Daniel McConnell: Martin hangs on the line as Simon Coveney text debacle rumbles on

Taoiseach is boxed in by Coveney's baffling twists and turns — and the fact that he can't call for the heads of non-FF ministers
Daniel McConnell: Martin hangs on the line as Simon Coveney text debacle rumbles on

Ahead of Fianna Fáil's think-in, Micheál Martin is hemmed in by Varadkar's Piglet text dump, Simon Coveney's strange chops and changes to his story, and the fact that the Taoiseach can't say boo to non-FF ministers for fear of collapsing the Coalition. File picture: Julien Behal

Many people who know Micheál Martin say he despises the normal petty day-to-day squabbles that are a feature of political life in Ireland.

He tends to dismiss such controversies as distractions to the greater purpose of bigger, loftier issues.

A self-professed policy wonk, Martin often annoys his colleagues by not grasping the significance of such controversies or playing politics with them to his party’s advantage.

Someone close to him recently told me that, given all he has been through in his life, including the loss of two children, he is a very rounded person and not one taken by tittle-tattle.

Such an attitude would explain his extraordinarily narky press conference performance on Thursday when he hit out at the media for continuing the Katherine Zappone ‘melodrama’ as he put it.

The Zappone appointment controversy is about to enter its sixth week with the Government in tatters over the affair. And this is on a fairly minor issue.

Cronyism saga exposed deep faultlines

Far from being a hyped-up bubble story, this cronyism saga has exposed deep fault lines and destabilised an already rocky coalition.

It has also exposed Martin as a leader not in full control of his own Government.

The public is not happy at what was a blatant attempt by a Government party, in power for too long, seeking to make the rules as they go along to reward an old pal in the form of Zappone.

It is quite frankly astonishing that this saga has been allowed to not only rumble on, but escalate, even after Zappone has turned down the job.

We have several twists and turns to play out in the coming days including a release of a file of records by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney’s return appearance before the Oireachtas committee, and a much-anticipated Fianna Fáil party think-in in Cavan next Thursday and Friday.

Coveney breathed new life into the controversy

Coveney’s failure to kill this story off last Tuesday when he went before the committee is compounded by the fact that he broke the golden rule when you are in a  crisis — don’t do anything to make things worse.

Rather than having all his ducks in a row and every possible avenue of questioning boxed off, he was vague, he shifted his story, and — worse still — he opened up fresh lines of inquiry and intrigue by introducing talk of his phone being hacked to justify the deletion of text messages. It was a classic example of the adage — fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

While he faced questions for two hours and answered them as honestly as he could, he was simply insufficiently prepared and dug an even deeper hole.

The saga this week not only overshadowed the Government’s Housing for All plan, but also its plan to eliminate all remaining Covid-19 restrictions by October 22.

Baffling questions about Coveney's responses

Why, even if he had deleted his texts, why did he need to introduce that entire narrative? 

Could he simply not have checked with his own party leader or with Zappone for all and any records, be they emails, Whatsapp messages or texts, to get the story straight? 

What also didn’t help him was that his narrative shifted from one where his phone was cleared because of a data storage issue to the hacking defence which he has since doubled down on.

In what may have been an act of self-preservation, Leo Varadkar released messages between himself and Katherine Zappone who was texting from Piglet wine bar on Cow's Lane in Dublin City centre. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
In what may have been an act of self-preservation, Leo Varadkar released messages between himself and Katherine Zappone who was texting from Piglet wine bar on Cow's Lane in Dublin City centre. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The release of a series of texts by Varadkar just as Coveney departed the country on official business was another most unusual step.

For Varadkar, of paramount importance was self-preservation and, to his mind, this series of texts, Piglet references and all, cleared him of any impropriety.

But, as he did with Dr Tony Holohan previously, the manner of the release of the texts and his subsequent defence for doing so showed many within Fine Gael that Leo looks after Leo first, no matter who he burns in the process.

The subtext: Don't rely on Leo as an ally

To some, the release was Varadkar reminding everyone to never rely on him to have your back in a time of crisis. Look to how he treated Maria Bailey, Verona Murphy, and Kate O’Connell.

Most importantly, it confirmed that he was aware of the proposed Zappone appointment on July 16, a full 11 days before Martin knew about it at Cabinet.
This contradicted an earlier version of events which said he learned about it on the morning of Cabinet during a meeting of Fine Gael ministers.

Zappone’s direct demand for clarity as to her pending appointment from the Tánaiste ahead of her Merrion Hotel party also bolstered the impression that, rather than Coveney seeking her out, she was lobbying for the role.

Coveney, for the sake of the Government, must shut this down at the committee on Tuesday. Any revelations now that further changes his story or that of Varadkar could escalate this into a resigning matter.

Some in FG have tried to reframe the story 

What has also been fascinating this week are the attempts by some in Fine Gael to shift the story away from Varadkar and Coveney and back to the leaking of the original information out of Cabinet to the Irish Examiner on July 27.

Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy called this out yesterday as a distraction to the main issue of how this appointment came into being, how Katherine Zappone came to be offered it without anyone else having a say in the matter, and why the Taoiseach did not put a stop to it at the Cabinet.

Taoiseach can't call for the heads of non-FF ministers

For Martin as Taoiseach, this is a headache he could have done without.

He took flak from his own jumpy troops, who are increasingly fed up with him, for not blocking it. He angered them even further as it was he and other Fianna Fáil ministers defending Varadkar and Coveney when other Fine Gael ministers were in hiding.

A feeling within the party is that Martin is willing to apply one set of rules to his own ministers (referencing the premature departures of both Barry Cowen and Dara Calleary from Cabinet) and essentially no rules for Fine Gael ministers who cause great embarrassment to the Government.

They see Martin’s authority as Taoiseach constantly being challenged and undermined by arrogant Fine Gael ministers, led by Varadkar, and him unwilling to take them on.

But, in reality, Martin, even though he is Taoiseach, cannot demand the head of a minister from another party without risking collapsing the Coalition, and he won’t do that.

The charge from some of his loudest critics is that him being Taoiseach is the only thing that matters to Martin, no matter the cost to them as TDs, their chances of re-election, or the wider Fianna Fáil party.

Martin’s tetchy press conference on Thursday did little to assuage the anger among his own backbenchers and his dumping on Barry Cowen merely fuelled the fire.

Martin is damaged by a Fine Gael cock-up. Again. 

He goes into his two-day party think-in under serious pressure. The party will spend a day reflecting on its poor election result and there is a strong expectation that this will become a full-scale attack on Martin’s leadership.

There is no secret that many in his party want to see the back of him but there is no one yet willing to step up to slay the dragon.

This Zappone affair will undoubtedly feature prominently in the discussions in the Slieve Russell Hotel next Thursday but, melodrama or not, he needs this issue killed off and fast.

Not for the first time, he stands damaged as a result of a Fine Gael cock-up. His tolerance may be understandable on a personal level, but increasingly it is proving bad for business. 

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