How do you hide a problem like Maria?

How do you hide a problem like Maria?
Maria Bailey stands out from the crowd in yellow as Fine Gael TDs applaud Simon Coveney during his 2017 leadership bid at the Capitol complex in Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Wherefore Josepha in the tale of Maria? If you want an indicator of why Leo Varadkar’s Government has lost the run of itself, look no further than the Bailey affair.

On the face of it, the story about Maria Bailey’s personal injuries claim for a fall from a swing shouldn’t be a big deal.

But it is, largely because of how it was handled. From start to its current station, its passage was freighted with a sense of entitlement and an elevated consideration for spin. The former is a flashing red light screaming too long in power. The latter is perceived to be a calling card of the current incumbent in the Taoiseach’s office.

This combination tends to scatter voters rather than attract them. Already, according to reports from Fine Gael local election candidates, the affair impacted on the local elections in May.

Now, to top it all, Mr Varadkar is telling us that he doesn’t envisage publishing the report into the affair because that would be setting a precedent.

“It’s an internal investigation being carried out by the party,” he told reporters last week. “It’s never been our practice to publish such reports nor I think has it been the practice of any other political party.”

Wrong.

It has been the practice of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to publish such reports when public confidence in politics is at issue. We’ll come to that in a minute.

So how should the whizz kids in Fine Gael have handled this sorry mess? Once it became obvious that Ms Bailey was pursuing an action on a flimsy premise, somebody should have had a word. Maria could have been told it was in the best interests of the Government that she drop it and declare that she had acted impulsively and blindly.

Now she realises that her action could be construed as being indicative of the compensation culture against which the Government and small business are railing. She could have become the new, repentant face of a campaign to change a certain mindset on claiming.

Instead, she togged out as the victim for a now infamous interview with Sean O’Rourke. She kicked off by declaring that the media pursuit of her was not fair.

“Now, that’s not a level playing pitch,” she told O’Rourke. 

As somebody who grew up on the sideline of a GAA pitch, I play fair, I don’t play offside.

(Somebody who grew up on the sideline of a GAA pitch would know there’s no offside in GAA.)

The car crash interview gave the story legs. Enter Josepha Madigan, solicitor and current Minister for Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht. Her firm represented Ms Bailey in the action. Ms Madigan has stepped back from the day-to-day involvement since November 2017 when she was appointed minister. The Bailey case was initiated prior to that date.

The minister would undoubtedly have come under intense focus in the days after the car crash. So quite obviously the spinmeisters thought it best to shovel the whole thing into an inquiry many miles from daily headlines and Dáil attacks. Senior counsel David Kennedy was appointed to “establish all the facts”.

His report is now being finalised. Does it have anything to say about Josepha’s role — if any — in the tale of Maria? If so, would that be embarrassing to the Government at a time when it appears to be losing political momentum?

We don’t know if Maria consulted Josepha about her pain and suffering after the swing fall. If so, solicitor-client confidentiality applies, but if both politicians decided that confidence in their chosen trade demanded answers it would be perfectly open to them to waive confidentiality.

If Josepha had a role in Maria pursuing her claim does it reflect on the approach of solicitors in general to any kind of a personal injury claim? Is such an approach a key element of the culture that the Government claims to be tackling? The legal business is only one part of the problem of spiralling premiums — the insurance industry has plenty of questions to answer also — but the sector is certainly a source of easy and inflated fees.

Any input Ms Madigan might have had would have been perfectly proper and in line with standard business practices. But that alone, if it were the case, would be fodder for media and opposition and further embarrassment for Mr Varadkar’s government.

Ms Madigan appears to be aware that the whole affair could impact on her. A few weeks ago, the Irish Independent reported that when the minister was asked a question about the case she simply walked away.

Mr Varadkar would like everybody to walk away, which is why he says he won’t publish the commissioned report. The Taoiseach ordered a report into the whole thing because it was impacting on public confidence in one element of politics, and now that the report is being finalised he says the public can’t see what’s it in.

Who’s he kidding?

He’s on dodgy ground when he says that Fine Gael and other political parties don’t publish the results of internal inquiries.

When there is sufficient public disquiet there is no problem publishing such reports. Back in 2000, in times less spun, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil conducted internal inquiries to examine which party members had received political donations that could have been connected with planning votes.

The respective inquiries were completed within six weeks and published more or less immediately. The results were somewhat embarrassing, particularly for Fianna Fáil, as various elected members appeared to have questions to answer.

Both parties took the hit, lowered heads into momentary shame, and vowed that lessons would be learned.

But there was no question of not publishing. That would have made the whole point of the inquiries redundant. Yet the Taoiseach appears to be focusing on making it to the end of the Dáil term next week after which pressure to publish might recede.

He should not be allowed to get away with it. If the Government is to have any credibility in attempting to tackle spiralling insurance premium it must lead from the front, rinsing out all its own dirty laundry.

There is, in the name of spin, a handy option open to Mr Varadkar if he feels that his current stance can’t be sustained. He could just throw it out there at 5pm on the Friday of the August bank holiday and hope for the best. Don’t bet against it.

More on this topic

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Maria Bailey may lose committee chair over swing-gateMaria Bailey may lose committee chair over swing-gate

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