Baffling defence of Frances Fitzgerald leaves Leo Varadkar’s credibility damaged

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar miscalculated by continuing to back his mentor Frances Fitzgerald, meaning the country was left on the brink of an election as he played a game of chicken with Fianna Fáil, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

NOT ONE person asked her to stay, not one.

Yesterday at Cabinet, she sat for 40 minutes before making the announcement.

For 40 minutes, Frances Fitzgerald sat while the normal business of ministers was undertaken before she asked to address those present.

In what has been described as a “very muted and sombre affair”, she spoke for over 10 minutes detailing her handling of the Maurice McCabe email saga before saying that in the national interest, she would be resigning.

Described as being “stoical” in her demeanour, Ms Fitzgerald contained her emotions as she brought down the curtain on her ministerial career, she was greeted with expressions of sorrow from seven of her colleagues.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar informed his ministers that while he thought the Tanaiste’s departure was wrong, in terms of due process and fairness, he accepted it with regret.

He and his Tánaiste, whom he has described as his political mentor, had met face to face beforehand in which her fate was sealed.

Once she finished speaking, her colleagues said they would be sorry to see her go, but concluded that she was doing the right thing.

Sources have told me that no minister present expressed a view that she should not resign.

And with that, she was gone.

Baffling defence of Frances Fitzgerald leaves Leo Varadkar’s credibility damaged

But a short time later, in the Dáil, Varadkar struck a resentful tone in his statement, formally informing the House that his deputy prime minister had resigned.

He restated much of what he had said at Cabinet, stumbling over his words at times. His Fine Gael colleagues looked ashen faced, knowing they had been bested by Fianna Fáil.

“It is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation. It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing. In the past few days a drip-drip of information may have made certain things seem greater than they are. There was a feeding frenzy, and it became impossible for her to get a fair hearing based on the full facts. I hope that will change in the period ahead,” the Taoiseach said.

But as he railed against the forces which led to the fall of his close ally, Varadkar must have realised that his bizarre handling of the affair since Friday has damaged his standing within his own party.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline, Fine Gael Cllr John A Collins from Cork has criticised the Taoiseach about the way he has handled recent events around Táinaiste Francis Fitzgerald.

“There’s a question hanging over his head about how he handled the whole situation from day one. I think what he has done has undermined his authority. He needs to go back to basics and understand what the people on the ground are thinking within Fine Gael and react more quickly to whats happening amongst the ordinary members,” said Cllr Collins.

“There are questions about how Francis Fitzgerald handled it and the way Leo has handled her as well,” he said.

His willingness to continue to support Fitzgerald all through the weekend was baffling as it was illogical, knowing as he did that more information was due to come out by way of the emails released on Monday night.

His strategy of not blinking in his game of high stakes chicken with Micheál Martin, which almost precipitated a general election, would make sense if all damaging material relating to this saga was known and in the public domain.

If that was the case, he could have hung tough and forced Martin into a climbdown.

Such a climbdown looked likely throughout Monday when other options short of her head were being floated.

A Dáil apology, a major break up of the Department of Justice, better answers to parliamentary questions were all part of the deal which was on offer in order to spare Fitzgerald.

Yet, the publication of the emails on Monday at 7pm changed everything.

Baffling defence of Frances Fitzgerald leaves Leo Varadkar’s credibility damaged

The newly released documents showed Fitzgerald’s defence of the May 2015 McCabe email scandal was in tatters after it emerged that she received three emails advising her of the legal strategy by the former Garda commissioner against Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. None of these emails were sent to the Disclosures Tribunal despite their high significance. She has repeatedly claimed she did not know anything until May 2016.

Within minutes of their release and the media spotting the evidence that she knew more than she claimed, her own colleagues, ministers, and TDs were demanding she resign.

Opposition TDs like Brendan Howlin and Jim O’Callaghan went public with their calls for her to resign, saying her position was now clearly untenable.

Yet, rather than hearing Varadkar had sacked her, we heard he was continuing to express full confidence in her.

Once again, the threat of a general election looked likely and the country was gripped with dread once more.

In that instance, his credibility was severely damaged.

He allowed himself to be blinded to the political realities he has shown himself very adept at spotting so far in his career. For some reason, his political instincts let him down.

Let me steal a line from one of my colleagues who said that Haughey, Ahern, Cowen and even Enda Kenny would not have let the matter drag on as long as it did.

But another theory has come to mind and that is Varadkar was quite happy to have an election. Taoiseach for just five months, he is working on Enda Kenny’s weak mandate. At above 30% in the polls, a short campaign fought over the airwaves rather than the doorways would play to his strengths and deliver him his own mandate and a record third term for Fine Gael.

Several ministers have said as much to me in the past 24 hours or so.

Either way, he badly miscalculated and is diminished as a result.

He faces his colleagues at the weekly meeting of the parliamentary party tonight and the reaction will reveal a lot about how he stands as leader.

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer, as Machiavelli famously wrote.

“A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent.”

Varadkar in the past few days has allowed himself deviate from such a prudent path and has paid a heavy price for it.

He has lost a key ally in Cabinet and will probably have to promote a rival in Simon Coveney to the position of Tánaiste to heal the wounds of his folly.

A week to forget for the Taoiseach, and it is only Wednesday.

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