FERGUS FINLAY: A general election nobody wants puts our Brexit negotiations at risk

I don't believe Frances Fitzgerald was, or could have been, part of the conspiracy against Maurice McCabe, writes Fergus Finlay.

Dear President Higgins, No impertinence intended, but we seem to be approaching a moment when the nation desperately needs your help. 

And if things proceed as they’re proceeding right now, you will be in a position to change the course of history. A little bit of history anyway.

I’ve often said it before, but it is the case that no government is ever as stable — or as unstable — as it looks from the outside.

Was that ever more true than in the past week or so? When I sat down to write my Irish Examiner column last week, nobody would have predicted the fall of the government and a pre-Christmas election.

As I start to write this week, nobody is predicting that either of those eventualities can be prevented.

But of course, just as there were clumsy people last week undermining the stability of the Government, I have no doubt whatever that there are clever people beavering away in the background trying to put it back together.

I’ve never heard a chorus of people in my life like the chorus of people on every conceivable media outlet, from every corner of the political spectrum, announcing that a general election is the last thing the country needs.

So there is every possibility, President, that by the time this open letter is published, you may have no role in the crisis that we now face.

They may have cobbled together a solution that will get us over the hump — although as you well know, once trust is broken an election is inevitable in the short- to medium-term.

But in the absence of a short-term fix, there is an equal possibility that a pretty unique set of circumstance could arise.

I’m assuming, because it is the normal thing to do, that by now the Government will have tabled a motion of confidence in itself and in the minister for justice, to replace the motions of no confidence already tabled by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

That will be the signal that talks have gone nowhere. And assuming it is tabled, that is the motion that will be debated and voted on later today.

If the Government is beaten in that vote, the only appropriate course of action open to the Taoiseach is to go straight to you and tender his resignation. He may then ask you to dissolve the Dáil and call an election.

He doesn’t actually have to do that. On November 17, 1994, a different taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, lost the confidence of the Dáil. He went immediately to the then president, Mary Robinson, and gave her his resignation. But he didn’t ask for a dissolution.

Instead he assumed the role of caretaker taoiseach, in the expectation that a new government could be formed that would win the confidence of the Dáil. In due course it was, although it wasn’t the government anticipated by Albert Reynolds when he went to see Mary Robinson.

Things are different this time. If it comes to a confidence vote today, there is little or no likelihood that the parties, left to their own devices, will be able to solve the problem on their own. They are going to need a little push.

So if the Taoiseach comes to you after losing the vote, and hands you his resignation, he will also “advise” you to dissolve the Dáil.

And at that moment, and in those circumstances, for only the second time in the history of your office (the last time was when Garret Fitzgerald was beaten on a budget vote, and that was 35 years ago), you have absolute discretion.

The issue of whether Ireland has to endure a pre-Christmas election, or even whether it’s in the country’s interest, is entirely in your hands. You can agree, or you can refuse.

Of course, it would be doubly impertinent for me to tell you what you should do, because in those unique circumstances the matter is up to you. As the Constitution says, in Article 132.2, you have “absolute discretion”.

As I understand that phrase, it means nobody can tell you what to do. (Incidentally, the next sub-section of that same article also says — again, something that has never happened before — that you could convene a meeting of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas, after consulting with the Council of State. It’s not entirely clear if that refers to the discretion about dissolving the Dáil, but the juxtaposition of the two articles is interesting, isn’t it?)

Even though I can’t tell you what to do — and I have no doubt you’ll approach the situation with greater wisdom and experience than mine — there’s no point in making a secret of what I think.

I’m already on the record as saying that I don’t believe France Fitzgerald was, or could have been, part of the vicious conspiracy against Maurice McCabe. It’s not in the nature of the woman I know. It seems pretty clear that political antennae weren’t up when they should have been, and questions weren’t asked that should have been asked. But whatever mistakes or misjudgements might have happened, it’s entirely clear from the pattern of her actions that she is a supporter, not an enemy, of Maurice McCabe.

It may even be possible, in an odd way, that she herself has been the victim of a conspiracy, perhaps not an overt or planned one, but one that arises from the culture of the Department of Justice.

You had long experience of politics, President, and I’ve no doubt that in your illustrious
ministerial career, you had ample opportunity, as did I, to witness the culture of that unique government department. It’s not capable of reform, for one simple reason.

More or less since the foundation of the State, the Department of Justice has seen itself, and been encouraged to see itself, as the sole and only guardian of the security of the State.

That central philosophical tenet colours its attitude to everything. It sees every issue
relating to immigration and asylum seekers, for example, as a security issue.

Uniquely, the Department of Justice is the only government department that actually believes it has the right to decide what its own minister should be told. Other government departments frequently withhold information from the public, but only one has the temerity to believe that it can keep its minister in the dark.

That makes accountability impossible, it makes reform impossible, and it makes further scandal inevitable. Whatever government emerges from this mess needs to decide, once and for all and overnight, to dissolve this department and reassign its functions.

But in the meantime, we are in a unique position in the complex and critical Brexit negotiations now unfolding, because we have the solidarity of the entire European Union in facing up to Britain’s arbitrary decision-making. A general election that nobody wants puts all that at risk. If we can’t manage our own politics, it’s going to make it much harder to expect Europe to protect our vital interests.

So all I want to do, President, as you face a difficult and historic decision, is to wish you luck. Your experience and judgment will serve you — and us — well.

I don’t believe France Fitzgerald was, or could have been, part of the conspiracy against Maurice McCabe

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