Credit: Houses of the Oireachtas

Barry Cowen: Lay off this Varadkar fella, he just made a mistake

Leo Varadkar has been finding allies in unusual places, this morning, following last Friday’s publication in Village magazine of allegations that he had acted unlawfully by sharing details of a draft contract for GPs with a rival group of GPs:

Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen has said Leo Varadkar is “entitled to make a mistake” and does not believe “a grave should be prepared” for the Tánaiste as a result of the contract controversy.

Mr Varadkar shared confidential information with a rival body during Government negotiations with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) in April 2019, it emerged following a report in Village Magazine.

Mr Cowen, who was sacked as Minister for Agriculture over the summer following controversy emanating from a historic drink-driving incident, said that in sharing details of a draft €210 million deal with family doctors with a rival GP group, Mr Varadkar had made a mistake “with good intentions, if that’s possible”.

“I wouldn’t dance on his grave,” he said, “I don’t believe a grave should be prepared on that in this instance.”

A mistake it may have been, but there are, nonetheless, a couple of questions that Mr. Varadkar really should answer about this story.

First: If it was proper and correct to share the contract with his old friend Maitiu O’Tuathail, why was there a need to shunt it into a brown envelope and have it couriered through the post, with “private and confidential” scrawled across the front of it? If he had wanted to give the NAGP a thorough briefing on the contents of the contract, and secure their support for it, why couldn’t he just have arranged a meeting for them in his office, called them in, and talked them through it?

Had he done just that, would this be a scandal today? Probably not. So why didn’t he do so? Would his civil servants have told him that to do so would be hugely improper? And if that would have been their advice, isn’t it also hugely improper to do what he did?

Second: if, as he now says, this was merely an attempt to win support from the NAGP for the contract, why was there a need to keep it secret? Judging by the alleged text messages published by Village, those who received the contract were very much of the view that they could not tell their members that they had received it, and in fact that they could not tell anyone. What use was it, then? How convincingly could the NAGP have advocated for support for the contract when they couldn’t tell anyone that they had seen it in the first place? That part doesn’t make any sense at all.

Third: why are such contracts secret in the first place? This wasn’t a contract between a single provider and the Government, where there might be commercially sensitive information. If there’s a competition for providing a service between two or three different bidders, the winning bidder might want a contract to be confidential so that their competitors cannot see their pricing, and so on. But this wasn’t a competitive contract: It’s a contract between the Government, and GPs, with fixed pricing for all GPs. What was all the secrecy about in the first place?

All that said, those presently demanding Varadkar’s head have questions to answer too: Even in the very worst case scenario, what’s Varadkar guilty of here? It seems that he shared a contract with some doctors that he had negotiated with other doctors, before it became public. But nobody has been able to make even the most slightly convincing case that anybody gained any advantage from seeing the contract. Certainly, it seems impossible to see how anybody benefitted politically or financially from his act.

Varadkar’s explanation is that he was trying to win support for the contract. That seems a little weak, in the circumstances, but it’s also probably true that winning support is what he was trying to do – but for himself, not the contract. Politicians are always trying to make new and influential friends. It seems fairly likely that Varadkar believed that he would be perceived as having done a big favour to the NAGP, and that they might owe him one in future – maybe by pulling their punches in criticising him, or saying something nice about him somewhere else. The Village, absurdly, suggested that this might amount to “corruption”, but it does not. What it amounts to is a politician playing politics and trying to win friends. They all do it, and once no money is changing hands, there’s not much any of us can – or should – really do about it.

Anyway, there are lots of voters and politicians – and even some journalists – who might enjoy seeing Varadkar squirm a bit. So this will probably run for a few days yet. Ultimately, though, Cowen’s view will likely prevail. Mainly because it’s probably the correct one.

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