Frances Fitzgerald’s turn to answer the tough questions

It was inevitable, writes Daniel McConnell

Poor Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald who, by her turn on the roster, found herself in the hot seat to answer questions in the Dáil, at a time of a raging justice crisis.

She had to endure several tough hours over the fallout from the O’Higgins report into allegations of malpractice within An Garda Síochána.

Specifically, the question on everybody’s lip was what did she know about this newspaper’s lead story last Friday, which said the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan accused whistleblower Maurice McCabe of being motivated by “malice” when he highlighted malpractice in the force.

Mick Clifford in his report, revealed how documents to the commission showed that Sgt McCabe’s character and motivations were being undermined, while the commissioner was publicly praising him for speaking out.

Not only did the matter dominate Justice questions, it too was the main question for both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin at Leaders’ Questions, which were taken by Fitzgerald in the absence of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who was travelling to the US.

It featured too late last night during Topical Issues when Independents Mick Wallace and Clare Daly spoke with vigour and force, insisting O’Sullivan still has questions to answer.

During Leaders’ Questions, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said there was a campaign to undermine Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe which made its way to the O’Higgins Commission.

Martin demanded clarity from the justice minister as to whether Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan sought to claim Sgt McCabe was motivated by malice.

But bizarrely, Martin’s tough stance in the Dáil was in contrast to the stance taken by several of his party’s leading TDs, who earlier in the day said they now considered the matter closed, given Ms O’Sullivan’s lengthy statement the night before.

In that statement, she said she never regarded McCabe as malicious.

“I want to make it clear that I do not, and have never, regarded Sergeant McCabe as malicious,” she said. “Any member of An Garda Síochána who raises issues will be fully supported. Each and every one of them must know they have the right and responsibility to raise their concerns and be confident that they will be listened to and addressed.”

But Martin and Adams were not appeased.

Adams pressed the Tánaiste to state whether she had spoken to the Commissioner about the allegations that she had directed her legal representatives to argue that Sgt McCabe had acted out of malice.

Fitzgerald, for her part, played it tight and gave little away.

She said she was duty bound to respect the law and said the privilege that exists between clients and their lawyers must be respected.

“We must take all steps necessary to ensure these mistakes are not made again,” she said. “I am constrained in what I can say. All 97 witnesses to the O’Higgins Commission have rights and I must respect those.”

Fitzgerald said she has spoken with the commissioner, adding she “still has issues with her” but that she and the commissioner have both accepted in full the O’Higgins report.

The Tánaiste also told the Dáil that she found the selective leaking of the report ahead of its publication as “unfortunate” and “illegal”.

It is clear that while some people want this issue to go away, questions certainly remain to be answered.

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