It does not look good for Frances Fitzgerald.
Not good at all.
Last Thursday, a pesky email emerged which now threatens the career of the second most senior politician in the land.
This email confirms that she was aware of the “malicious” legal strategy being pursued by the then Garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, against whistleblower Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission in May 2015.
Not only that, she knew about it before he took the stand to be cross-examined, a fact which is in direct contrast to what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told us last week in the Dáil.
As a result, Fitzgerald finds herself clinging on to her Cabinet post, but with her credibility shot and her standing among her own severely damaged.
Why? What can one email contain that is so damaging to her?
Well, primarily that this email has led her boss, An Taoiseach, into the embarrassing situation where he misled parliament.
Worse still, this email, which surfaced last Thursday only came to Varadkar’s attention on Monday evening, following a report on the main evening news on RTÉ.
The email, written by an assistant secretary in the Department of Justice, then headed by Fitzgerald, was sent on Friday, May 15, 2015 to the minister, her private secretary, and a small number of other top officials.
It is believed that this group included Noel Waters, the secretary general of the department, who announced his retirement last week.
The email’s opening line stated: “Could you pass this on to the Minister for information please.”
It went on to say that the assistant secretary got an email from someone in the attorney general’s office in relation to the O’Higgins commission of investigation.
“The commission has started hearings, and the Garda Síochána are represented by counsel, as is Sergeant McCabe in his case, Michael McDowell SC,” the email continues.
The assistant secretary wrote that the email sender “wanted to let me know that counsel for the Garda Síochána has raised as an issue in the hearings an allegation made against Sergeant McCabe”.
“The allegation had been that a serious criminal complaint against Sergeant McCabe (which he has always denied) had not been properly investigated by the Garda Síochána,” state the email.
“Presumably the Garda Síochána are raising the matter on the basis, they could argue (and Sergeant McCabe would deny), that it is potentially relevant to motivation.
“X advised me that counsel for Sergeant McCabe objected to this issue being raised, and asked whether the Garda Commissioner had authorised this approach. X also told me that the Garda Commissioner’s authorisation had been confirmed (although I understand separately that this may be subject to any further legal advice),” it continued.
“X and I agreed that this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, who is being legally advised, and that neither the Attorney nor the Minister has a function relating to the evidence a party to a commission of investigation may adduce.”
So, Fitzgerald knew ahead of the fact.
That is a long, long way from what we were being told last week, when we heard she had no hand, act, or part in the strategy.
We were told she only found out about it in 2016 when Mick Clifford of this parish and Katie Hannon of RTÉ reported on the malicious attempts to smear McCabe.
Then we were told she only knew of it in general terms but after the cross-examination.
Now we know she knew far more than general details and she knew ahead of his cross-examination.
Fitzgerald herself accepts that she read the email at the time.
Another major question is why she waited to tell the Taoiseach about the email surfacing for more than four days?
“I was informed by the Department of Justice and Equality last Thursday that this email had surfaced,” Fitzgerald told the Dáil.
“The department informed me it was continuing to search its systems to see if there was any other material it felt could be relevant. It was also getting some legal advice on the matter. I asked that I would be informed as soon as the information was available.
“I was waiting to see if other information would emerge that was relevant and what the legal advice from the department was. The Taoiseach was travelling on Friday, as I was. I spoke to him on Monday and had a discussion about the email with him.”
From the Taoiseach’s side, conversations were happening between Varadkar and Fitzgerald but also with current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan on Monday night.
They knew more questions from Labour’s Alan Kelly and others awaited them the next day.
One of them mentioned the email to Flanagan, a copy of which was sent over to him at 11.30pm, two hours after Katie Hannon had reported on it on TV.
“It was subsequent to that,” a source close to the Taoiseach told me.
So, they only asked for it after it was on the news, and was not volunteered up by the Department of Justice.
“There clearly are legacy issues with the Department of Justice and Charlie is working through the reform agenda outlined by the Toland review,” said the source.
“Leo is very concerned that this stuff does not cross over with the tribunal and he is very keen that it does its job and delivers a full report.”
It is simply not good enough that in the teeth of another Maurice McCabe- related crisis, an email of this significance would not be forwarded at first opportunity.
It has echoes of a similar notice lying on the desk of an official in 2014 which preceeded the departures of Garda commissioner Martin Callinan and then justice minister Alan Shatter.
For her part, Fitzgerald still has significant questions to answer and the body language between her and Varadkar in the Dáil yesterday was telling.
He may have stated that he has confidence in her, but he let the world and its mother know, by his demeanour, how pissed off he is.
The bottom line is that while Sinn Féin is talking about motions of no confidence in her, and that she has left herself open to justifiable questions as to her capacity to be a minister, the crude Dáil numbers means she is safe for now.
Calling a spade a spade, no one wants a December election and that is what would happen were the opposition to seek her head or Fianna Fáil demand she be sacrificed.
But then it becomes a question of whether she is more important than the entire Government.
Would Varadkar do the unthinkable and sack her?
Probably not but she has not got many chances left to keep her job.
Were this not a minority Government, she would have been gone, as the level of incompetency is simply staggering. She stands a deeply weakened figure.
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