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Irish government in talks to stave off Christmas election

Police whistleblower scandal threatens agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald. PA

The Irish government faces a pivotal day of talks as they seek to avoid a snap Christmas election over the handling of a police whistleblower.

Further talks over the affair are to continue between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin, leader of opposition party Fianna Fail, amid furore over the treatment of a Garda sergeant.

A motion of no confidence motion in Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald remains on the table over her knowledge of an aggressive legal strategy against the respected officer during a private inquiry.

The scandal now threatens the fragile agreement which sees Mr Martin prop up Mr Varadkar's minority Fine Gael Government.

Not only that, but the fallout is casting a long shadow over December's key Brexit summit where the future of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland could be determined.

In the hours before the no confidence measure is to be debated in the Dail parliament, renewed calls were made for Mrs Fitzgerald to resign or be sacked over a series of emails dating back to 2015.

They showed she was aware of the controversial legal strategy to target Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe at a private judge-led inquiry into his claims of wrongdoing in the force.

The release of emails on Monday night undermined efforts by the Taoiseach and Mr Martin to reach a compromise over the row.

Mrs Fitzgerald, who was justice minister in 2015, said last week that she only learned in 2016 of the approach being taken by lawyers for the then Garda commissioner. The series of emails contradicts that.

It sparked deep unease among the minority Government's backbenchers and renewed demands from the opposition for her to step down.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. PA

If the minority Government loses a no confidence vote in the Tanaiste it effectively sounds the death knell for the fragile confidence and supply agreement which has seen the opposition Fianna Fail party prop up the Fine Gael minority Government since the 2016 election left a hung parliament.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald attacked Mrs Fitzgerald over her approach to information about how Sergeant McCabe was to be targeted at the private inquiry.

"What is at play here is an absolute and utter dereliction of duty," she told RTE Radio.

"If she won't go then the Taoiseach needs to measure up and demonstrate some level of leadership and judgment and he needs to relieve her of her duties."

In the wake of the emails being released Mrs Fitzgerald took to Twitter to insist she could not have intervened in a strategy being employed by Garda lawyers.

But questions are also being asked as to why the Department of Justice had not already released the tranche of emails to the Disclosures Tribunal - the public judge-led inquiry into the treatment of Sergeant McCabe.

Health Minister Simon Harris continued to stand foursquare behind the Tanaiste but said it was unacceptable that all relevant documents had not been handed over.

"This country does not need a general election. Everybody needs to step back from the brink. It's a day for cool heads," he said.

Talks will resume between the Taoiseach and Mr Martin later, with the Cabinet also meeting and Mr Varadkar due to take to his feet in the Dail around 2pm when the affair will be front and centre.

The crisis came to a head in the last week. It had been bubbling away for a month or so after Labour Party TD Alan Kelly began asking questions of the Tanaiste and current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan over who knew what and when about the aggressive legal strategy being employed by Garda lawyers.

Fianna Fail's Timmy Dooley said that the emails showed Mrs Fitzgerald's position in Cabinet was not tenable.

"Her position that she was not aware at the time doesn't hold water. She has to accept political accountability," he said.

The email trawl released by the Department of Justice on Monday night showed a Department of Justice civil servant wrote that the minister had "noted" emails about the course being taken by the lawyers for the Garda.

In a further two emails it emerged Mrs Fitzgerald also received advice in July 2015 on what lines to take in public if asked about Sergeant McCabe.

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