The controversy that led Leo Varadkar to remove Maria Bailey as chairwoman of the Oireachtas housing committee is unlikely to fade away, for two reasons. The first reason is a major item of ongoing government business; the second is the unanswered questions about her personal injury claim.
Although measures to lower business insurance costs are being advanced by minister of state Michael D’Arcy, higher premiums are still putting many businesses under pressure. Last Wednesday, the organisers of Dublin’s popular Oktoberfest announced the cancellation of this year’s event, blaming Ireland’s claim culture and the incorrect belief that “putting in an insurance claim doesn’t hurt anyone except the insurance company”.
Reminders of an aborted claim by a TD who fell from an “unsupervised” hotel swing will not help government efforts to convince people that the issue is being taken seriously. As the Taoiseach announced what amounted to a rap on the knuckles for Bailey last Tuesday, the nation’s attention was happily diverted by Shane Lowry’s return to his native Clara as Open champion. It may have been a coincidence, at least in the view of those blessed with innocence. For others, it had the appearance of calculated news management.
The fact that the Dáil is adjourned makes July an ideal time for releasing awkward government news, but the opposition’s lack of a forum to pursue unanswered questions about the affair does not mean they will go away. These ten significant questions remain unanswered:
1. Why did Bailey not apologise for her actions or even acknowledge that, to use the Taoiseach’s mild language, she had “overstated” her injuries from the incident in July 2015 and made “numerous errors of judgment”?
2. Why did Varadkar not remove the Fine Gael whip from her, at least temporarily, despite criticising her and accepting that “Swing-Gate” had damaged the party’s European and local election campaigns? Her father’s recent death may have made the Taoiseach reluctant to take such an obvious step, but that does not guarantee either local or party headquarters support for her candidacy in Dún Laoghaire at the next election.
3. What are the irreconcilable “inconsistencies” in Bailey’s account of events to which Varadkar referred? He also said she made “numerous errors of judgment” What were these? In particular, given his statement that these included errors made after withdrawing her case, what were they?
4. What explanation can Bailey offer for the contradiction between the statement in her compensation claim that she could not run for three months after falling off an “unsupervised” swing in the Dean Hotel in Dublin and her running in a 10-kilometre race just three weeks after the incident?
5. The Taoiseach’s statement contained the following sentence referring to Bailey: “The inquiry concludes that it is unlikely that a court would conclude that she deliberately sought to mislead as other legal documents talk about her running being restricted rather than not being unable to run at all.” When, where and for what reason were these differing assessments of the hotel incident’s effects made?
6. Fine Gael said in a statement on the unpublished report that Bailey had “sustained painful injuries and incurred significant medical bills” as a result of her accident. Did the resulting costs come to more than €15,000, the limit for cases that can be dealt with by the District Court? She took her case to the Circuit Court, which can award up to €60,000 in personal injury cases.
7. Did Josepha Madigan, who practised as a solicitor until 2017 and who is said to have given Bailey “initial legal advice”, counsel her against seeking compensation. If not, why not?
8. When did Madigan’s “initial advice” to Bailey and her involvement in her claim come to an end? Did she express any views in relation to it after it moved on from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board? This is not a private matter, given her membership of a government that has promised effective action to reduce costs. Madigan was elected to the Dáil in February 2016 and was appointed minister for culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht on November 30, 2017.
9. Does anyone in Fine Gael seriously believe that assurances offered by Varadkar, Madigan and Bailey about the contents of an unpublished report will be enough to end this controversy?
10. Will Varadkar ask David Kennedy, the senior counsel who wrote the Bailey report and who says he spoke to individuals on a confidential basis, to ask them to agree to its publication? The Taoiseach indicated that he would not make this request. If he were to change his mind, the identity of any TDs who refuse to waive their confidentiality should be made known. A redacted version of the report would be a poor second best, but better than nothing.
Varadkar said he hoped Bailey’s demotion would send a clear signal to other public representatives about taking “such cases” in future. Perhaps it will, although Tuesday’s evasive language and unanswered questions made much of his intended message unclear.
The shortcomings of British politics may be all too obvious right now, but there is one Westminster tradition that might have served Bailey well. If she had resigned her committee chairmanship and issued even a mildly confessional statement, the British option of resuming her career as an effective mid-ranking backbencher after a decent interval might have been open to her.
Instead, she has followed the well-worn Irish political tactic of admitting nothing, apologising for nothing, blaming the media and relying on a combination of constituency work and voters’ sympathy to pull her through.