Explainer: Frances Fitzgerald, THAT email, and the possibility of another General Election
Early on Wednesday afternoon it was confirmed that Sinn Féin had submitted a motion of "no confidence" in Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
The current Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation has become embroiled in the Maurice McCabe whistleblower scandal that has dogged the Irish government throughout 2017.
Over the past few weeks, Labour TD Alan Kelly has been putting questions to the Dáil on the issue of whether Sergeant Maurice McCabe received sufficient protection as a whistleblower when he came forward to report several issues within An Garda Síochána, including the cancellation of penalty points.
The O'Higgins Report, following a commission of investigation established by the Department of Justice in 2015, affirmed McCabe's claims and found he was never less than truthful in his reporting.
The matter became even more complicated when it later emerged that there may have been a Garda strategy to undermine the credibility of Sergeant McCabe - this was a strategy that may have coincided with a major "admin error" claimed by the HSE, where an inaccurate sexual abuse case was left on Sergeant McCabe's Tusla file until 2016.
'What about THAT email?'
Allegations that the Gardaí attempted to undermine Sergeant McCabe's testimony to the O'Higgins Commissioned were referenced in an email sent to then-Minister of Justice Frances Fitzgerald in May of 2015.
The email, which the Tánaiste claims she read and forgot the details of, contradict a claim made by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil last week that Minister Fitzgerald became aware of the possible strategy to undermine McCabe "around the time it entered the public domain" - which would have been around May 2016, a year after she received the email in question.
The email served to notify the Minister of a dispute that emerged during the O'Higgins commission, and it reported that "counsel for the Garda Síochána has raised as an issue in the hearings an allegation against Sergeant McCabe," later referring to the allegation as a "serious criminal complaint."
It goes on to inform the Minister that "presumably the Garda Síochána are raising the matter on the basis they could argue that it is potentially relevant to motivation."
The Director of Public Prosecutions recommended no prosecution on the allegation.
'Revising their position'
Following the discovery of the email by Department of Justice officials, Frances Fitzgerald and the Taoiseach were forced to revise their position on when Fitzgerald became aware of the alleged Garda strategy.
On Wednesday night, Fitzgerald told the Dáil that she does not remember receiving the May 2015 email, but conceded: "I can only assume that I did read it."
It is now argued by members of Sinn Féin, Labour and Fianna Fáil that the government didn't do enough to protect Maurice McCabe as a whistleblower, given its awareness of the Gardaí's intention to raise the allegation during the O'Higgins Commission.
Fitzgerald has defended her actions, saying that it is likely she forgot the email because it recommended she take no further action.
Further questions have since been raised about the circumstances that preceded both Minister Fitzgerald and the Taoiseach providing incorrect information to the Dáil.
In a statement, the Social Democrats have claimed, "We are now being told that the email on the Gardaí’s legal strategy was uncovered by the Department of Justice on the 9th of November. If this is the case, then why did it take till the 13th for this email to reach the Minister, and why did he then sit by while the Taoiseach told the Dáil incorrect information not once but twice?"
The Social Democrats have concluded that questions must be asked of current Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, as to why Fitzgerald and Varadkar were apparently not informed of the email until after comments made in the Dáil many days later.
In the Dáil, Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald said: "You had sight and knowledge of this malicious legal strategy, and you, Minister, for reasons that you need to explain, looked the other way. And, in fact, it was worse than that because you continued consistently to give political support and cover to the architect, or one of the architects of that strategy, Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan."
Former Commissioner O'Sullivan stepped down from her role in September.
The questions around the timing of when Minister Fitzgerald became aware of the Gardaí's approach to McCabe's testimony echo a controversy from earlier in the year, when then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced to concede that he provided misinformation in the Dáil with regards to a meeting between Minister Katherine Zappone and the McCabe family.
'Resignations and a motion of no confidence'
Since its beginning, the Garda whistleblower scandal has seen the resignation of Alan Shatter, two Garda Commissioners and an apology from Enda Kenny to the Dáil, for the issues that [Maurice McCabe] raised and for the fact that his raising these matters wasn’t dealt with "more speedily in the first instance."
A motion of "no confidence" in the Tánaiste could have serious consequences for the current government. In order for such a motion to pass, either members of Fitzgerald's own party, Fine Gael, or members of Fianna Fáil, who have agreed to support Fine Gael in government, would have to vote in favour of it.
Fianna Fáil's Spokesperson for Justice and Equality Jim O'Callaghan has taken a tough stance on the government's handling of the matter since the beginning of the year, and it is not yet clear how Fianna Fáil will vote on the motion.
Were the Dáil to pass a motion of "no confidence," serious questions would arise about the future of a divided alliance and whispers of a general election would grow to a clamour.
Minister for Health Simon Harris has called Sinn Féin's motion "a political stunt," arguing that the Charleton Tribunal was established to find the facts with regards any smears that may have been made against Maurice McCabe and should be allowed to do its work without interruption.
The vote of "no confidence" is scheduled for next Wednesday.