Coveney says Varadkar’s defence on GP contract leak ‘credible, comprehensive and convincing’

Minister hopes Government can ‘move on’ after Tánaiste survives Dáil grilling

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has described as “credible” the defence offered by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar over his leaking of a GP pay deal contract to a friend.

Varadkar survived a Dáil grilling by Opposition TDs last night over his leak of a new GPs’ contract in 2019 to Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who was then head of a GP group set up to rival the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), with which the then government had negotiated the new contract.

Mr Varadkar repeatedly sought to distance himself from Dr Ó Tuathail during the course of the Dáil session.

Speaking at Government Buildings on Wednesday morning, when he launched the coalition’s Be Winter Ready campaign, Mr Coveney said any briefings in future should be more structured and added that it would have been better if the situation had never happened.


'Very credible'

“I thought the Tánaiste gave a very comprehensive statement last night, he made himself available for quite a long period of time for detailed questions and I thought he answered the questions as well as he could have been expected to.”

“I think he was both comprehensive and convincing,” Mr Coveney said.

“He accepts that what he did was not best practice and he regrets doing it that way. He said he certainly wouldn’t do it again the way he did. But I think he explained in some detail the motivation behind what he was trying to do.

“I think those answers were very credible,” he said.

When asked if the leaking of the document was wrong, Mr Coveney said “clearly, it would have been better if this had unfolded or happened differently. But I think when you listen to the context within which the action was taken, and the motivation behind it, I think most people will understand why it happened the way it happened.

“I think there are lessons to be learned from it and certainly when briefings are going on it should be a more structured and formalized briefing, rather than what happened here.”

Mr Coveney said that he hoped the Government could “move on” from the episode.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan has warned that his party has to be careful and if representatives see something they think is wrong they should call it out and not ignore it because of political convenience.

There has to be some sort of sanction for politicians that does not involve resignation he told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.

Mr O’Callaghan said the Tánaiste’s motivation for leaking the document was irrelevant. If a civil servant had disclosed a document like this they would have been “in serious trouble”, he argued. Sharing the document was wrong, Mr O’Callaghan insisted.

'Contorted defence'

The issue was uncomplicated but had become complicated because of Mr Varadkar’s “contorted defence”, he added.

However, Mr O’Callaghan said he did not think that the Tánaiste should resign, which he said had become the first “port of call” response in such circumstances.

It was important not to allow a “contorted and inconsistent political narrative” to continue for convenience sake. There had not been a breach of trust, he said.

But the matter had not been handled well by the Tánaiste. Whether he had sent the document to a friend or a non-friend was irrelevant. He should not have shared a confidential document.

“I’m not accusing him of untruths … there are just a lot of holes in his explanation,” Mr O’Callaghan said.

He wanted to know why the document had not been sent by the Department of Health; why it had not been sent via email; why there was no cover letter; why it was sent to Mr Ó Tuathail’s home address.

When asked about members of Fianna Fáil defending Mr Varadkar, Mr O’Callaghan said that in Government Cabinet Ministers will defend their Cabinet colleagues. However, he said he had not seen many Fine Gael TDs coming to the defence of former ministers Dara Calleary and Barry Cowen.

Mr Calleary resigned after the Oireachtas golf dinner, while Mr Cowen was sacked after revelations about a drink-driving incident four years ago.

Mr O’Callaghan said he thought Mr Cowen had been “dealt with” unfairly and that given “the hysteria about the issue” Mr Calleary had been left with limited options.


In the Dáil on Tuesday night, Mr Varadkar said Mr Ó Tuathail was “a friend not a close friend” and that he had sent Dr Ó Tuathail the contract because of his position with the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), not because he was a friend.

He said that “sometimes people like to exaggerate the nature of their relationships, to inflate their own influence, or to claim to speak for a person when they do not”.

Mr Varadkar apologised for the leak of the document, saying he had made mistakes and “I have tried to learn from them”.

Senior Fianna Fáil and Green Party sources said on Tuesday night they believed the crisis for Mr Varadkar – and by extension for the Government – would now pass, though Fianna Fáil TDs Mr O’Callaghan and Marc MacSharry were both critical of the Tánaiste.

The Greens issued a statement welcoming Mr Varadkar’s “acknowledgment that what happened was not right and his apology for this error of judgment”.

“The disclosure of information in this way was not correct and should not be repeated,” the party said.

But Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Varadkar’s “defence has fallen apart this evening”.

“Each and every alibi advanced by Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael Ministers has been exposed as spin. All correspondence, documents, files and notes relating to this scandal must now be made public,” she said in a tweet.

Many deputies referred to new details of messages from Dr Ó Tuathail which emerged on Tuesday evening, showing that he also made an unsuccessful effort to secure the document from then minister for health Simon Harris in the days before he was sent it by Mr Varadkar. Dr Ó Tuathail also suggested in a message that Mr Harris was meeting him for lunch around that time, which Mr Harris denied on the floor of the Dáil.

Dr Ó Tuathail declined to comment last night.

The Standards in Public Office Commission said it had received two complaints about the leak. This includes one from Rise TD Paul Murphy.