How has the Irish government ended up on the brink of collapse and an election?
The Irish government is on the brink of collapse and a Christmas election is in the offing.
The political bigwigs must be gluttons for punishment. Five months into Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's term and a few weeks out from a crucial Brexit summit in Brussels, the proverbial has hit the fan over who knew what and when, and how they handled alleged attempts to discredit a whistleblower.
Really? How does that bring down a government?
The late Albert Reynolds wisely remarked that it was the little things that trip you up in the end. Mr Varadkar's Fine Gael party is only in power thanks to the support of arch rivals Fianna Fail. It is known as a confidence and supply agreement, signed in 2016. In that Fianna Fail agreed to back the minority government until at least 2018. One of the kernels of the arrangement is said to be a commitment not to support motions of no confidence in ministers.
And is that being reneged on?
According to Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, it is. Fianna Fail want a head. and they are looking for Frances Fitzgerald's. They want the deputy prime minister to resign over her handling of an email from 2015 which revealed an attempt to discredit a whistleblower sergeant by lawyers for Garda chiefs during a private inquiry into his claims of bad policing.
Who is this whistleblower and should we believe him?
Maurice McCabe. And yes. His disclosures date back to 2006 and they have led to the resignation or retirement of a swathe of big players including a Garda commissioner and a justice minister. Mr McCabe also faced extraordinary false allegations in a smear campaign spread among some garda, some sections of the media and political circles which related to an unfounded sex abuse complaint. There is an ongoing tribunal into that affair.
Surely that's a big thing, not a little thing?
That is. But the issue of Mrs Fitzgerald's competence and the future of the government only came to a head after it emerged that she was told in a 2015 email about the aggressive strategy to target Sergeant McCabe's credibility at the O'Higgins Commission, the initial private inquiry into his claims of inaction, corruption and malpractice.
So what did she do, or rather what didn't she do?
Initially when she got the email it appears she did nothing. She was advised that she could not intervene in a legal strategy being employed by lawyers for the Garda Commissioner. When questions began swirling last month about the email, she said she only knew about it in 2016. Mrs Fitzgerald subsequently said she forgot she had seen the email a year earlier. This was embarrassing for the Taoiseach as he had defended her on the floor of the Dail parliament and had to correct that.
And where does that leave things now? Will politicians really be looking for votes at the worst time of the year?
Unless Mrs Fitzgerald resigns. But the Taoiseach and his party are so far standing by their woman. Mr Varadkar does not have enough bums on seats in the Dail to defeat a motion of no confidence. But, and it is a big but, Fianna Fail have suggested there is time for talks between now and Tuesday to avoid an election.
Why would Taoiseach Leo Varadkar not want to go to the polls, he seems to be a popular leader?
If an election is called before Christmas it will be right in the teeth of what is, from an Irish point of view, the most delicate and divisive stage of the Brexit negotiations. And there the Taoiseach holds an ace card - a veto on the talks which he could play at a Brussels summit in mid-December. And notwithstanding that crisis, would you want your door knocked by canvassers just when you're trying to get into the festive spirit? The other alternative, and one that may gain ground in the next few days, is that Mr Varadkar can run a zombie government until early in the new year when an election would be inevitable. That would be some way to banish the January blues.
Surely Brexit is not the only big ticket issue Ireland is facing?
Yes you are right there. There's also the small matter of a referendum on the future of the Republic of Ireland's strict limitations on abortion. It is provisionally scheduled for the middle of next year. That could be delayed if a parliamentary committee cannot finish its work on advising government before Christmas. And there is also the not-insignificant matter of legislation waiting to be passed on the budget to allow for old age pension and welfare increases and tax reform. Good luck winning the grey vote with that one.