Ms Fitzgerald’s unwillingness to clarify what she or justice officials knew about attempts to smear Mr McCabe has reignited a controversy that has dogged this administration.
Last week, Labour TD Alan Kelly tabled a number of questions to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to elicit exactly what information the department and the then minister, Ms Fitzgerald, had about the strategy to challenge the credibility of Mr McCabe at the O’Higgins commission. The issue is now also being investigated by the Charleton Tribunal.
Mr Kelly described the answers he was given as “disgraceful” and asked Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl to intervene.
Ms Fitzgerald was asked at the weekend by Newstalk’s Chris Donoghue if she was aware of the plan to attack Mr McCabe’s character.
She responded: “Certainly I have never had the slightest interest personally in attacking Maurice McCabe’s character; I met with him and his wife. Just to say, the reason I set up the tribunal was so that all of these issues, and that particular issue you’ve raised with me, is one that is being examined by the tribunal, and that commission is the place to examine that.”
Pressed again on whether she knew of the plan to attack Mr McCabe, Ms Fitzgerald again refused to answer.
“Look if I start answering questions like that at this point, I’m effectively cutting across the work of the commission, and that’s why that commission was set up and we’ve an excellent judge, Charleton examining that,” she said.
“I’ve always been clear that whistle-blowers need to be respected, listened to, and their issues dealt with.”
The issue of whether the Department of Justice or ministers knew of an alleged agenda to smear Mr McCabe would widen claims that there was a conspiracy against the whistleblower.
Mr Kelly says that, if this was confirmed, “it would be a crisis for our justice system and the very bedrock on which our State is built”.
The terms of the tribunal would also need to be changed, the Labour TD insists, to include the department of justice.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the Fine Gael conference in Cavan at the weekend that he would speak to Ms Fitzgerald and her successor, Mr Flanagan, “in the coming days” about what they or the department knew.
However, he added: “Being a minister and having served in three Government departments, I can assure you, it is not the case that the minister in the department knows everything that every individual official knows in the department, but I will certainly ask them what they [knew].”
Mr Kelly has now submitted more detailed questions.
Questions the Tipperary TD wants answered include:
- What was the extent of consultation former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan had with the Department of Justice prior to Ms O’Sullivan giving instructions to the legal team representing her at the O’Higgins commission?
- What contacts were there between the commissioner’s office and the office of the secretary general of the department on May 15, 2015? This was the day that the commissioner’s lawyer told O’Higgins they would be attacking McCabe’s character based on the alleged grudge;
- What was the purpose of a telephone call from Ms O’Sullivan to the secretary general of the department on Friday, May 15, 2015? When was the minister informed of this phone call and what logs, notes, or diary entries are available on it?
- If the department, its officials or ministers knew about any Garda agenda, then the terms of reference of the Charleton Disclosures Tribunal must be adjusted to include this in its inquiry.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also agreed that the Government was “not giving straight answers” regarding the controversy.
Mr Kelly has also confirmed that he wrote to the Taoiseach on the matter.
“It is unbelievable that the Taoiseach hasn’t asked the Tánaiste and former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and the current Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan about my questions,” added Mr Kelly.