Frances Fitzgerald fallout shows Irish politics never ceases to shock

The likelihood of a snap general election has moved a step closer after Fianna Fáil dramatically withdrew its support for the embattled Tánaiste, effectively ending its backing for the Government, writes Juno McEnroe.

The confidence and supply agreement between the Fine Gael government and Fianna Fáil has finally hit a roadblock. Last night, Fianna Fáil was forced to act over more twists and turns and chaotic explanations regarding embattled Jobs Minister Frances Fitzgerald and an email she received in May 2015 about a Garda management strategy to discredit whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

The party will consider its own motion of no confidence against the Tánaiste next week, in a bid to preempt one that has been agreed and launched by Sinn Féin.

In recent days, Fianna Fáil had signalled it was willing to give the Tánaiste and Government time to sort out the McCabe email saga. It would listen. At least that was the message out of a Fianna Fáil private meeting in Leinster House on Wednesday night.

Then Sinn Féin senior members launched a broadside at Frances Fitzgerald in the Dáil yesterday, after the resolute minister took to her feet to fight for her political future. As usual, Mary Lou McDonald, who now looks set to succeed Gerry Adams as leader, did not pull her punches during the heated exchanges. It was “time for you to go”, declared Ms McDonald.

The TD said that “when it mattered, when you became aware of a malicious strategy to malign this man you failed to act”.

Sinn Féin then launched its no motion confidence, also declaring that Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan had questions to answer after it emerged the email was in fact discovered in his department on November 9, several days before it was seen by him, a week before it was seen by the Tánaiste and a week and a half before the Taoiseach found out about it.

The chaos and confusion had got worse.

But it has now emerged that Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, ahead of the tense Dáil debate yesterday, had got on the phone to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the Wednesday night.

Fianna Fáil was no longer willing to declare confidence in the Tánaiste, announced Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan on the RTE news last night. And Mr Martin had told the Taoiseach so.

This effectively rips up the confidence and supply agreement, under its terms, it becomes null and void if Fianna Fáil are not willing to support a government minister.

A number of scenarios now arise. The most likely result though is that unless Fianna Fáil wants to collapse the minority government and cause a snap Christmas general election, Frances Fitzgerald will have to quit.

Fine Gael ministers rallied around her yesteday, with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney declaring the communications fiasco around the email was not a resigning matter.

Inevitably though, Fianna Fáil’s changed position has shortened the lifespan of this government. Relations between the two parties will unlikely be as amicable again — even if the confidence and supply agreement can be bandaged or fixed up. Furthermore, there is a clear standoff here. If Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach is unwilling to let her go and stands by her like his ministers, he may collapse the minority government himself, therefor causing an election.

If none of these scenarios arise, Fianna Fáil may indeed drive ahead with their motion next week where ultimately the Government anyhow would lose.

Amid the homeless and housing crisis, the dilemmas facing the country with Brexit and a host of other problems from health to policing, there now is a real prospect of a snap general election in the cold and dark days of December or possibly early January. Irish politics never ceases to shock.

But ultimately, the argument will not be dropped that the Tánaiste, as justice minister, did not do her utmost to protect Maurice McCabe.

The Tánaiste insists she never had any hand in a campaign to smear Sgt McCabe. That may be so, but she is the Tánaiste and a former justice minister. Standards are important here. And a government must set them.

And as Martin Luther King once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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