Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald is fighting for her political life as the Government’s handling of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe has yet again engulfed the coalition in controversy.
Despite prolonged and pointed questioning from members of the opposition, both Ms Fitzgerald and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are likely to face further interrogation today as many details around when Government were first made aware of a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe remain unclear.
Some of the unanswered questions that remain include:
A day of high drama — during which the Taoiseach was accused of misleading the Dáil — began with a meeting between Mr Varadkar, Ms Fitzgerald, and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan over the revelation that the Tánaiste received details via email of a campaign to discredit Sgt McCabe’s as far back as 2015.
Just last week, Mr Varadkar told the Dáil that Ms Fitzgerald had first became aware of An Garda Síochána’s legal strategy in 2016 when the controversy was revealed by the Irish Examiner.
Yesterday, however, Ms Fitzgerald went on RTÉ radio to admit she received an email in May 2015 detailing a row between counsel representing An Garda Síochána and counsel for the garda whistleblower, Sgt McCabe.
In the radio interview, which appeared to raise more questions than it answered, she claimed she had forgotten the details of this email, as she had been told there were no actions required from her in relation to the legal strategy taken.
Her explanation was dubbed a “stretch of credibility” by members of the opposition, with Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Labour all demanding explanations during Leaders Questions yesterday afternoon.
The email was eventually made public last night during a special Dáil session, during which Ms Fitzgerald was grilled on the matter.
Crucially, the Department of Justice email confirms that former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan did authorise the use of these allegations against Sgt McCabe, or reference to them, by her lawyers during the O’Higgins Commission.
In the email, officials in the Department of Justice confirmed that the “Garda Commissioner’s authorisation had been confirmed”.
The Tánaiste faced further difficulty last night after she was accused of attempting to “withhold information” from the public during the hastily arranged Dáil debate on the controversy.
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said the new details are “completely at odds with what you said before”, while Labour leader Brendan Howlin told Ms Fitzgerald that, instead of holding gardaí to account, “you simply forgot”.
Despite the criticism, Ms Fitzgerald responded: “What possible advantage to me would be to say I did not remember the email?”
Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said he “absolutely” had confidence in the Tánaiste, as did coalition partners the Independent Alliance, who said the issue should be addressed by the Charleton tribunal.
Mr Varadkar also spoke with Sgt McCabe last night about the Department of Justice email. His spokesman said this was because it mentioned the whistleblower and Mr Varadkar wanted to tell Sgt McCabe of its contents.
It also emerged yesterday that the email was only sent to the Charleton Inquiry yesterday, despite the fact that it was dug up by the Department of Justice last week.
A Government spokesman also said it was “impossible to say” if Mr Varadkar would have raised the issue in the Dáil if the email had not been revealed by RTÉ on the Monday night.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald reiterated that she had “no hand, act, or part” in any campaign to smear Sgt McCabe and only became aware of such details after receiving the Department of Justice email in May 2015.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved