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Opinion: How badly damaged has the Taoiseach been?

Paddy Power Politics has set the odds on the next general election to take place in 2018 at 1/25. The bookies aren’t in it to lose money, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

KEEN OBSERVERS OF Irish politics at home and further afield were transfixed this past week by the high drama and political intrigue that unfolded in and around Government Buildings. The most unfortunate saga of Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe has claimed yet another high profile victim, the now former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

While it has become clear that she made a mistake, a big one, with respect to her handling of the emails she received about the legal strategy to be utilised by lawyers for the former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, it is sad that any discussion of Ms Fitzgerald’s political career will revolve around this blunder.

For she has done, and presumably will continue to do, a lot of good in public life. But to be blunt: she had to go.

Leo’s curious approach

What is exceptionally puzzling about recent events, however, is the curious approach taken by Leo Varadkar to the entire affair. His repeated and robust defences of the Tánaiste on the RTÉ SIX ONE News on Friday evening and subsequently at a National Woman’s Council event in Dublin on Saturday are worth reiterating.

The Taoiseach said that Frances Fitzgerald has “done nothing wrong”; that “I won’t be seeking her resignation and I hope that does not happen”; that “there’s a real injustice here in people calling her to resign in these circumstances”; and that he would not throw her under the bus.

Now that we know what the Taoiseach himself knew as he was making those statements that Ms Fitzgerald, then the Minister for Justice, had received multiple, detailed emails from Department officials about the O’Sullivan legal team’s intentions in 2015, but had done nothing in response – their contents are staggering, politically speaking at least.

How he could think that she would brazen it out once these additional emails were revealed beggars belief. Loyalty to a friend and colleague and deference to a legal process and advice are nice things. Politics is not a nice business, though.

He wanted a general election

Certain assumptions have been widely made about Leo Varadkar and are generally applicable to most capable politicians like him. They are intelligent. They have reasonably good instincts. They have a sense of how the wind is blowing. They can be ruthless when needs be. And on goes the list.

Accordingly, while watching and listening to the Taoiseach be so unequivocal over the weekend, I formed the view that, some of his own rhetoric and the contrary attitude of most Oireachtas members from his party notwithstanding, Varadkar wanted a general election. My guessing was that, in the wake of pretty favourable opinion polls for Fine Gael and for him personally, he judged that the party could improve its standing – maybe considerably – in a low turnout, pre-Christmas election.

Such an election, and indeed the one that will ultimately occur in the not too distant future, would be a presidential-style clash between him and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, with whom he has a well-known rivalry. My suspicion was that he thought he would win that. It would have been an extremely risky gambit – that’s why a majority of commentators said it was unlikely – but I couldn’t divine any other explanation for the Taoiseach’s posturing.

In the end, having come so close to a snap election, the key players pulled back from the brink. From a Fine Gael perspective, it was more ugly and awkward than it had to be, however. For instance, Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan’s rather rambling apology to Labour TD Alan Kelly and others was actually uncomfortable to watch.

How badly damaged has the Taoiseach been?

The follow on questions, then, are how badly damaged has the Taoiseach been and how much longer can the present arrangement last?

As for the first, he has undeniably been damaged, at least in the short-term, but he can recover. His performance in the context of the EU summit next month on Brexit progress is one potential avenue to recovery. Perhaps the most significant element of the damage is that the Taoiseach’s perceived “X factor” aura that arguably has made some of his adversaries wary of tackling him is substantially diminished.

With respect to the second, Paddy Power Politics has set the odds on the next general election to take place in 2018 at 1/25. The bookies aren’t in it to lose money. The only real quandary is how long into the New Year can this government stumble on?

This will remain the subject of conjecture, but two things to monitor will be, again, Brexit – even if the two parties are singing off the same hymn sheet on that one – and what will be a contentious referendum on the Eighth Amendment – even though social issues aren’t typically to the fore in general elections. It may be tempting to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, particularly the latter, to get a general election out of the way before they have to confront abortion. Caveats aside, politicians will be grappling with these weighty matters and it is difficult to imagine that they won’t form part of the backdrop.

Lastly, Micheál Martin emerges as one of the big winners from a very sticky situation. Under fire from some quarters as of late, the Corkman has demonstrated that there’s a good deal of political life left in him. He’s sitting pretty… for the moment anyway.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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