Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan is set to become the target of renewed opposition pressure after echoing Frances Fitzgerald by claiming he did not realise the significance of the May 15, 2015, Maurice McCabe email.
Mr Flanagan last night attempted to use the position to explain why he failed to inform Leo Varadkar of the existence of the email when he was informed a full week before the Taoiseach received the vital document.
Speaking during a special Dáil debate on the McCabe crisis a week after former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald faced a similar grilling, Mr Flanagan insisted he and his department is co-operating with the tribunal.
However, similarly to Ms Fitzgerald, he faced significant criticism from the opposition over his failure to flag the email and to ensure information subsequently given to the Dáil took account of its contents.
Asked by Labour leader Brendan Howlin how the November 13 phone call highlighting the email to him did not set off “alarm bells”, Mr Flanagan said he “did not realise the significance” of the file at first.
He said he was not fully informed of its contents until after Mr Varadkar gave incorrect information to the Dáil, and insisted it was “entirely coincidental” that the person who called him — Department secretary general Noel Waters — announced his retirement in the same phone call.
“I’m retiring and, by the way, we’ve found a new email. What’s the explanation?” Mr Howlin asked.
Mr Flanagan insisted it was an error and that he was “frankly horrified” by what has happened.
During the same debate, Mr Flanagan admitted that key records at the heart of the McCabe email scandal were, for unknown reasons, left out of a trawl of thousands of Department records which were then sent to the Charleton tribunal.
Asked to explain why the email was not found by an initial Department of Justice trawl of all records relating to the tribunal, despite the fact it was clearly marked “commission of investigation” and was held within the email accounts of senior officials and Ms Fitzgerald, Mr Flanagan said it remains unclear.
He told Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan “my understanding is they are new documents and were not in the previous process”.
Moments later, Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donncha Ó Laoghaire asked: “How is that possible, don’t you go through the emails from the relevant dates and relevant staff?” Mr Flanagan replied: “It seems to me that, out of tens of thousands of emails in the Department internally, no reference was made to the e-mail of May 15.”
Mr Flanagan was further questioned by Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who asked if the Minister was aware of the “particular sanctions” breaching tribunal disclosure requests involve and “if you have informed the gardaí about a potential breach in criminal law”.
However, the Justice Minister again said: “I have no knowledge of a request to the gardaí, at this stage.”
Solidarity-PBP TD Mick Barry said the argument is not believable and the Government is trying to put the blame “on the shoulders” of back-room officials.
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