Northern Ireland news

Leo Varadkar escapes Christmas election after Frances Fitzgerald quits

Frances Fitzgerald arrives at the Finnstown Castle Hotel in Dublin to attend the Fine Gael Dublin West selection convention. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association
Ed Carty, Press Association

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has narrowly avoided a snap Christmas election after his deputy resigned over her handling of a whistleblower scandal.

The Fine Gael leader looked set to take his party into a bruising election campaign against a resurgent Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

But the snap poll was averted after Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald resigned yesterday morning.

Claiming Mrs Fitzgerald had not got a fair hearing, Mr Varadkar said parliamentary questions on issues related to the affair will be reviewed.

"She always supported whistleblowers and enshrined a code of ethics in An Garda Siochána to protect them," he said.

"In the past few days a drip-drip of information may have made certain things seem greater than they are.

"There was a feeding frenzy, and it became impossible for her to get a fair hearing based on the full facts.

"I hope that will change in the period ahead."

Ms Fitzgerald became embroiled in a scandal over the handling of Sergeant Maurice McCabe after questions began to be asked over a month ago about who knew what and when about an aggressive strategy being employed by lawyers for the then Garda commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan against the whistleblower.

She initially said she had forgotten an email which notified her of the approach.

Subsequently it emerged she had received at least three emails on the issue in 2015.

She was told not to intervene.

Ms Fitzgerald initially insisted she had done nothing wrong and that she had no hand, act or part in the strategy.

She was also backed to the hilt by the Taoiseach.

But she resigned with the scandal threatening to bring down the minority Government as the opposition party Fianna Fáil insisted it would not row back on its no confidence motion, breaking a key pledge in the confidence and supply deal that has kept Fine Gael in power for the last 18 months.

Her departure salvaged the Government as next month's Brexit negotiations reach make or break point on the question of the Irish border.

But Mrs Fitzgerald walked away adamant about her handling of the affair.

"It has been the greatest honour of my life to serve in Government, but I believe it is necessary to take this decision to avoid an unwelcome and potentially destabilising general election at this historically critical time," she said in a statement.

Many on the opposition benches believe the affair has done long term damage to the minority Government and an election is now only weeks or months away.

Ms Fitzgerald said she was putting the national interest ahead of her personal reputation.

She also praised the Taoiseach and said he had shown the same courage and determination to protect her as he showed in 2014 when he defended Sgt McCabe.

"What I admire most about the Taoiseach is that he has always believed in doing what was right, not what was popular or politically expedient," she said.

Last night she was selected as a candidate in the next general election at a convention in Finnstown Castle, Dublin.

She refused to answer questions from the waiting media as she quickly walked into the venue where she was greeted by her supporters from her Dublin Mid-West constituency.

"I'm not too bad considering all that has happened", she told well-wishers.

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