C: D Storan

Varadkar’s SIPO escape

It is probably a good thing, on balance, that the biggest scandal in Irish politics over the last two years has been whether Leo Varadkar showed a draft doctors contract to some doctors.  Other countries have better scandals, all told: The Americans had a case recently of a politician in Nevada who has been arrested and charged with the case that he murdered a journalist who criticised him in the media. The British have a fellow who is on reality television eating slugs, or something, as a weird form of penance for being caught engaging in extra-curricular activities with his advisor. We have a guy who leaked a contract when he was Taoiseach.

Things could be worse, on the old scandal front.

Legally, Varadkar is now entirely in the clear. First, the Gardai decided that there was no case to answer. Then, this week, SIPO did the same. I’m here to tell you, even if it annoys you, that SIPO, at least, were right.

Here’s a secret: Politicians leak things all the time. If you are wondering why the media is not more outraged about the Varadkar leak, it is very simple. All those reports you read about who said what in Cabinet, or what the Cabinet agreed to do, are the result of leaks. Cabinet is supposed to be confidential, under the law. It never is. That is, broadly, a good thing. In a democracy, we should want more leaks, not fewer. Some have written elsewhere that Varadkar is a notorious leaker of Government discussions and deliberations – all I can say on that subject is that he has never leaked to me. But even so, it would be very hypocritical for journalists to demand accountability over leaks. The media would go out of business without them.

What’s more, the absence of a SIPO investigation is not, in any way, shocking. Why? Because there was already a garda investigation into whether Varadkar breached the law. That investigation concluded that he did not, or at least that he did nothing warranting prosecution. SIPO is not empowered to prosecute people by itself – in the very rare cases where it might uncover a crime, the normal thing would be to refer the matter to the Gardai for investigation. In this case, the Garda investigation has already happened. In other words, SIPO is not going to find something that the Gardai could not have found.

The only argument which really could be made is that SIPO is a standards body, and therefore could, in theory, have issued a missive declaring that Varadkar did not behave according to the standards expected of politicians. This is the kind of nonsense ruling it delivered in the case of Monaghan County Councillor Seamus Treanor, some months ago. In that case, SIPO found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing, but essentially declared that Cllr Treanor was – in Monaghan parlance – a bit of a bad hoor because he argued against immigration on its leaflets.

That’s about as much as it could do with Varadkar – say he’s a bit of a bad hoor for leaking that contract. And what’s the point in that?

One of the things about living in a democracy is that judgments about who is, and is not, a bad hoor are properly reserved to the voters. If it is the decision of the voters that what Varadkar did was unacceptable, then he will pay an electoral price for it. If voters do not care, then he will pay no price for it. If he tops the poll at the next election, there’s no point blaming SIPO. Just go to the door of every house in Castleknock and shout at them, instead.

And this is how it should be: Yesterday, in the Dáil, Varadkar and Roisín Shorthall had a barney on the subject. He called her a hypocrite, she called him unfit to serve in the cabinet. Which one of them is correct is something for us all to decide, next time we have an election.

One of the problems with SIPO in general is that when you ask it to stray from its basic remit, you are taking power away from yourself as a voter and placing more of it in the hands of the state. SIPO has one job, and that job is to monitor political funding to ensure it complies with the rules. It should not be interfering on whether somebody’s leaflets are fair, or whether a political leak was justified.

Those are matters for you, at election time. The person with the biggest right to feel hard done by today is Councillor Treanor, because, having decided to pronounce on his leaflets, SIPO now feels unable to pronounce on the Tánaiste’s leaks. That’s not very consistent, and it’s another reason why giving them more power is a bad idea.

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