Few would have predicted that the Taoiseach Enda Kenny would be the author of his own demise, writes Political Reporter Elaine Loughlin.
It’s the little things that trip you up. If Enda Kenny could magically go back in time, he might have paid more attention to those words uttered by former Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds after being forced to quit as Taoiseach in 1994.
But there is no room for hindsight in Leinster House, and so a week of ‘he said, she said and back to what he really might have said’, has all-but ended Enda Kenny’s four decades in the Dáil.
The 32nd Dáil, conceived after difficult and laborious negotiations, was never going to be easy going.
When the minority Government — cobbled together with Fine Gael and a motley crew of Independents and held up by Fianna Fáil — was formed nine months ago, speculation mounted over whether it would be the Eighth Amendment, water charges, or perhaps even bin charges that might inflict the final blow on Mr Kenny.
No one guessed that it would be Mr Kenny himself who would accidentally expedite his own demise.
Mr Kenny — we can only guess — had no idea what the following days would hold for him as he beamed at what appeared to be a light-touch interview on radio last Sunday.
Along with Brexit-themed questions he was asked of course, of when he first spoke to Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone about her meeting with Sergeant Maurice McCabe and his wife, and the false allegations of child sex abuse leveled against Mr McCabe in the Tusla report. In his typical folksy story- telling way, Mr Kenny recounted a conversation he had with Ms Zappone.
“Emm, well Minister Zappone is doing a very good job,” he began, hands clasped. “She did tell me that she intended to meet with Sgt McCabe in a private capacity.”
This comment already set journalist fingers tapping frantically for a clarification from his spokesman. What exactly did the Taoiseach mean by private capacity?
It was a picking point for a few hours on Sunday.
The response was that Ms Zappone met the McCabes confidentially on Tusla-related sensitive issues and that was what was meant by the “private capacity” comment.
The Taoiseach continued with what would be the self-inflicted and likely fatal blow.
“I said to her, ‘well if you do have a meeting make sure that you have a thorough account of it’.
“And so when we had our meeting on Tuesday, I would not have been aware of any of the details of the discussion.”
Case closed, or so it was thought.
But just as Mr Kenny was unknowing putting his foot in it, so too was his second-in-command, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
She claimed that she knew nothing of the Tusla file containing false child sex abuse allegations against Sgt McCabe until it was revealed by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Clifford on Thursday afternoon and later that evening on RTÉ’s Prime Time.
Little did the Taoiseach realise that there was a juggernaut heading his way, in the form of a transatlantic flight bringing the Children’s Minister back to Ireland.
An emotional and clearly rattled Katherine Zappone shifted from foot to foot as she came out to brief a swell of journalists on her version of events.
She explained her meeting with Sgt McCabe and his wife Lorraine and admitted she was “deeply conscious” that the “State had almost destroyed their family”.
“All I can say was that I didn’t sleep at all that night. How could you?” the ashen-faced minister said.
But after telling of the “extraordinary and vile allegations” she went on to detail the sequence of contact with Mr Kenny which would trigger a political crisis within Government and Fine Gael.
She claimed she had not spoken to Mr Kenny before her meeting with the McCabes on January 25.
Instead, she said she spoke with the Taoiseach after the meeting “to let him know that I had met with the McCabes, that we had discussed Tusla. I didn’t go into the detail of any of the allegations that I was aware of but I did indicate that that was the nature of the conversation”.
The starkly contradictory account floated in the air.
If Ms Zappone’s account was accurate it meant that the leader of the country had concocted a detailed tale of speaking with the first-time minister and TD.
While it seemed he was able to remember a meeting which never actually happened, he failed to recollect a conversation he had just days previously, during which a bombshell had been dropped.
Ms Zappone may not have divulged all the disgusting details of what she had learned during her meeting with the McCabes, but neither did the Taoiseach ask.
The two apparently then went in to Cabinet to approve a commission of investigation into allegations of an orchestrated smear campaign against Sgt McCabe.
When clarification was sought from the Taoiseach’s spokesman,
little was given. “As the Taoiseach has said previously, he was not aware of the details or of the very serious and disturbing issues that arose at the meeting.
“As Minister Zappone confirmed today, she did not divulge any of the details of these very serious issues to the Taoiseach or to anyone else in Government. That was absolutely the correct course of action.”
