Fine Gael is currently in the depths of a leadership battle due to the Sgt McCabe controversy: Eoin McSweeney sat down with opposition leader Micheál Martin to discuss
Incandescent sunshine breaks through the towering window panes of Áras na Mic Léinn when I greet Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. It’s hard to imagine that at the same time a tempest of political furore hangs over Dáil Éireann, threatening to rain chaos on the future of the country. I thank him for taking the time to talk, considering how challenging a week it’s been for anyone involved in the Irish political landscape and I ask him – What now?
“We’re anxious not to plunge the country into an election because it’s only been 7 months since the formation of government and we wanted to give confidence to this idea of a minority government; which is common enough in Europe. We wanted to give that a reasonable time to prove itself, however the current situation within Fine Gael is destabilising.”
In January 2012, Sergeant Maurice McCabe became a whistleblower alleging Garda misconduct and from there he became part of a deliberate smear campaign perpetrated by high ranking officials in the Gardaí. In 2013, rumours emerged that a counsellor notified Tusla, Ireland’s Child and Family Agency, that a client had disclosed to her that she had been sexually abused in childhood by Sgt McCabe. This later emerged to be “pasted in error”, but in 2015 Sgt McCabe was informed that an investigation was taking place into these allegations, the first time he had heard of such claims. The following year it was stated by Tusla that there had been a mistake.
What does this have to do with the current crisis engulfing Fine Gael? In February of this year, Cabinet set up a Commission of Investigation into an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe, and just a few days later, Labour Leader Brendan Howlin told the Dáil that some journalists had been told about the sexual abuse allegations made against McCabe at the time of his whistleblowing, in a bid by Gardaí to discredit him (there was no real proof to backup this claim however).All Galleries The real scandal emerged when Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald denied having any knowledge of the Tusla case before it was reported in the media. This was later proven to be false.
Chaos and Disarray
This is but a brief synopsis of arguably the biggest political scandal to ever hit these shores, but it is obvious that this is a flagrant miscarriage of justice against an individual whose sole aim was to expose malpractice. Mr Martin agreed with me on this and said: “As far as it applies to the administration of justice and goes to the very heart of that, it is potentially the worst [political scandal] we’ve had. We do have to wait until the inquiry and I’m a great believer in people [being] innocent until proven guilty, but nonetheless this is a very, very worrying case because the allegations are so grave as to question the entire edifice of justice in the country. That’s a very serious matter.”
There have been calls from some inside Fine Gael for Mr Kenny to step down in the wake of this affair. He had originally said that he would not lead the party into the next General Election anyway, but pressure grows on the 65-year-old to resign his position as leader of the country. This week [written on March 22nd] Mr Coveney, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, and one of the frontrunners to take over from Mr Kenny, has asked the incumbent to begin his leadership change after the Taoiseach’s annual visit to the US and Mr Kenny has since said that he will consider his position after this trip.
Another politician who has gotten involved is social protection minister Leo Varadkar; he asked Mr Kenny to set out a timeline for his departure. He is the favourite to succeed the Taoiseach and would be Ireland’s first gay leader in what could only be described as a momentous day for the LGBT* community. However there are serious reservations about his leadership qualities after his time as Minister for Health, with Mr Martin commenting that “he ran out of health” and “did nothing for two years.” This is something I must agree with, considering his failure to solve any of the crises currently plaguing our health system.
When quizzed about the potential resignation of Mr Kenny, Mr Martin was quick to point out the farcical nature of the leadership struggle. “The whole thing is very demeaning of the office. I find it unbelievable that ministers can come out publicly telling a Taoiseach when to go. I mean the Taoiseach appoints the Ministers and then the Dáil Éireann either endorses, or refuses to endorse, a minister; that’s the Constitution. That you have two ministers telling the Taoiseach when they should go, to me, is a new precedent. If that’s how they feel about it, they should resign their position. If they don’t have faith or confidence in the Taoiseach then they should resign.”
