Alison O'Connor: Questions hang over Leo’s head on his suitability for taoiseach role

The Tánaiste managed to survive the experience of apologising in the Dáil in November 2020 for “errors of judgement”, but as long as the Garda investigation continues unresolved, doubts over whether he can slide back behind the taoiseach’s desk next December will persist.
Alison O'Connor: Questions hang over Leo’s head on his suitability for taoiseach role

'I know these allegations are not true, the suggestion that I have done anything criminal or corrupt or self-interested is totally wrong,' Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said recently. Picture: Damien Storan.

How long before politicians begin to think wistfully of the days when a pandemic could utterly overshadow even the most uncomfortable of political issues? Pretty quickly, in the case of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who is now facing repeated questions about a Garda investigation that hangs over his head.

The Fine Gael leader is the subject of a Garda probe into the leaking of a confidential document. The investigation now crops up with a regularity during interviews with Mr Varadkar that must be alarming party colleagues. So far, the Tánaiste has avoided answering the question as to whether or not an ongoing investigation would preclude him from sliding back behind the taoiseach’s desk next December, as agreed in the programme for government.

It would be beyond belief that An Garda Síochána would not have concluded their inquiries long before then — indeed, it is a bit of a mystery why the inquiry, being conducted by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, has not reached a conclusion at this stage, and a file already sent to the DPP. 

The 2020 Golfgate affair is already before the courts, with a trial under way. Surely it involved considerable more investigative work, given the number of people who attended and witnesses involved?

In the latest bout of questioning on the national airwaves on the Today with Claire Byrne show, Mr Varadkar denied that he wanted the matter completed because it might affect his transition back to the taoiseach’s office. To be fair, it is entirely understandable in any circumstance, given his senior position, let alone his impending elevation, that he would want clarity on all of this.

Mr Varadkar, then taoiseach, has admitted he provided a draft of the €210m contract agreed in April 2019 with the Irish Medical Organisation to his friend, Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who at that time was president of the rival National Association of General Practitioners.

After this was revealed in Village magazine, Mr Varadkar apologised in the Dáil in November 2020 for “errors of judgement”. He said his sole aim had been to get greater support for the deal among family doctors. Understandably, the Opposition derided this explanation.

Despite tough questioning in the Dáil, where the Tánaiste clearly felt under personal pressure, he managed to survive the experience. But his reputation suffered, and he continues to carry damage the longer there remains a question hanging over him. He now finds himself being repeatedly questioned over the suitability of him taking over as taoiseach as agreed.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall intensified the political pressure recently when she said it would not be appropriate for Mr Varadkar to become taoiseach again if he was still the subject of a criminal investigation.

In his interview on Wednesday, the Tánaiste said he wanted “to restate that the allegations that have been made against me are false”. 

But this is really not his call to make, given that gardaí decided to go ahead with an investigation. Is he in any position to state such a thing categorically, given that it is the job of the gardaí to gather evidence in the case and for the DPP to decide whether a criminal offence was committed?

When pressed on it, he acknowledged whether there is a case to answer is a matter for the DPP and, in that event, it would be a matter for the courts.

“But I am confident, I am sure, that we will not get to that point, because I know these allegations are not true, the suggestion that I have done anything criminal or corrupt or self-interested is totally wrong,” he stated.

The Tánaiste confirmed he was interviewed by gardaí last April. We’re nine months on and, according to a report in the Sunday Independent, his solicitors have made contact up to four times, with gardaí seeking updates on the investigation. Such moves are understandable in the circumstances.

But even after the file is sent to the DPP, we do not know how long it will take to adjudicate on the matter there. On the DPP’s website, it states that the director must “carefully consider whether or not to prosecute”, and that she “is independent when carrying out her job”.

“This means that the Government or the gardaí can neither make the DPP prosecute a particular case nor stop her doing so,” it adds. This is entirely proper.

Reading further, it states that, in a straightforward case, a decision can be made within a few weeks, but it also outlines how some cases can take longer such, as when there is “a lot of evidence to think about”.

On the surface, it does not appear as if such complications could apply to this case. But this is purely speculative, and that only intensifies given the amount of time the gardaí have been working on this.

It has not been a good time, more widely, for the upper echelons of Fine Gael. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has once again let hubris get in the way of political common sense when it came to an impromptu champagne celebration in his department. Mr Varadkar managed to shift damage on that issue as well.

Of the three men seen to be at the apex of Fine Gael, only Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has kept out of the political wars of late. But with the party slipping in the opinion polls — a Sunday Times Behaviour & Attitudes poll showed Sinn Féin at 34%, Fianna Fáil at 24%, and Fine Gael at 22% — internal unrest can only increase.

The party’s poor performance in the 2020 general election got swallowed up by the advent of the pandemic. The sterling performance of the Government then, ably led by Mr Varadkar, also contributed to that being forgotten.

But that memory is resurfacing, as is speculation on whether the current configuration — of these three men leading the party into the next electoral contest — is the best way forward.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has been tipped as a future leader of Fine Gael.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee has been tipped as a future leader of Fine Gael.

It was interesting to watch Justice Minister Helen McEntee take part in The Irish Times Winter Nights series this week. Interesting that there were 1,000 people tuned in to hear what she had to say.

She acquitted herself well. It is not always easy to imagine someone as a party leader, but in her case, it does not take too much of a stretch.

While she pledged her loyalty to Mr Varadkar, she did not demur when asked about putting herself forward for leadership of Fine Gael when the time comes. Also trying to keep his heels cool here, but not always succeeding, is Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, who would jump at any such chance of a contest.

The very fact that we have a “rotating taoiseach” arrangement, and that the rotation is due in less than a year, will automatically destabilise a government. Things may appear to have settled down in Fianna Fáil in terms of replacing Micheál Martin, but that lurking deadline ensures it won’t stay that way for long. 

So there is unrest beneath the surface in the two bigger parties in the Coalition, and that added dynamic of ‘Leakgate’ only serves to turn up the political heat.

Non-Covid politics is set to be very interesting.

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