And so with TDs still back in their constituencies, both stories continued to float side by side.
But while stories of two-pint men and soldiers at the ATMs were previously laughed off, this tall tale just couldn’t be brushed aside.
In a separate war of words, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said he was “100%” certain he had told Ms Fitzgerald of the Tusla file on Wednesday February 8, the day before the scandal was aired publicly.
The pair met in the members’ bar of Leinster House, where Mr O’Callaghan said he told her “there was an issue around a Tusla file that was going to be broadcast on RTÉ’s Prime Time on the Thursday”.
He added that he expressed concern that the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry agreed upon by Cabinet the day before were “not sufficiently broad” in light of the Tusla revelations.
“We then had a discussion for about seven or eight minutes about paragraph B of the terms of reference. And the point I was making to her was that the terms of reference in paragraph B was limited to communications between Supt [Dave] Taylor and the broadcasting media.
“I said it needed to be broader than that. My thinking was that it would cover Tusla and other things we do not know.”
Mr O’Callaghan added: “I spoke to the Tánaiste. I felt we were doing the Government and the Tánaiste a favour.”
He indicated that there could have been no confusion on the part of Ms Fitzgerald as he had mentioned Tusla “three or four times” in their conversation.
The commission of investigation appeared to be in tatters as a lengthy statement released by the McCabe family rejected any private inquiry and called for a full-scale public tribunal.
There was a nervous tension around Leinster House as politicians and officials gathered in hushed huddles, trying to predict the unpredictable. A storm was brewing but its ferocity was yet unknown.
There was talk that Fianna Fáil would demand a head. Depending on who you spoke to, it could be the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Children’s Minister or the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan that would have to face the gallows.
The realisation that a tribunal would not be required was dawning.
Tellingly, Mr Kenny met with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin before Cabinet on Tuesday morning. As one backbench TD put it, Mr Kenny would have to get the approval of Fianna Fáil on anything that was agreed by ministers at Cabinet, so it was a better use of time to obtain it in advance.
After a longer than usual Cabinet meeting — which prevented Chief Whip Regina Doherty from attending a Business Committee meeting to decide the business of the Dáil — the establishment of a tribunal was approved and Mr Kenny entered the bear-pit of the Dáil chamber.
It was then that the statement of guilt came.
Mr Kenny said: “I might say mea culpa, because I am guilty here of not giving accurate information.
“I understood from thinking myself that [Ms Zappone] had asked me about meeting Sgt McCabe in the first place.
“It actually was her office that consulted with my officials, who told me.
“She is very clear that she did not tell me that she intended to meet Sgt McCabe, but she did tell her official to tell my office, so I regret that.”
So followed pointed exchanges, heckling, and calls for the Taoiseach to stand down as the questions continued over his inconsistencies surrounding the McCabe scandal.
But the calamity only got worse when hours later Mr Kenny was again forced to change his story.
During an evening debate to try to get to the bottom of what may have happened, Ms Zappone’s statement again contradicted Mr Kenny’s version of events.
As the drip-feed of information continued , the Taoiseach admitted he was told the Zappone-McCabe meeting involved sex abuse allegations, but not the exact details:
“Before the Cabinet meeting the minister, Deputy Zappone, said she had met with the McCabes and that the question of false allegations of sexual abuse had been made to Tusla and had been discussed by her with the McCabes.”
Outside the chamber, there was a mad scramble from the Independent Alliance, who up until then had remained largely silent on the McCabe case.
A press conference was organised before being postponed, rescheduled, and eventually cancelled, as no one quite knew what would come next in the fast-paced saga.
A visibly vexed Shane Ross was seen ushering his Alliance colleagues through Leinster House and it was rumoured that the five TDs might pull the plug on Government altogether.
After three hours of statements and questioning on Tuesday evening, Mr Kenny must have been dragging himself back into the chamber for more on Wednesday.
Reading carefully from notes, Mr Kenny repeated that he had not been told details of the allegations, but went on to claim that he was satisfied that the claims would be covered by the terms of reference, as the terms included an allowance for examination of potential criminal activity.
“Clearly, we were looking at the terms of reference; we had examined the terms of reference and they were produced and presented by Mr Justice O’Neill. Central to that was an allegation of criminal misconduct made against Sgt McCabe.
