Frances Fitzgerald’s fall from grace nearly complete

Taking over Justice in 2014, Frances Fitzgerald was seen as a safe pair of hands. A series of scandals has since tarnished her reputation, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

FRANCES Fitzgerald has nobody to blame but herself. As she prepares for the exit door from the justice portfolio, the game is getting away from her and her legacy looks set to be a negative one. She finds herself at the centre of a mounting political crisis with people calling for her head.

Having taken over the embattled Department of Justice in 2014 from the exiled and troublesome Alan Shatter, Fitzgerald has faced a continuous crisis relating to the Garda commissioner.

Her Garda commissioner.

Nóirín O’Sullivan, in her early days, sought to paint herself as a reformer. A new broom. She distanced herself from comments made by her predecessor, Martin Callinan, about the actions of whistleblowers being “frankly disgusting”.

O’Sullivan has since become embroiled in an incredible series of crises that has further shaken public confidence in our dysfunctional police force.

Her alleged involvement in a smear campaign against whistleblower Maurice McCabe, as revealed by Michael Clifford in this newspaper, was a game-changer in terms of her standing.

She has continuously protested her innocence but, such has been the force of allegations, the Government has established a tribunal of inquiry to investigate the claims.

From early in her tenure, there were calls for her to resign. Beginning with the likes of Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, the situation escalated and now a majority want rid of her.

Then, it was announced that 14,700 people were wrongly convicted of motoring offences after they weren’t given the opportunity to pay a fixed charge notice. Gardaí also confirmed that almost 1m phantom breath tests were recorded on the Garda Pulse system. Official figures claimed 1,995,369 tests were carried out — only 1,061,381 took place.

A large bill for compensating people who were wrongly brought to court is likely to be footed by the taxpayer.

The latest scandal to engulf the commissioner’s office is the matter of the Templemore College scandal. In a nutshell, significant financial irregularities emerged in terms of the running of the Garda training college and O’Sullivan decided not to inform Fitzgerald about the matter in July 2015, despite instructions from her lawyers to do so.

O’Sullivan insists she acted promptly after learning of the practices at the college, establishing a working group in July 2015 to examine the claims. She did not inform the department of its existence until October. When it became aware of the issues, it wrote to An Garda Síochána on October 6 telling it of the urgent requirement to inform its internal audit unit of the issue.

O’Sullivan did not notify Niall Kelly, head of the internal audit unit, until March 2016 — five months later.

Fitzgerald was not informed by the commissioner of the concerns regarding mismanagement of money in Templemore until October 2016, a full 16 months on from when she established the working group. A “significant oversight” is how Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath described it. Despite this, Fitzgerald has backed her commissioner.

Asked about specific wrongdoings of O’Sullivan, she said: “I have no objective evidence that the Garda commissioner has done anything wrong, I’ve no evidence in relation to that.”

She hit back at opposition criticism of her handling of Garda disputes by calling on them not to put political expediency “ahead of policing”. She said the two inquiries currently under way — the Charleton tribunal and the Public Accounts Committee hearings — should be allowed continue their work.

“Everybody says ‘take politics out of policing’. Let’s not put political expediency ahead of policing in this country,” said Fitzgerald. “Of course, the opposition are going to ramp up the pressure on the commissioner and, indeed, on me.”

Her stance is, on one level, baffling. She was clearly blindsided by O’Sullivan on a highly critical issue about the running of the force, yet rather than denounce her actions, she plays dumb.

She says she has no evidence of any wrongdoing. What about not telling you about this scandal for a year and a half? By not distancing herself from her commissioner or at least criticising in some shape or form for the oversight, Fitzgerald now has her handling of the matter being questioned.

The wolves are now barking at her door and she has to thank Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin for slapping down moves within his party to table a motion of no confidence in her.

She has allowed this to become her crisis rather than that of the commissioner. So why not scold O’Sullivan for what was at best a catastrophic failure in judgement and at worst a dangerously sinister attempt to cover up the truth?

By doing so, Fitzgerald knew she would be effectively sacking her and this Government does not want — and cannot afford — to lose/sack another Garda commissioner.

O’Sullivan’s position is extremely precarious and any shift in the Government from its position of steadfast support would have wide ramifications. There is a strong fear O’Sullivan’s departure may precipitate a snap general election. This would largely explain the outright hypocrisy from the opposition.

We’ve heard a lot of angry but empty rhetoric. Although Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Labour TDs discussed the potential moves at their private frontbench meetings yesterday, well-placed sources in all parties said any motions are unlikely at this stage.

Fianna Fáil officials note the confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael means it must abstain or vote against any no-confidence motion in the Government unless in extreme circumstances.

Similarly, although Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Jonathan O’Brien last night said they are still considering a motion, sources said there is little point in tabling one if it is not supported by other parties.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin last night warned Fitzgerald her “position will become increasingly untenable if that leadership [to remove O’Sullivan] does not manifest in the coming days”.

Asked specifically if this means Labour is planning a no-confidence motion, a spokesperson admitted: “We don’t have private member’s [time in the Dáil] for a while, so it hasn’t arisen as a matter for decision, yet.”

So because of political cowardice, O’Sullivan may cling on and Fitzgerald will amble on in relative security.

It is a near certainty that on the far side of the Fine Gael leadership contest, Fitzgerald will be moved from Justice and demoted to a less contentious ministry. It is also expected that she will lose the mantle of tánaiste.

Having begun her tenure as the safe and steady pair of hands after the turbulent Shatter times, Fitzgerald has found herself overwhelmed by the shocking scale of the Pandora’s box of nightmares from within the Garda.

But on this one, she only has herself to blame.

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