Nóirín O’Sullivan phone call further weakens Frances Fitzgerald's credibility

Nóirín O'Sullivan and Frances Fitzgerald.

And the kicks just keep on coming for Poor Frances, writes Daniel McConnell.

After 48 hours of little movement yet high brinkmanship, a significant development in the Frances Fitzgerald crisis emerged yesterday.

We learned that Nóirín O’Sullivan, the former Garda commissioner, personally called the Department of Justice and spoke to a senior official about her intended legal strategy to challenge the credibility of whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

This call, we are told, took place at the same time as the cross-examination of McCabe in May 2015.

Not for the first time, it would appear, the official in question didn’t feel the need to tell anyone about it.

Importantly, despite this call being made, Fitzgerald, the embattled Tánaiste, knew nothing about it.

Now, only time will tell if this is actually the case or whether she was told about it but has completely forgotten about it, like she did with the crucial email of May 15, 2015, which has been central to the scandal.

This call, which clearly was the basis of Labour TD Alan Kelly’s questioning a couple of weeks ago, is the latest drip in a long line of drip drips of information to come out of the basket case department.

A spokesman for the department said of the email: “In the course of our wider trawl for records in recent days, we contacted a former senior official who stated that he recalled the former Garda commissioner mentioning to him at the time that a legal dispute had arisen between senior counsel at the tribunal.”

The department has said that this, along with all other relevant information which has come to light in its expanded trawl of documents, will be referred to the Disclosures Tribunal, where Leo Varadkar has been trying to kick this crisis into touch for 10 days without success.

While Fitzgerald may not have any direct knowledge of the phone call, it further weakens her credibility and that of the department on her watch.

The clear attempt by Fine Gael in recent days to blame all this on “legacy issues” with Justice is part of the strategy to minimise the pressure on Fitzgerald and her successor, Charlie Flanagan, who himself is in hot water over what he knew.

Stepping back a bit, the revelation of the phone call is just one of the issues of which Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was made aware during discussions with Varadkar this weekend.

The two leaders met in the Alexandra Hotel in Dublin on Saturday and were meeting again last night.

I understand three pro osals were put on table for discussion on Saturday as ways of avoiding an election, which many, if not most concerned, want to avoid.

They included a major break-up of the Department of Justice, which is deemed to be too big, too secretive, and too powerful.

The key issue discussed so far is a proposal to completely “restructure the department into clear justice and home affairs portfolios” and “assign the redefined divisions to align with the new structure”.

“It is recommended that justice should include civil and criminal law reform, crime and security, and international policy; home affairs should include policing, prisons, courts, equality, and integration.”

It is also believed that it is to be arranged for the appointment of a deputy secretary general to lead and take responsibility for the home affairs portfolio.

Martin, for his part, is keen to see many of the recommendations of the Toland report, which examined and found significant weaknesses in the Department of Justice, implemented in full.

The 2014 report, which was commissioned after the departures of minister Alan Shatter and then commissioner Martin Callinan, was hard-hitting in its conclusions about the culture of the department being closed and unnecessarily secretive.

However, as much as Varadkar and Martin may agree on reforms, the issue still comes back to the position of Fitzgerald.

Varadkar is adamant that he will not seek her head, while Martin is said to have impressed upon him that her head would “go a long way” to ending the crisis.

The talks between Martin and Varadkar have all the hallmarks of those between Irish Rail bosses and their union counterparts.

There will need to be a bit of brinkmanship here if people are to save face.

As Regina Doherty said yesterday, “there is a long time between now and Tuesday”, when the Dáil reconvenes, and there is still time for a solution to be found.

But as both leaders have marched their troops up the hill, Fianna Fáil will need something special to save face if they withdraw their motion.

Similarly, Varadkar, by backing Fitzgerald so strongly, cannot now move to sack her without destroying his own credibility just four months into his term of office.

The nation holds its breath.

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