“Obviously, the discussion between the minister [Katherine Zappone] and Sgt McCabe dealt with that area. The minister did not make me aware of the existence of a Tusla file and did not comment in any detail on the conversation she had with Sgt McCabe.”
Despite being asked repeatedly, at no stage did Mr Kenny say when he was first made aware of the false sex abuse rumours against Sgt McCabe. He said he didn’t deal in rumour.
A debate on a motion of confidence in the Government began at 6.45pm.
But even as Opposition TD after Opposition TD stood up to attack his party, Mr Kenny appeared to remain defiant.
When a senior Fianna Fáil member, who has been in politics almost as long as Mr Kenny, sent him a text on Wednesday evening, he received a confident response from the Taoiseach.
“We have been around here before. Always better leaders over the hill,” Mr Kenny wrote back as the chamber echoed with bellows and shouts.
In another show of strength, Mr Kenny strolled into the Dáil members’ bar flanked by a number of his confidants, in a clear statement that he was going nowhere.
After narrowly winning the motion of confidence in the Government in a late-night vote, Mr Kenny was joined by a number of party colleagues, including Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Health Minister Simon Harris.
However, it is understood that when Noel Rock — who was the first to call for clarification on when the Taoiseach will step aside — joined the gathering he was said to be given a “cold shoulder” by Mr Kenny.
One source, who was in the bar at the time, said Mr Kenny “didn’t flinch” when the Dublin North West TD approached the group, and instead “iced him out”.
It is understood that after some minutes Mr Kenny left the bar and was followed by Mr Rock, who was again ignored by the Taoiseach.
The Independent Alliance broke their silence and announced they had cut a deal to set up a new probe into the gardaí which would be headed by an international expert.
The Government vote of confidence may have passed, but the jockeying for support for the leadership battle had already begun around Leinster House.
On Thursday, lists were being drawn up, putting Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar on between 25 and 30 votes each out of a total of 71 parliamentary ballots.
No one was talking about if Mr Kenny might step down, but when.
Martin Heydon, Fine Gael Parliamentary Party Chairman, says they never discussed the leadership at last night's meeting pic.twitter.com/46Eh9L21t2— Morning Ireland (@morningireland) February 16, 2017
When Mr Kenny appeared before an Oireachtas committee, Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness wished him well.
Privately, Mr Kenny admitted to colleagues to being “disappointed” in himself and acknowledged that he would not be able to stay on as Taoiseach for as long as he intended.
But at an event in Dublin’s north inner city, Mr Kenny came out fighting. “I am focusing entirely on a really busy and challenging time ahead and we have got lots of work for all of our party to engage themselves in, ministerial portfolios, and programmes for Government to implement — that’s what we will be about,” he told reporters.
Despite a call from Fine Gael TD Pat Deering to make his intentions known on when he will stand down, or possibly face a vote of no confidence at the parliamentary party meeting next week, Mr Kenny maintained that it had been an “ordinary working day”.
Pat Deering says he expects the Taoiseach to indicate a timeline for his departure as FG leader at a parliamentary party meeting next week pic.twitter.com/SLsTf5oMSa— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 16, 2017
He said: “Politics is a vocation, it draws you into stormy waters as well as calm.
“Today for me was a very ordinary working day; we had a Cabinet meeting at 7.30am where we approved and signed off on the terms of reference for the public inquiry into the allegations of a sustained smear campaign against Sgt Maurice McCabe.”
“Tomorrow is another ordinary working day,” Mr Kenny said.
There is a different light when you cross the Shannon.
Mr Kenny — a man of the people — is going back to his own people for the weekend. And just as Mr Kenny has remained a staunch supporter of the men who line out in the Green and Red, the people of Mayo have stood firm behind him.
There were utterances that Mr Kenny, buoyed up by supporters in Castlebar, might think he could ride out the storm.
But while he was flanked and protected by his confidants during previous attacks, including the attempted heave by Richard Bruton, today Mr Kenny is much more of a lone figure. Phil Hogan has been transported to Brussels, while James Reilly now sits in the Seanad.
Ministers yesterday formed a queue to call for calm, with Mr Coveney saying Mr Kenny should be given time to decide when he will step down. But step down he must.
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