In my opinion, one of the most incredulous incidences to emerge from this story was that of the leaked WhatsApp messages from an internal party WhatsApp group on Sunday. Firstly, the fact that such a group chat exists, considering the weaknesses of the app’s security system, is laughable. Secondly, the content of the messages only spoke badly of the current cabinet.
In it, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald (herself a contender to succeed the Taoiseach before the scandal broke) appeared to encourage Health Minister Simon Harris to run for the leadership. Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan also stated that Mr Harris “wants out of health.” He later said that these remarks were tongue in cheek, but I’m sceptical to the truth of that assertion and at best the whole affair was unprofessional. Mr Harris, already the youngest member of the cabinet, would be the youngest leader in the history of the state by some distance if he were to win.
Mr Martin expressed incredulity at the exchange of messages. “I was stunned. First of all, somebody communicated this to me yesterday and sent on the exchange and I said ‘Ah no, that’s got to be fake news.’ On a more serious vein, it says something about Fine Gael and the government’s attitude to power; that’s it’s more about themselves and their positions, not about the issues. I was shocked that Charlie Flanagan said that about Simon Harris and health that he wants to get out of health.”
“And that idea that he wants to get out of health, as if that’s the place where nobody wants to be, I think that’s a sad indictment on the current crop of ministers. I don’t even know if it is tongue in cheek, I mean that’s what he’s saying now, but I’m not so sure. You get this cynicism around politics, like avoid this department or avoid that department, whereas the real politicians say ‘I like that challenge, I’m going to take that on.’ This comes two weeks after a shocking program which revealed horrific waiting lists and waiting times; the worst ever on record.”
“It sends a terrible message to the public about whether this is just all games, are the Fine Gael Ministers more obsessed with office than with the country and the needs of the country.”
An Inquiry into a Personal Attack
Some may say that this scandal has been blown out of proportion, but let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what has actually happened. This is a focused treatment shoved down the throat of an individual who blew the whistle on significant malpractice within an organisation that aims to serve and protect us. A father, a husband and a son was the victim of spurious claims that he molested an innocent child, who has now also been dragged into the media spotlight. The state and An Garda perpetrated such a story because they were scared of the scandal the man might cause. Due to the erosion in its confidence, this threatens to collapse the central pillar in our democracy, the administration of justice. This scandal has already led to the resignation of a Minister for Justice and a Garda Commissioner, and may do a double on this while also taking the head of the Taoiseach.
The government originally promised a private investigation, but calls for a public enquiry have been met. As Mr Martin explains: “Our initial objective was to make sure that whatever investigation took place would encompass the TUSLA file, however it happened and so on. However when we subsequently met the McCabes, they were saying that the commission investigation was in secret and therefore we need a tribunal of inquiry. Now, parallel with that, clearly government was at sixes and sevens in relation to the handling of this, it was not in a position to communicate its stated knowledge of this.”
“Ministers were coming up with different presentations; Minister Zappone said that she briefed the “two relevant ministers”, subsequently she meant the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice. The Taoiseach said that he knew nothing about the existence of the file, the Minister for Justice said that she knew nothing about the existence of the file.”
Calls have been made for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan to resign while the inquiry is carried out, but she has said that she is “innocent” and won’t step aside. Mr Martin was sceptical of this, however stated that his party’s position was not to protect or support anyone at this time, but were instead focused on the stability of the country. That said, he did think the minister should assess whether “in the context of a tribunal, she has the authority or the capacity to continue on as commissioner.” In his words, that’s a call the Garda Commissioner must make for herself.
In my opinion, a top down reassessment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is needed. This is an independent statutory body intended to monitor incidences of possible misconduct by members of An Gardaí. It has clearly failed in its function, something that was brought to my attention two years ago by another prominent Garda whistleblower John Wilson.
Mr Martin was on board with the idea and said: “We need a fundamental review of the legislative framework governing GSOC. I don’t know was it emasculated from the beginning. It gets stalled all the time and there would appear to be a lot of obstructionist activity going on and a lack of engagement from the Gardaí with it. I think we need to go back to the drawing board.”
