Risk of early election as relations between FG and FF ‘plummet’ over Whelan affair

Relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ‘plummeted’ amid accusations of breaches of faith between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin over the Máire Whelan affair.

Sources on both sides have been greatly alarmed by the nature of the clashes between the two men at Leaders’ Questions this week, leading many to suggest a general election is now far more likely this year.

The alarm comes as the Irish Examiner has learned Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was called upon to defuse a major row last Sunday between Mr Varadkar and Transport Minister Shane Ross over Ms Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal.

It is believed the dispute began when Mr Varadkar spoke to Mr Ross by telephone to inform him of his intention to see Ms Whelan’s appointment completed the following day — 24 hours before they were due to discuss the matter at Cabinet.

It is understood that Mr Ross, highly angered by this conversation, made contact with members of the Independent Alliance to inform them of the Taoiseach’s plan to fast-track the appointment.

According to sources, Mr Ross is said to have said he was considering his position in Government, but fellow members of the Alliance warned it was not an issue to pull down a Government on.

However, such was the fear that the Alliance may have to withdraw from Government, that Waterford- based junior minister John Halligan reached out to Mr Coveney in a bid to resolve the issue. The two have a good working relationship since the formation talks for Government last year.

The Irish Examiner has confirmed that a “series of calls” took place between Mr Coveney, Mr Ross, and Mr Varadkar, and the matter was eventually resolved.

Those close to the row have seen it as significant that it was Mr Coveney that was called upon to resolve the tensions between Mr Varadkar and Mr Ross.

“The two have been in much greater contact in recent weeks now that Simon is deputy leader. But it looks like he is going to have to play the good cop to Leo’s bad cop, especially with the Independents,” said one minister.

Ms Whelan was formally appointed by President Michael D Higgins on Monday, as Mr Varadkar had sought.

At Cabinet on Tuesday, the Taoiseach confirmed Mr Ross’s judicial appointments bill will be prioritised and passed through all stages of the Dáil and Seanad before the summer break.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach asked Mr Martin to “withdraw” remarks he made about Ms Whelan.

It comes after Mr Martin made a highly personal attack on the former attorney general in the Dáil yesterday, claiming she is no match to some previous judicial appointments.

In a sparky exchange, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to give Mr Martin “the opportunity” to withdraw the remarks in which he claimed Ms Whelan is “no Frank Clarke, is no Adrian Hardiman, and is no Donal O’Donnell”.

However, Mr Martin accused the Taoiseach of bringing personality into the issue of Ms Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal.

“You invited the comparisons, not I, you did so to circumvent the issue that goes to the heart of this,” Mr Martin said.

“It was indigenous and that’s what you were are at,” the Fianna Fáil leader said, adding that “a bit of straight talking” and “honesty” was now required as he continued to call for explanations around the appointment.

The Taoiseach confirmed that he had spoken to Mr Martin over the phone on Sunday night during which Mr Martin questioned Ms Whelan’s suitability for the post.

“You also said you wouldn’t go there publicly, but you did go public and in doing so, in my view, was a mistake, it was wrong.

“You cast aspirations on somebody who is now a judge at the Court of appeal,” Mr Varadkar said.

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