An uneasy show of support: Coalition partners sticking by Varadkar amid calls for him to step aside
© Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS Ireland’s Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar arrives for the second day of the European Union leaders summit, held to discuss the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
An uneasy show of support.
Government backbenchers agreed that the phrase above pretty much summed up the current state of affairs in government in the wake of the latest developments surrounding the Garda probe into Leo Varadkar’s leak of a GP contract almost two years ago.
It comes amid opposition calls for him to step aside. It was confirmed at the weekend that the probe was now being treated as a criminal investigation.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald yesterday called for the Tánaiste to resign or be removed, describing the leak as a “blatant abuse of power”.
Varadkar has admitted that in April 2019, while he was Taoiseach, he sent a copy of a doctors’ pay deal between the State and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to his friend, Dr Maitiu O Tuathail.
Dr O Tuathail was head of the rival organisation, the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), at the time.
McDonald said that “politically this cannot be tolerated”, with her party stating Varadkar’s position is untenable.
But Fine Gael, despite mutterings of deep unhappiness at the leaking of the report and the damage it has done to the party, are sticking by Varadkar.© REUTERS/Lorraine O’Sullivan Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald speaks at a public meeting Liberty Hall in Dublin, Ireland February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Lorraine O’Sullivan
When asked what the mood music was in Fine Gael, one TD said a tweet from veteran journalist Vincent Browne summed up their party’s attitude to Sinn Fein’s calls for Varadkar to step aside.
“Mary Lou wants Leo Varadkar sacked because the Gardai are investigating him re a crime: the leaking of a confidential documenting document,” Browne tweeted.
“Why did she not demand Gerry Adams be sacked when the PSNI were investigating him re a crime: Jean McConville’s murder?”
Adams was arrested and questioned over the 1972 murder in 2014. The former Sinn Féin leader has categorically denied any involvement in the killing.© Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images Leo Varadkar the Taoiseach, prime minister and head of government of Ireland at the Special European Council arrives at Forum Europa building and has a doorstep press and media briefing during the second day of a special European Council, EURO summit, EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium about the future panning of the next long term budget of the European Union EU at the post Brexit era. February 21, 2020 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
When asked over the weekend if Varadkar should stand aside, without prejudice, from his position at Cabinet while gardaí investigate the matter, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said: “Absolutely not.”
Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, she added: “The Tánaiste made his position very clear in the Dáil last November. He said it was an error of judgement.
“What he did was in the interest of GPs, patients and the general public. He had nothing to gain from sharing that document.”
However, despite the show of support for Varadkar, there is no doubt that some political damage has been done to the Tánaiste.© REUTERS/Lorraine O’Sullivan Outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at the Convention Centre, prior to the election of a new Taoiseach in Dublin, Ireland June 27, 2020. REUTERS/Lorraine O’Sullivan
So far, his party are sticking by their man – but what about Fianna Fáil and the Greens?
Ógra Fianna Fáil – the youth wing of the party – has called on the Tánaiste to temporarily stand-aside, pending the outcome of the Garda investigation. However a FF spokesperson has said the view of the party is that Tanaiste is “entitled to due process”.
A Green Party spokesperson said the gardaí had received a complaint and must be allowed to do their job.
“The Green Party acknowledges the account and apology given by the Tánaiste in the Dáil last November and has confidence in him.”© MAXWELLS-IRISH GOVERNMENT POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (R) talks with outgoing Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar (L) inside the Convention Centre Dublin during the 33rd sitting of the new Dail for the election of the new prime minister (Taoiseach) in Dublin on June 27, 2020. – Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin was elected Saturday as Ireland’s new prime minister, replacing Leo Varadkar as the country’s Taoiseach during a special sitting of the Dail parliament. Martin’s election follows months of negotiations between his party, Fine Gael and the Green Party, to reach an agreement following elections in February, before the onset of the coronavirus crisis. (Photo by MAXWELLS / MAXWELLS – IRISH GOVERNMENT POOL / AFP) (Photo by MAXWELLS/MAXWELLS – IRISH GOVERNMENT POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
But behind closed doors, what’s being said?
Contacted by The Journal yesterday most Fianna Fáil TDs were reluctant to be quoted, noting that they did not want to be seen to be stirring it up.
One Fianna Fáiler said it was embarrassing for the government and for Fine Gael that a minister was being investigated by gardai for corruption offences – but added that they didn’t think there would be a push for him to stand down in the wake of the weekend’s development.
On one level, they said, there are many Fianna Fáil ministers who have had to resign for less over the years.© Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS Ireland’s Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar arrives for the second day of the European Union leaders summit, held to discuss the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
It would be wrong to push him out of office however, they said.
If charges were brought against him, that would be a different story, said the Fianna Fáil source, stating that the party view would be that it would be “untenable for him to remain on”.
Another Fianna Fáil source said there was much unease in the party about the matter in November, but less so now. They pointed out that the party couldn’t be seen to vote confidence in Varadkar last year, and then “jump ship” before the Garda investigation had been completed.
Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry told TheJournal.ie that he hasn’t spoke to anyone in the party about their attitude, but said “the reality is if a minister is the subject of a criminal investigation prudence demands that they should step aside albeit temporarily pending the conclusion of the investigation”.© JULIEN BEHAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Irish Prime Mininster Micheal Martin holds a press briefing to introduce the publication of a report by Ireland’s Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (CIMBH) at Government Buildings in Dublin on January 12, 2021. – Some 9,000 children died in Ireland’s former “mother and baby homes”, where unmarried mothers were separated from their infant offspring, according to an official report published on Tuesday. Ireland’s Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (CIMBH) found “disquieting” levels of infant mortality at the institutions — operating in the historically Catholic nation as recently as 1998. (Photo by Julien BEHAL / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JULIEN BEHAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A spokesperson for the Taoiseach said: “The Tánaiste made a statement and apology on this matter in Dáil Eireann, which was accepted by the Government.
“The Taoiseach has confidence in the Tánaiste and has nothing further to add to the comments he made previously.”
It is understood the focus for gardaí is establishing whether a criminal offence was committed under the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018.
Speaking at the time that the legislation was brought into the Dáil in 2017, the then Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said the new law reflected the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal.
“For instance, the Bill provides for a new offence covering public officials who use confidential information obtained in the course of their duties to corruptly obtain an advantage,” he said.