Miriam Lord: Others have not been so lucky, but Leo the spilldoctor survives

Cabinet incontinence is all about some things being more confidential than others

The quality of mercy was most definitely strained, but no matter.

Fianna Fáil held its nose and extended it, the leader of Fine Gael accepted and he survived in this dangerous Government.

Others were not so lucky.

Member of Cabinet sends a confidential Government document to a friend. It is clearly marked as such on the top sheet. Ministers have been given their marching orders for less.


“What part of CONFIDENTIAL, NOT FOR CIRCULATION does Leo Varadkar not understand?” tweeted Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats when the Dáil debate on his mishandling of restricted information was still going on.

Silly Soc Dem. It was she who did not understand, even though the Tánaiste took a lot of time to explain, why the sort of behaviour which would see most of his peers gone in jig time is not a sackable offence when he is the culprit.

Varadkar conceded he would do things differently now, with hindsight, and apologised for his “error of judgment” in being unfortunately found out by Village magazine at the weekend. He duly fell into line with the catchphrase de jour and admitted what he did was “not best practice”. On the plus side, practise makes perfect, so he obviously intends to get better at it.

As he explained, there is confidential, and then there is confidential. Some things are more confidential than others. Often, secret papers are discussed as “non papers” during important talks while informal words in relevant ears always happen in political circles. “In fact, little would get done without them.”

In the same way, “there are friends and there are friends”, he said, demonstrating this to the Dáil by forcefully shoving his former one at the centre of this controversy under a double-decker.

In the same way there is a taoiseach from Cork and there is a taoiseach. On at least three occasions, Tánaiste Varadkar was mistakenly referred to in the chamber as Taoiseach.

Funnily enough, he took it well.

Varadkar was contrite but confident, candid yet cagey

Varadkar was in trouble on Tuesday when he had to come into the House to explain himself. And yet, there wasn’t any sense of immediate danger about his situation, even if the Opposition was seething over his cavalier approach to confidentiality and itching to pull him down a peg or two over it.

But it wasn’t going to happen, unless further information emerged to knock him off his lofty perch. That didn’t materialise.

Varadkar was contrite but confident, candid yet cagey. After his initial statement, in which he repeated in more detail the narrative spun across the airwaves by all his Fine Gael ministerial colleagues in the previous two days, he took part for over an hour in a robust Q&A session.

Afterwards, the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he had answered all that was asked of him and the matter was closed.

Government spilldoctor supreme, Leo Varadkar, was momentarily stumped

If Leo is guilty of anything, it is as a petty leaker. Minor indiscretions, involving journalists and the like. Never gets involved in the big stuff.

Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín was one of the many who tried to pin him down on his Cabinet incontinence.

“Have you ever leaked confidential Cabinet information?” he asked the former taoiseach, now Tánaiste and taoiseach in waiting.

A simple enough question.

So, Leo, answer it.

Time stood still in the Dáil.

“Have you ever leaked confidential Cabinet information?”

Government spilldoctor supreme, Leo Varadkar, was momentarily stumped.

A full five seconds.

“Nuh-nuttin’ nuh nothing of this nature, deputy...”

Everyone laughed.

But the movement in and around the chamber indicated that perhaps there was real worry in the ranks, despite the slavish repetition of the party line that the then taoiseach brought about the most fantastic contract between the government and GPs in the history of Irish medicine and that was what counted, not their leaky leader’s latest outflow.

Leo walked alone into the chamber, but there was a strong show of solidarity when he got to his place. He was surrounded by senior Ministers – those who couldn’t find a space in the socially distanced seats stood ringed around the rail above the chamber.

Deputy leader Simon Coveney shared the same row as his boss. Also there was Heather Humphreys and Helen McEntee. Former minister for health, now in Higher Education, Simon Harris, was in the front row. Lots of senior and junior Ministers spaced in the walkway above the seats, watching on.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan turned up briefly to witness the Tánaiste speak. He stood in the background and didn’t hang around for too long.

One Fianna Fáil Minister turned up. Darragh O’Brien did his duty by his party and sat while the Tánaiste made his statement. The Chief Whip, Jack Chambers, was the only other Fianna Fáiler occupying a seat. Both men left after half an hour. Their colleague, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, watched for a while from the outer region of the back wall.

But not one Fianna Fáil backbencher made it in for any of the session.

It was an impressive show of support for Varadkar from his own colleagues; not so much from his coalition partners.

For the entire time he was in the chamber, four TDs kept a close eye on him from a distance. Eoghan Murphy, Brendan Griffin and Martin Heydon are longtime allies of the Tánaiste – the three were members of the so-called “five-a-side team” of young, ambitious TDs who plotted their political futures when Enda Kenny was taoiseach. The fourth was Damian English, a loyal member of the Varadkar government.

They left when the Tánaiste left, looking relieved.

Yes, we are friends, but there are friends and there are friends...we are not close friends...we are not best mates or anything like that

The only casualty of a political episode which should have gravely injured Varadkar’s career was the “friend” and former president of a GPs’ representative body, Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who was the recipient of the confidential document.

“Yes, we are friends, but there are friends and there are friends...we are not close friends...we are not best mates or anything like that,” emphasised Leo. He may have thought otherwise, but he was “over-egging” the relationship.

People tend to do that when they are in contact with famous, successful people. You could see Leo wanted to explain this in more detail, but didn’t want to over-egg it.

But the Tánaiste, bravely, said he doesn’t want to be seen as “a victim” in all this.

Thankfully, we had The Body Brutiful, as in Richard Bruton, on hand to deflect some reality into this episode. He daringly put out a video in the midst of Leo’s distress showing us all how to make scones.

The Tánaiste reassured everyone he can still be trusted, citing past performances.

“This was different, it was a particular set of circumstances.”