Ireland could be heading for an early election following reports that Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald received an email in May, 2015 about Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Pressure is growing on Fitzgerald to resign, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is standing by her. Fianna Fáil, as the main opposition party, has tabled a motion of no confidence in Fitzgerald. The controversy surrounding Fitzgerald could end the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, triggering a general election.
How did the country reach this point? In this edition of Focus, we look at the circumstances of the Maurice McCabe case and its potential implications for the Government.
Who is Maurice McCabe?
Sergeant Maurice McCabe is the most famous whistleblower in Garda history. It was McCabe who revealed that Gardaí were quashing the penalty points of famous and prominent people. In 2012, McCabe made public his concerns about how Gardaí had handled an assault and later that year, he became the face of the penalty points scandal. The news that certain Gardaí had wiped the penalty points of important people caused national outrage and the Comptroller & Auditor General published a report backing up the claims. However, then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter claimed that whistleblowers had not fully co-operated with Gardaí. The whistleblowers denied Shatter’s claim and said they had fully co-operated.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan told a meeting of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he found the allegations of some Gardaí ‘disgusting’ – referring to whistleblowers, including McCabe. Around the same time, an inquiry was set up to investigate the penalty points issue, led by barrister Sean Guerin. Guerin’s investigation concluded that Shatter had not investigated the matter properly. Shatter denied that he had failed to properly investigate but he resigned as Minister for Justice following the Guerin’s findings. He was succeeded by Frances Fitzgerald.
A new Garda Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, took over in late 2014 and in early 2015 the Government established the O’Higgins Commission to investigate McCabe’s allegations of Garda malpractice in Cavan-Monaghan. It is later revealed that Garda strategy at the Commission was to discredit McCabe by claiming he had a grudge against a senior Garda. McCabe was able to produce a recording disproving this.
During the O’Higgins Commission, Sgt. McCabe was sent a letter by Tusla – the child protection agency – saying he was being investigated about allegations that he sexually abused a child. This relates to an accusation in 2008, when Gardaí decided the complaint had no grounds for prosecution. Questions are raised about the timing of this mistake by Tusla, with some alleging it was part of a smear campaign.
With the controversy continuing, the Government set up the Charleton Commission of Investigation in February 2017 to investigate whether the Gardaí attempted to smear Sgt. McCabe. In September, Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan resigned, complaining of the ‘unending cycle’ of investigations. The Charleton Commission is still ongoing.
Why is Fitzgerald in trouble?
The current controversy centres on an email sent to Frances Fitzgerald in May 2015. Fitzgerald was Minister for Justice at the time, having promised a clean sweep and a new era of policing following the resignation of Alan Shatter.
The email outlined a dispute between the legal teams representing Maurice McCabe and the Gardaí at the O’Higgins Commission. It is now alleged that this email proves that the Government knew that the Garda strategy was to smear Sgt. McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission in an attempt to discredit his evidence. The Garda would allege that he had a grudge.
This information emerged after Labour TD Alan Kelly asked a series of questions about the Department of Justice and what its officials knew about the Garda approach to O’Higgins’ investigation.
Fitzgerald claims she does not remember reading the email in question, but officials in the Department of Justice at the time have suggested that she was aware of it. A recent report from RTÉ has said that Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan phoned an official at the Department of Justice in 2015 and outlined the Garda legal strategy.
The news about the email prompted Sinn Féin to table a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste but the real problem arose when Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, tabled its own motion of no confidence in her.
Why could this lead to an election?
The Fine Gael-led Government currently depends on a confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil. After the 2016 election, no single party was large enough to command an overall majority in the Dáil and no traditional coalition government was formed. Instead, Fianna Fáil remained on the opposition benches but pledged to support the Government through three budgets. A budget must be passed each year and it is considered a confidence vote in the Government. This year’s budget was the second that Fianna Fáil pledged to support. The confidence and supply agreement has allowed a Government to operate while giving Fianna Fáil influence over budget policy.
The revelations about Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s 2015 email have undermined this arrangement. Public trust in the Gardaí is low and the idea that a former Minister for Justice knew about the strategy to discredit and potentially smear a whistleblower was enough to force Fianna Fáil’s hand. Though Sinn Féin was the first opposition party to call for Fitzgerald to go, Fianna Fáil holds the balance of power in the Dáil and the party’s supporters will expect it to act on these allegations.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he will not be seeking Fitzgerald’s resignation. As Tánaiste and a key party ally, Varadkar will be reluctant to push her out, even if sticking by her forces an election. Asking Fitzgerald to resign or firing her would have serious implications within Fine Gael. Fitzgerald remains popular in the party and sacrificing such a senior figure at the behest of Fianna Fáil would be unacceptable to most of Fine Gael.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have met several times over the last few days, in an attempt to avert an early election. However, Fianna Fáil’s position is that Fitzgerald must go. Varadkar has continued to support Fitzgerald and he has said she will not be leaving the cabinet. Long meetings between the two party leaders have not resolved the crisis and political parties are preparing for a snap election.
