ALISON O'CONNOR: Frances Fitzgerald may have departed but this issue is far from buried

It took an extraordinarily long time, in political terms, for Frances Fitzgerald to finally announce that she would resign, suggests Alison O’Connor.

IN THE aftermath of this week’s major political drama there were deep breaths being taken in the Fianna Fáil leaders office in Leinster House on Tuesday night. Then the phone rang. It was Michael Healy-Rae calling to personally express his gratitude to Micheál Martin for preventing a general election.

The pair chatted and Mr Healy-Rae divulged that last weekend, at the height of the drama, he’d had “only” 50 canvassers out in his Kerry constituency and at no house visited did any one voter say they wanted an election. Nor given his phonecall of thanks, did he.

That realisation that a general election at this time was not a good idea took much longer to dawn on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. But if there is one thing that may prove valuable from last weekend’s prolonged episode it would be the Taoiseach having been properly schooled in the true meaning of a confidence and supply arrangement between two political parties.

It was a serious case, as the saying goes, of the oul dog for the hard road and the pup for the boreen. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is in the Dáil since 1989, and more recently pulled his party out of the political fire following the economic crash. 

Amongst many other things he was a witness to the Whelehan crisis in 1994 which led, amid turmoil, to the fall of the then government, The Corkman is consistently under estimated,
including by a significant number of his own TDs. But he can now credibly, with hand on heart, tell voters, whenever the next election does occurs, that his party acted responsibly and maturely on a number of occasions when it came to the confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael.

Those decades of experience had taught him, from when he first set eyes on those new Department of Justice emails last weekend, advising former tánaiste and justice minister Frances Fitzgerald of the legal strategy being used by the former Garda commissioner
Nóirín O’Sullivan against Sgt Maurice McCabe, that once released publicly they would clinch the resignation deal for her.

After a slightly shaky start on Thursday he and his party members kept to the message all throughout that while they did not wish for a general election Frances Fitzgerald was stretching all credibility. 

Their messaging was assisted ably by a very sure and impressive performance throughout by justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan.

It’s worth remembering how high the ante was raised by Fine Gael, in response to the tabling of a motion of no confidence in Frances Fitzgerald by Fianna Fáil.

There was the vote of unanimous support for the justice minister at their parliamentary party meeting last Thursday night, and then the charge to hold constituency selection conventions and dust down election posters.

MICHEAL MARTIN

Remember that Micheál Martin rang the Taoiseach on Wednesday evening to raise the issues of the emails. His call warranted no invitation from the Taoiseach to a meeting to discuss the issue. Current Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan then became implicated. 

The Fianna Fáil leader still not did hear from the Taoiseach. Last Friday it looked as if we were hurtling towards a Christmas general election — one of the daftest developments of modern Irish politics — had it gone ahead.

But then the talking did actually start and apparently there was very good work done over the weekend between the two leaders on what to do with the serious dysfunctionality of the Department of Justice. 

By the end of last weekend the two leaders knew the measure of each other far better than they would have this day last week. But the issue of the future of Frances Fitzgerald hung there between them, with the Fianna Fáil side all the while knowing the potential fallout once those new emails from the Department of Justice were published.

It took an extraordinarily long time, in political terms, for Frances Fitzgerald to finally announce that she would resign as she did on Tuesday morning. Even then it was with her heels stuck in and the Taoiseach telling us “It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing”. 

Fianna Fáil could have dug its heels in too and insisted that when she went she admitted her political culpability but it did not, perhaps realising it would have been a step too far for the Government party. Despite the loss of two ministers for Justice, two secretaries general from the same Department, the previous Taoiseach Enda Kenny being mired in controversies surrounding justice issues, Fine Gael has never acknowledged, on any significant level, that it was responsible for any wrongdoing.

Just look at the immediate efforts to rehabilitate Frances Fitzgerald before her seat in the
Department of Justice was even cold. 

The narrative has been consistent throughout. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told this newspaper on Tuesday there had been “a total change in the national mood because of
the new way the emails were presented on Monday and that made it impossible for Fianna Fáil to accept anything less than her resignation”.

PARTISAN

THAT sure is one convenient, partisan way of looking at it, but you could

also argue that it was the content and implications of the emails that swung the national mood, and the extraordinary “incuriosity” of Ms Fitzgerald that led to her downfall.

Hours after her resignation on Tuesday night Frances Fitzgerald said she wanted to vindicate her own name; that the Taoiseach had told her he intended on her participating on politics at the highest level, playing a full role in public life. 

She received a standing ovation on Wednesday night from colleagues when she arrived at a party meeting in Leinster House and the Taoiseach said he expected she would return to a high level of Irish politics once vindicated by the Charleton Tribunal.

This is rather high risk, not to mention typically arrogant Blueshirt strategy — keep brazening it out. Even at this stage the stakes for such an approach are rather high. 

Mr Justice Peter Charleton has given fairly good indications that he is on top of his game when it comes to his tribunal. 

Who is to say he won’t have a view on all of this, even outside of the “legal approach”? This isn’t over yet.

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