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Leo Varadkar apologises for 'errors of judgement', says he is 'not close friends' with Dr Ó Tuathail

The Tánaiste is facing questions from TDs on the controversy.
Nov 3rd 2020, 6:05 PM 42,855 149

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has apologised in the Dáil for “errors of judgement” after he gave a copy of an agreement negotiated between the Government and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to a rival GP group last year. 

Varadkar told the Dáil that it had been alleged that there was something “improper, perhaps even criminal” in what he did, insisting this is not the case. 

In his statement to the Dáil, Varadkar said he wanted to refute some of the allegations made against him, and also apologise “for his errors of judgement”.

The Fine Gael leader is facing growing pressure following the publication of an article by the Village Magazine over the weekend.

Speaking in the Dáil this evening, he said the suggestion he had anything to gain in his actions “is false and deeply offensive”.

Varadkar said he had “unfinished business” in the Department of Health, which included getting a new GP contract over the line.

He said he took an active interest in the talks, and his sole motivation was to get as many GPs as possible to sign up to the deal.

The Tánaiste said the agreement was largely in the public domain, and went through the timeline of events from when the talks ended to when the deal was published.

A memo was brought to Cabinet by the then-Health Minister Simon Harris on Tuesday 9 April saying “engagement had concluded with the IMO”, said the Tánaiste. 

Varadkar said he sent the document to Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail of the NAGP on “most likely the 15th or 16th”.

He said he sent it on a “confidential basis”, believing that publication of the agreement was imminent. Varadkar said he should have called the NAGP in for a briefing and gone through the document line by line, instead of passing it on in an informal manner.

“That’s the way it should have been done, I didn’t do it that way,” said Varadkar, adding he knew sending it in the post to Ó Tuathail “was a short cut”.

He told the Dáil that he was honouring a political commitment that the NAGP would be kept briefed on the negotiations. 

“Rivalry between the organisations was often bitter, and it made agreement harder to achieve and held back progress. 

“The NAGP wanted to be at the table.  Some GPs were members of both organisations, some of neither.  Ultimately, Government decided to deal with the IMO alone, as our long-standing negotiating partner and ICTU affiliate.  The Opposition was very critical of this at the time.

“We committed, however, to keep the NAGP engaged, involved and informed as to the progress and outcome of negotiations,” said the Tánaiste.

It has been alleged that there was something improper, or even criminal, said Varadkar who denies this is the case. He said Ó Tuathail has been described as “a Varadkar cheerleader”.

“Yes, there are examples of his public support for me during the period, but there are also plenty of the opposite.

“For example, 13th April 2019, in the middle of this timeline, he publicly attacked the Government for providing more GP visit cards calling it a shameful ‘vote-getting exercise’.

“He went on to describe the policy of the Government that I led as ‘the biggest con job in the history of the health service’. 

“Not exactly cheerleading.”  

He said Ó Tuathail is “not as close as a friend as he has made out”, adding that he gave him the agreement because he was head of the NAGP, “not my friend”. 

He said friends and acquaintances often pretend to be closer to those in power than they really are, stating that some members of the House will testify to that.

Sometimes people like to exaggerate the nature of their relationships to inflate their own influence, said Varadkar.

“This is clearly a big part of this story,” he said.

Varadkar also told the Dáil that he had been in contact with Ó Tuathail since the story first broke in The Village Magazine.

He said this was to check the timeline of when the document was sent. He said Ó Tuathail asked if the NAGP should issue a statement. Varadkar said he told him he would not instruct him one way or the other as to whether they should.

“Yes, we are friends,” he said, adding that there are “friends, and there are friends. We are not close friends,” he said. 

He said he meets Ó Tuathail two or three times a year, perhaps at a drinks reception or when social circles overlap.

“We are not best mates,” he said, adding that some are trying to make out that “we are more than that, that is not the case at all”.

Opposition questions

Addressing questions from Paul Murphy, Varadkar said he has not decided whether or not to take legal action against the magazine which published the story on the leaked documents. He had previously described the article which appeared in Village magazine as “grossly defamatory”.

He told the Dáil that he has “very strong legal action that the front page is defamatory”.

Asked by TD Paul Murphy if he had decided to pursue legal action, he said: “I have advice on that, I haven’t decided yet. They appear to be goading me.”

He said that he had been advised that “suing them would be like suing somebody on Twitter”.

Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath questioned Varadkar on how close he and Ó Tuathail were, given publication of a picture of the two attending a Pride march in the past.

Varadkar: “We all know the innuendo there. We all know what it is. We all know it was a big part of what was there in the article… it’s not true.”

Aontú TD Peadar Toibin asked the if Varadkar has ever leaked cabinet information. The Tánaiste paused before stating ”nothing of this nature, Deputy”. He said politicians do leak from time to time. 

Galway Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the Tánaiste’s statement is “full of spin”.

“When did you realise you had made an error in judgement,” she asked.

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Varadkar said what he was trying to do was right, in terms of trying to ensure doctors would not oppose the deal.

Making reference to the Whatsapp messages published in The Village, he said they were “deplorable”, but he can only be held accountable for his own messages, stating that he can’t be held responsible for what other people say in text messages.

Connolly raised the matter of Golfgate, reminding the Tánaiste that he said it was important to lead by example in disciplining Fine Gael members. She asked if this would be the case in this matter.

Earlier in the Q&A, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty read into the Dáil record what appeared to be new screengrabs of Ó Tuathail’s interactions with Varadkar and former Health Minister Simon Harris.

Doherty suggested Ó Tuathail went for lunch with Harris in Wicklow, stating that the messages show Ó Tuathail also lobbied Harris for a copy of the agreement. 

Following tonight’s debate, Harris sought to address some of the allegations raised, stating that while there is nothing wrong with going for coffee or lunch with anyone, he did not do so with Ó Tuathail.

“On the day in question I was at an East Coast FM charity event” he said.

A spokesperson for Harris said this evening that the minster did not share the contract or agreement with any outside party. 

“The minister wanted to see the agreement formally published on the Department of Health website once it was agreed between the three parties – the IMO, HSE and DOH. That happened on May 17th. Any inquiry he made to officials was on publication of the document.

“The Minister received a direct message and responded to the president of the NAGP. However, he did not make any information or seek to make information available to the NAGP. He did not meet the individual in question at any point in Wicklow.”

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