Coveney's interventions are being interpreted as early jostling for position in the leadership succession stakes.

That does a disservice to both men and plays to the lazy stereotype that politicians only care about their careers.

Coveney and Varadkar are both principled, decent men. They will both have realised that the Shatter line on the various controversies was not just unsustainable politically and damaging to Fine Gael, but wrong. Coveney was asked a question about whistleblowers and, as is his wont, he gave a straight answer about needing to support them.

Varadkar has been completely consistent on this issue. He met Sgt Maurice McCabe, found his claims to be highly convincing and has said so all along. For that he attracted the wrath of the Justice Minister. Even before this week, there have been numerous clashes in private between the two men.

It was clear from his body language at the RSA conference that Varadkar was making his intervention with a sense of trepidation. He knew what he was saying was political dynamite. He knew that it would go down like a lead balloon with Shatter and, far more importantly, with his boss, the Taoiseach. He knew it could seriously damage his career progression. But Varadkar pressed ahead regardless. We should do him the service of acknowledging that he did so because he believed it was the right thing to do.

'Right', but hugely politically problematic for the Government. Shatter was already in difficulty before this week. The controversy was always going to re-ignite once the senior counsel's inquiry into Sgt McCabe's allegations of Garda malpractice in a series of cases was published before Easter.

But Varadkar's intervention has seriously embarrassed Eamon Gilmore and Labour into finally taking a stand on the issue. In turn, that has ratcheted up the pressure on the Taoiseach. His initial response from Brussels underlined the old political adage about never commenting on domestic news stories from abroad. Kenny's line that 'we've been over this ground before' utterly failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. His comment yesterday about preferring to confine matters to the Cabinet table smacked of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.

This is a full blown crisis for the Coalition, with unnerving echoes of the 1976 'Thundering Disgrace' controversy that resulted in President Cearbhall O Dalaigh's resignation. Back then the Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave failed to grasp the gravity of the situation and it ended up doing huge damage to his government.

Enda Kenny shouldn't ignore the lessons from history. Varadkar's unflinching assessment of the situation has left the Taoiseach caught between a rock and hard place. He is furious with Varadkar, but with Eamon Gilmore and Labour rowing in behind the Transport Minister, Kenny can hardly continue to back the Shatter/Martin Callinan line and avoid serious damage to his coalition.

That spells serious trouble for both the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister. It's simply not sustainable to have the Tanaiste of the country and the Garda Commissioner publicly at odds and there can only be one winner in that scenario.

Shatter's position, given his own highly controversial comments on the whistleblowers, also looks shaky. Public opinion – and the Labour Party – is firmly with Varadkar. In those circumstances, it's doubtful whether he can continue to rely on his leader's unconditional support. Something, or somebody, is going to have to give.


Irish Independent

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