disquiet | 

Growing unease as controversies engulf Leo Varadkar just days before he becomes Taoiseach

TDs and ministers worried at fresh details about leaking of GP contract and emergence of TikTok nightclub video

Philip RyanSunday Independent

There is growing disquiet within Fine Gael over controversies engulfing party leader Leo Varadkar just six days before he is due to become Taoiseach again.

Continuing unease at Mr Varadkar’s decision to leak a confidential GP contract to a friend and now the emergence of a video of the Tánaiste socialising in a Dublin nightclub have raised concerns about his political judgment.

Ministers, TDs and senators, who would all only speak on the condition of anonymity, said there was frustration with Mr Varadkar’s leadership and how he repeatedly seems to be a lightning rod for controversy.

“If he was a cat he would definitely be on his ninth life,” one senior party figure said.

Central to the concerns of some who spoke was the emergence of a video last week of Mr Varadkar in Dublin city centre, which has been widely shared among the public. The video was viewed more than two million times before it was removed from social media website TikTok.

When asked about the video last week, Mr Varadkar said it was a “personal matter” related to his “private life” and he did not want to comment on it. However, the video was widely discussed by his own party colleagues.

There have been contrasting views among Fine Gael members over the effect of the video and the level of privacy that should be afforded to the future leader of the country when he is arguably in a public place.

At Leinster House, Fine Gael politicians privately discussed the video, with some questioning why the man who will soon be Taoiseach allowed himself to be put in a position where he could be videoed socialising by a member of the public.

“He is very much entitled to a private life but a nightclub is a public place and he knows well he will be subjected to some level of intrusion into his private life when he’s in public,” a senior party figure said. Another senior party member said: “People were shocked that he would allow himself to be put into a position like that.”

A Fine Gael minister said there was a “nasty” and “concerted campaign” directed at Mr Varadkar which other politicians have not been subjected to in recent times. “No matter what he does there will be an angle for some people to have a go at him and when you know there are people out there trying to target you, why would you give them half a chance?” the minister said.

A long-serving TD said he has done “huge damage to his own brand and the party’s brand”. And a rural deputy said: “We have a very conservative base and we are pissing them off all the time.”

Most Fine Gael politicians who spoke to the Sunday Independent said they did not want to speak publicly in advance of the changeover in power, which takes place on Saturday. ​

Other senior figures in the party said there was sympathy among the public for Mr Varadkar and the video was seen as an invasion of his privacy. “He is entitled to his private life and I think most people see it that way,” a Fine Gael cabinet minister said.

A long-serving TD said “younger people couldn’t care less” about the video and saw the filming of the Tánaiste as being an “intrusion into his privacy”.

Meanwhile, fresh details of an investigation by the Standards of Public Office Commission (Sipo) into Mr Varadkar’s decision to leak details of a contract agreed with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to a friend have put renewed focus on his judgment.

A majority of three Sipo commissioners ruled against holding an investigation into Mr Varadkar’s decision to give the sensitive document to GP Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who was president of a rival representative group for GPs.

The political ethics watchdog decided it did not have the remit to investigate complaints made against a taoiseach.

After Sipo’s ruling, Mr Varadkar had said: “I have been now cleared of criminal wrongdoing and any breach of ethics or standards.”

However, new details of concern expressed by two Sipo members, the Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy and Ombudsman Ger Deering, who did not agree with the final decision, have put the case back into the spotlight.

According to The Irish Times, Mr McCarthy had raised concerns about the Tánaiste’s “lack of recall” about how he was approached by Dr Ó Tuathail for the document and the “absence of evidence” around the terms of the contract being provided to his friend. Mr McCarthy also raised concerns about the precedent it would set if Mr Varadkar were investigated for sharing a confidential document.

“If the document was confidential, then in effect, this argument is that the Taoiseach has the power at will, and without recourse to any process, to declassify a document at his discretion,” he said.

Last night, a spokesman for the Tánaiste repeated Mr Varadkar’s comments from Wednesday that the video that emerged was a “personal matter” relating to his “private life”.

Regarding the new details about the Sipo investigation, the spokesman said: “The Standards in Public Office Commission decided, in their own words, that the complaints against the Tánaiste were misconceived, lacked evidence and not in their remit.

“For these reasons, a majority of commissioners decided that the complaints did not even merit a preliminary investigation. The Tánaiste accepts conveying the document using an informal channel was inappropriate.

“However, he was acting in the public interest at all times and within the legal authority of an officeholder.

“He was held to account by the Dáil and apologised for it in November 2020.

“There is no question of any personal gain. All inquiries in the matter have now concluded and no findings were made by anyone against the Tánaiste.”

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