The Taoiseach has suggested that an election could take place before Christmas. This is because a lame duck administration would be politically unpalatable for the Government. If an election were called for January, this would mean a long and bruising election campaign, which neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil want at the moment. Moreover, there is a crucial EU summit on 15 December that Varadkar is determined to attend, and not as a leader under a cloud. Brexit negotiations are at a crucial juncture. The Government is seeking a written guarantee from the UK government on avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Varadkar may be prepared to exercise a veto over Brexit talks if that guarantee is not given. An Irish veto would be a very serious matter and would affect not just Ireland and the UK, but the whole European Union. A veto would also further damage already strained relations between Ireland and Britain. Varadkar does not want to appear weak at the EU summit because of domestic political problems.
How serious is the situation?
Much of the public is fatigued by the Garda whisteblower controversy as it has lasted for several years, but the situation for the Government and the country is serious. If Ireland goes to the polls this Christmas, it will be a major political upset. The last general election took place in 2016 and while the confidence and supply arrangement means many commentators were expecting an early election, a snap election was not on the political radar until now. The last time two elections were held so close together was in 1982. Three elections were held over the course of 18 months between June, 1981 and November, 1982.
The Fianna Fáil government under Charles Haughey called a general election in 1981 after five years in office and while the party won the most seats, it lost out to a Fine Gael-Labour coalition under Garret Fitzgerald. However, in February 1982 the coalition government collapsed, leading to another election and Fianna Fáil temporarily returning to power. Haughey’s Fianna Fáil stayed in office just nine months before losing the support of independent TD Tony Gregory and the Workers Party, forcing another national vote. A new Fine Gael-Labour coalition would run the country until 1987.
The outcome of any election is uncertain. The recent controversy involving Frances Fitzgerald seems to have dented the Government’s popularity. While Fine Gael has enjoyed a recent lead in the polls, a Sunday Business Post poll found that the two parties are running almost neck and neck. Fine Gael stands at 27 percent support and Fianna Fáil on 26 percent.
This means there will likely be very little change after a general election. With that in mind, it is unclear whether Fianna Fáil would enter into a new confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael. If Fitzgerald remains in the cabinet after a fresh election, the issue will not be resolved. Supporting a government with Fitzgerald in it would likely be unacceptable to Fianna Fáil, so an election may not deal with the substantive issues.
However, the Government does not want to appear weak or unwilling to protect its own ministers. The chances that Varadkar will ask for Fitzgerald’s resignation are low. This puts great pressure on Fianna Fáil to pull their support for the Government.
What does this mean for Limerick?
Political parties are now preparing for the possibility of a snap election. Most commentators expected an election no earlier than next year or perhaps 2019. Party organisations have had to spring to into action at short notice. Selection conventions have been hurriedly called to choose candidates in constituencies where none have yet been chosen.
This is the situation in Limerick. Fine Gael TD Michael Noonan announced he would step down at the next election, though he remains in the Dáil at the moment. Fine Gael had not selected a candidate for the next general election before the Fitzgerald email controversy began. The Limerick city branch of Fine Gael organised its selection convention over the weekend and chose candidates on Monday, 27 November. The party was not expecting to officially reveal its general election candidates until much later. All parties will have to organise themselves as quickly as possible to capitalise on the political instability.
Apart from Fine Gael, political parties in Limerick appear to be prepared to field candidates. Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea will run again, as will Sinn Féin’s Maurice Quinlivan and, most likely, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan. The Social Democrats will field their chairperson, Sarah Jane Henelly, while Solidarity is widely expected to run Councillor Cian Prendiville.
Limerick city is an increasingly difficult seat to win and the outcome here could be vital to the formation of a Government. If the polls are correct and the two largest parties will emerge almost neck and neck, picking up one or two extra seats will be crucial. Though Limerick city is a tough constituency to win, it has served as something of a bellweather in recent years.
A general election will not resolve the situation surrounding Garda whistleblowers and it may create an even more unstable Government, but the current arrangement in the Dáil seems unsustainable. How the public will respond to another election so soon after the last remains to be seen.