Taoiseach’s bum deal in high stake game of political poker

Frances Fitzgerald...at the centre of the saga.
Frances Fitzgerald...at the centre of the saga.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

The events of the past week gave us high-stakes political poker, with all the major players going “all in” – and that meant only one political leader could walk away with the stack of chips when it all came to an end. When the river card was turned late on Monday night, it was Micheál Martin who had the best hand.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had a bracing Tuesday; for Frances Fitzgerald, it was worse. After facing down all her detractors, she had to bow to the inevitable.

In nearly every Dáil term, there has been a Ministerial resignation. Sometimes it resolves around a personal matter (such as Willie O’Dea being caught out with conflicting statements in a libel case) or a political crisis (Alan Shatter in 2014).

Frances Fitzgerald’s sin was one of omission.

To explain it, we have to go back to a few years in the Department of Justice. Like every other scandal touching on the Department this one also involves Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

By late 2014, there was a new Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, and a new Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan.

In contrast to their predecessors, both praised McCabe for highlighting malpractice and bad practices within the Garda Síochána.

In 2015 the O’Higgins Commission of Investigation began its public hearings. It was looking into allegations by McCabe of Garda corruption and bad practices.

In the early days of the hearing, to the surprise of McCabe’s legal representative Michael McDowell, the legal team for the Garda Commissioner adopted an aggressive strategy. In particular, it started alleging that McCabe had been motivated in part by malice.

When Judge Kevin O’Higgins asked, the barrister for the Garda Síochána confirmed it intended to question the integrity of McCabe. The legal team brought up a meeting with senior Gardaí in Westmeath where it claimed McCabe had said he had a personal grudge against a superior officer. But McCabe was able to hand a recording of that meeting to the Commission, which showed the contrary; the strategy was dropped.

All of the hearings of a Commission are heard in private. However, the following year, in May 2016, transcripts were leaked to journalist Mick Clifford who was able to disclose the strategy to the public.

Fitzgerald was minister for justice at the time. In May 2016, she said the first she had learned of the strategy was right then, in May 2016.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.