In any other country, it is hard to imagine a situation where a cabinet minister – let alone the deputy Prime Minister – would remain in office while the subject of a criminal investigation into actions they took in the course of their duties. And yet, in Ireland, it seems to be viewed as a relatively unremarkable state of affairs that the Tánaiste intends to remain in office while a Garda investigation into his activities proceeds.
Let’s get the case for the defence out of the way first:
Leo Varadkar, it is important to say, has not been convicted of any crime. He may never be convicted, let alone charged, with any crime. The crime he stands accused of is, in the larger scheme of things, relatively minor. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Charles Haughey, guilty of using high office to line his own pockets and do favours in return for cash.
He is accused of illegally sharing details of a contract with one organisation with members of another, competing organisation, for entirely political reasons, and, at the very worst, to do a favour for a close associate or friend. Many of those screaming for him to resign – not this writer, but many of them – are transparently politically motivated. Some of the targeting of the Tánaiste on social media has been downright unpleasant, and has the stench of the kind of twitter justice that’s been meted out, in recent years, to people like George Hook and Kevin Myers. There is a concerted effort, let’s be honest, to make a relatively small hill into a mountain. The joy that some people are taking in his difficulty is quite hard to watch, and quite stomach churning, even if, like me, you’re someone who broadly opposes most of the things Varadkar has done in public office.
Were this simply a political matter, then brazening it out would probably be the right thing to do.
But it is not just a political matter anymore, is it?
Whether it is fair, or unfair, Leo Varadkar is the subject of a criminal investigation into what amounts to misconduct in public office. In any other walk of life, a person in that position would be removed from their position.
Consider the case of a nurse or a teacher facing criminal investigation for misconduct in the course of their duties. A person in such a position would be suspended, probably without pay, until such investigations had been concluded. That is what the public would expect, and it is also what standards require.
Consider too, the resignations that have already taken place from this Government. Dara Calleary committed no crime, and was never under criminal investigation. He had to go, nonetheless. Phil Hogan was not technically a part of the Government, but he, too, had to go, despite having committed no offence.
What Varadkar is accused of is not the most serious of offences, that’s true, but it is objectively more serious than what either Calleary or Hogan did.
Consider, too, the case of Barry Cowen. He had to resign, you might remember, for an actual breach of the law, relating to drunk driving, that took place years before he became a Minister in the first place.
All three men were held to a particular standard, two of them without having committed any kind of crime or misconduct at all. There’s no good reason why Varadkar should not be held to the same standard.
And consider the cases of Alan Shatter, and Frances FitzGerald. They, too, lost their jobs as a result of accusations of misconduct. They were both later cleared, it’s true, but the precedent set at the time was that one should resign when facing such accusations. So why is there a different rule for Varadkar?
The only reason he’s still in office, let’s be honest, is because of his position as leader of Fine Gael. Were he to stand aside, FG’s leader would not be at the cabinet table, and probably couldn’t be elected Taoiseach – which is the plan – in fifteen or sixteen month’s time. If this case was about any other FG Minister, they’d have been out on their ear last week once the Gardai notified the Government about the ongoing investigation.
The defence of Varadkar here – that it’s not that serious, that he didn’t really benefit from it, that he meant well – could have been made about almost all of the people above. It didn’t work, in their cases.
So why should it work in his?
The correct and right thing for him to do, here, would be to temporarily stand aside as Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader, handing over to Simon Coveney, until such time as the investigation is complete. In turn, the investigation should be swift, and not dragged out unnecessarily. If Varadkar is cleared of any wrongdoing, he’ll be the stronger for it.
As it is, one might be forgiven for getting the impression that exceptions are being made, on the basis of pure political convenience.