As Alan Shatter knows only too well, receiving a public vote of confidence from Taoiseach Enda Kenny is no good thing if his back is against the wall.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News programme on Tuesday night, just as the interim Fennelly report into the Garda commissioner ‘retirement’ controversy was published, the Fine Gael leader was asked about the future of attorney general Máire Whelan.
Dismissing any suggestion her position could be under threat due to revelations she did not inform cabinet of the scale of the Garda station recordings crisis until March, despite knowing about it in November, Mr Kenny flashed a smile and said the “outstanding” Labour appointee and legal expert has nothing to worry about.
This view was repeated in Paris on Thursday when Mr Kenny pledged his “full and absolute confidence” in Ms Whelan.
But, given the fact Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have both tabled motions of no confidence in the Taoiseach, with the latter party also controversially targeting Ms Whelan, the apparent security of the attorney general’s position could soon be revisited. If the Opposition continues to press the Fennelly issue when the Dáil eventually returns, a head may ultimately have to roll.
And while Labour will be up in arms if their appointment as attorney general is put on the chopping block; the past experience of ex-justice minister Alan Shatter, ex-Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, and ex-Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell is that it is never Mr Kenny’s head.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Thursday, Labour’s Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin was insistent Ms Whelan was not being nudged toward retirement. During a 14-minute interview (an eternity in broadcast) he spent 10 minutes emphasising there is no chance his long-time colleague will become a political “scapegoat”, saying: “Absolutely not, she is an immensely competent, able, diligent law officer to the State that we would be deeply wounded as a nation to lose.”
Fellow Labour cabinet members Alex White and Jan O’Sullivan were also quick to quell any suggestion of a threat to the position of Ms Whelan, while a spokesman for Tánaiste Joan Burton dismissed the matter entirely. The same message came from Fine Gael Transport Minister Paschal Donohue on Thursday morning.
However, it cannot have escaped Ms Whelan’s attention that in high-profile radio interviews on Wednesday— 24 hours before the sudden outpouring of compliments — both Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Department of Finance junior minister Simon Harris noted the fact “information wasn’t conveyed” was a key reason for the crisis, while insisting in the same breath that Mr Kenny has been exonerated.
Speaking outside Leinster House on Wednesday afternoon as he confirmed his own party will be tabling a motion of no confidence, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the focus must remain on the “real target”.
“The real target here, the real issue here, is not that [Ms Whelan’s position or Mr Callinan’s missing notes], let’s be honest. The Taoiseach is the key issue here, and there will be attempts to deflect from that. The Taoiseach has had too many fall guys. The secretary general is no longer in justice; the Garda commissioner is no longer in position; the minister for justice is no longer in position, who’s next? The Taoiseach always has somebody to take the rap for him,” he said.
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