“I’m very reluctantly referring cases onto GSOC. People come to me and I say ‘do you really want to go to GSOC, you might be there two or three years waiting for an outcome,’ so that’s not healthy either you know. The overall worry I’d have is that we are getting so many complaints that it suggests there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system. We can’t keep appealing, appealing and appealing every single case.”
Before we finished up, Mr Martin was quick to praise the stellar work the Gardaí do on a regular basis. He asked for a broader commission on the modernisation of the organisation, similar to what was done with nursing at the turn of the century, lamenting that possibly it’s too hierarchical on one level and that it’s not a system prone to facilitating complaints. Mentioning the extraordinary work that they do to protect our citizens, he said that they deserve better in terms of leadership and the government.
Let there be no doubt that this could potentially be the largest political scandal of our time. Forget offshore accounts, dodgy tax cases and payments made to the right people; this was a personal attack on a man who wanted nothing more than justice. Mr Kenny was silent, happy to let an innocent man hang. Whatever good he has done this country economically (and a stellar job he has done), it is now time for him to reassess his position.
Leaving my conversation with Mr Martin and shaking his hand still left me with that burning question – what now?
Mr Martin on:
Brexit is bad news for Ireland. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but it looks like a hard Brexit at the moment. Maybe negotiations will soften it, but either way it’s probably the most reckless and irresponsible decision taken by a government in my view to put that referendum up. It’s not good for Ireland, all economic analysis is saying. If someone suggests ‘Irexit’, they have an obligation to produce the blueprint to tell us what Ireland would like if we left Europe on our own and left the currency as well. Cameron didn’t have a blueprint.
We need to get a sense of perspective here. I think only a couple of hundred have come in. The government made a big announcement two years ago with 4,000 and I kept saying ‘give me the plan’ and I kept saying ‘there’s no plan for 4,000.’ They’re beginning to make a bit of progress now and there’s a couple of hundred coming in. I remember reading some articles on the Jungle in Calais, the horrific journey that Syrian families are making across Europe and I think obviously it has to start by resolving the conflict in Syria, secondly by resourcing the camps so that people can have a reasonable quality of life. And those that have come the distance we integrate properly into society.
The Citizen’s Assembly will be finished by the summer so I don’t see it happening this year because it will have to go to an Oireachtas Committee and they will take another 6 months before they agree what options they have, what’s possible, what’s not possible so I think ultimately there will be a referendum on this issue, the precise nature of this referendum is still open to debate. I think you will be looking at some time towards the end of 2018, or in the middle of 2018.
Dublin as an the Main Economic Hub
It’s a huge problem and it’s my biggest concern at the moment economically. It’s worrying me; Cork is meant to be a city that can hold people, but that’s not happening. The government is only playing lip service. The last Fine Gael government was a very Dublin-centric government, with lots of ministers from Dublin, and they just didn’t get the rest of the country. For example, the Cork-Limerick motorway; they should do that. We should be linking Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford on the other side of the country. This should be a pole counteracting the Dublin pole. Cork, Limerick and Galway need to work together more and not see each other as rivals.
The Taoiseach’s State Visit to the US
I agree with the Taoiseach’s annual visit to the US. Donald Trump, whether you agree with his policies or not, has been democratically elected as the President of the United States. We have huge long-term historic relationships with America. We have important economic links, cultural links, we have up to 50,000 undocumented. We want to maintain bilateral pathways for young people to go to America in the future. We have a lot to argue for; I mean you take the economic relationship, which is huge and some people say ‘ah forget the economics,’ but you can’t, it’s bread and butter for people in this country.
The Housing Crisis
I’ve just come from a clinic this morning, it’s getting worse – the families that are coming into us saying landlords are saying that they have got to get out. These are people with three children, for example. That to me is a huge social scandal. I’ve never seen it so bad in all my life in politics.