The Tánaiste has insisted she only became aware of the details of a Garda strategy to discredit Maurice McCabe when they came into the public domain - despite claims she knew a year previously.
Leo Varadkar told the Dáil last week that Frances Fitzgerald only became aware in May 2016 that the Garda legal team had been instructed to call into question the motives of the whistleblower.
This afternoon, the Taoiseach admitted that the Tánaiste and then Justice Minister had received an email about a dispute between the Garda legal team and Sergeant McCabe in May 2015.
Amid calls from the opposition for clarification on the email, the Tánaiste gave a statement about the issue in the Dáil this evening - saying she didn't remember the email when talking to the Taoiseach last week.
A transcript of the email was also distributed to TDs, while the Taoiseach is said to have spoken to Sgt McCabe earlier today.
— Thomas Byrne (@ThomasByrneTD) November 21, 2017
Minister Fitzgerald told deputies: "Last Monday week, I confirmed to the Taoiseach that neither I nor the Department of Justice had any hand, act or part in the legal strategy of the former Commissioner.
"I also confirmed to the Taoiseach that I only became aware of the broad details dealt with in the commission when they came into the public domain in 2016."
'No hand, act or part'
She insisted neither she nor her department had "any hand, act or part in the legal strategy" of the former Garda Commissioner Noirín O'Sullivan.
However, she was told by the Department of Justice last week that an email had been located, detailing a dispute between the legal teams during the O'Higgins Commission.
She explained: "The email indicated that counsel for An Garda Siochana had raised during the hearings... an allegation of a serious criminal complaint against Sgt Maurice McCabe that had previously been made.
"It is important to state that the email said that Sgt McCabe had always denied this allegation."
She added: "I could have no role whatsoever in questioning or seeking to influence the evidence another party gave to a commission of investigation - or indeed any legal argument made by such a person.
"I had no knowledge of the details that later emerged in May 2016. I learned of the details in May 2016 through media reports, like everyone else."
She insisted that she had committed to dealing with whistle-blowing issues in "a comprehensive, in a committed, and in a fair manner" during her time as Justice Minister.
Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh O’Laoghaire asked the Tánaiste why she held off on telling the Taoiseach about the email for four days.
She stressed that she was waiting to see "whether other information would emerge that was relevant, and what the legal advice [was]":
Roisín Shortall from the Social Democrats, meanwhile, asked Minister Fitzgerald why she didn’t react more strongly to the email given earlier developments over the McCabe controversy:
You can read the full contents of the May 2015 email below:
Could you pass this on to the Minister for information please.
I took a call this afternoon from -------- in relation to the O'Higgins Commission of Investigation (which is investigating the matters identified by the Guerin report).
The O'Higgins Commission has started hearings, and the Garda Síochána are represented by counsel, as is Sergeant McCabe (in his case, Michael McDowell SC).
------- wanted to let me know that counsel for the Garda Síochána has raised as an issue in the hearings an allegation made against Sergeant McCabe which was one of the cases examined by the IRM. The allegation had been that a serious criminal complaint against Sergeant McCabe (which he has always denied) had not been properly investigated by the Garda Síochána. The IRM found that an investigation file on the case had in fact been submitted to the DPP, who had directed no prosecution, and the IRM, which because of the seriousness of the allegation had been considering whether to recommend its inclusion in the O'Higgins terms of reference, in the end recommended no further action by the Minister.
Presumably the Garda Síochána are raising the matter on the basis, they could argue (and Sergeant McCabe would deny), that it is potentially relevant to motivation. ---- advised me that counsel for Sergeant McCabe objected to this issue being raised, and asked whether the Garda Commissioner had authorised this approach. ----- also told me that the Garda Commissioner's authorisation had been confirmed (although I understand separately that this may be subject to any further legal advice).
----- and I agreed that this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, who is being legally advised, and that neither the Attorney nor the Minister has a function relating to the evidence a party to a Commission of Investigation may adduce.