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Tánaiste defends position after emails show she 'noted' legal strategy against whistleblower

Talks between the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin concluded this evening without a resolution

Frances Fitzgerald's future Source: PA Images

Updated at 11.25pm

THE DEPARTMENT OF Justice has published a number of documents relating to whether the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald knew of the Garda Commissioner’s legal strategy against whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

While the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin negotiate a way of maintaining the current minority government (at least until after the Christmas period) the Tánaiste’s former department released information that appears to make things worse for Fitzgerald.

Among the revelations in tonight’s trove of documents is an email from Fitzgerald’s private secretary which says that she had “noted” the email which highlighted a row between the legal team for the then-Garda Commissioner Nórirín O’Sullivan and lawyers for Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe during the O’Higgins Commission of Investigation.

This follows a statement the Tánaiste gave to the Dáil, where Fitzgerald said she did not remember reading the email.

DoJ

Despite this, the government says that its support of the Tánaiste hasn’t changed as a result of the release; the Tánaiste herself has defended her inaction on the information contained in the email, saying that it wasn’t within her remit to prevent that legal approach.

After the emails were published this evening, the Tánaiste released the following statement on Twitter:

“As Justice Minister I could not interfere with the O’Higgins Commission. This is confirmed twice in today’s docs & has been confirmed by the Attorney General.

The Tribunal will objectively judge the appropriateness of my conduct. I look forward to giving my evidence to the Tribunal early in January.

Sources have told TheJournal.ie that Fitzgerald’s own position remains the same – that she doesn’t intend to resign.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Show, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that there were 230 documents sent to the Tribunal, and only some of them had been released into the public domain.

He said that he had spoken to Fitzgerald this evening and had put some of Fianna Fáil’s concerns to her.

“I don’t think she should be [asked to resign],” Coveney said this evening.

What is the problem with waiting six weeks for the Tribunal and then making a judgement… on what she did and didn’t do and what was appropriate at the time.

He added that he didn’t think Fianna Fáil were being unreasonable in asking for political accountability, but that political judgements needed to be made “when we have all the facts on the table”.

He said that the advice to the Tánaiste at the end of each email thread was not to interfere in the strategy taken by the Garda Commissioner’s legal team.

This is the line he is referring to:

“… this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, who is being legally advised, and that neither the Attorney nor the Minister has a function relating to the evidence a party to a Commission of Investigation may adduce.”

Doj 2 The emails reference queries from an RTÉ journalist. Source: Department of Justice

The emails released this evening also reference a strategy on how to handle queries from the media on how Sergeant McCabe was treated within the force and whether counsel was instructed to “adopt an aggressive stance” towards him during the O’Higgin’s Commission.

The email from a department official asks the minister to give a statement beginning with the the following line if asked about the controversy: ”Both the Garda Commissioner and myself have made it clear that Sergeant McCabe is a valued member of the Force.”

The thread of emails were released by the Department of Justice as part of the negotiations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in an attempt to preserve the current government.

It’s been reported that the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had read the thread of emails over the weekend, ahead of their release this evening. A government spokesperson confirmed to TheJournal.ie this evening that the government’s position on Frances Fitzgerald hasn’t changed as a result of the released emails, although some political correspondents are reporting ministers’ dissatisfaction with the latest email release.

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said the documents were “further evidence of the Tánaiste’s failings in addressing a very serious issue, and her failure to protect Maurice McCabe from an appalling smear”.

The case for the defence for Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has been unravelling for days. It has now collapsed.
At first, the attempt to say she discovered after the fact. This was disproven.
Then, to try and say that it was an email of such little significance that she could not recall and no action was required anyway. This was discredited.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said that “the sheer extent of the Tánaiste’s dereliction of her duty as Minister for Justice is laid bare” in tonight’s chain of emails.

Despite Fianna Fáil’s calls for Fitzgerald to step down or be removed from her position, Varadkar has so far stood firm in his support of the Tánaiste.

On Saturday he said that she has “done nothing wrong”, while on Friday, he said that he would not throw Fitzgerald under the bus. Today he stood by his previous remarks.

The Taoiseach said both parties are “trying to find a way” to avoid the people having to go to the polls in late December over the issue.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that talks between the two parties ended this evening and are due to resume in the morning, ahead of a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste.

A government spokesperson said that tonight’s discussions brought “serious engagement on both sides, and all remain keen to avoid an election in the interest of the country”.

On tonight’s Claire Byrne Show, Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan said that the documents released this evening “made the matter very serious”, but added that both Michael Martin and the Taoiseach had put in “great efforts” to ensure a general election didn’t happen this side of Christmas.

But he added: “I don’t see any other method out of this other than Frances Fitzgerald resigning.”

- With reporting from Cliódhna Russell 

Read: ‘We’re doing everything we can’: Crunch talks to take place this evening to avert a snap election

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