Leo Varadkar has rejected allegations that he acted unlawfully when he passed draft details of a new GP pay deal agreed with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to a member of a rival union that he is friends with.
In a statement issued on his behalf, the Tánaiste said that he “regrets” passing on a copy of the agreement in an informal manner to Dr Maitiú O Tuathail, but has claimed details of the deal had already been publicly revealed in a press release several days earlier.
He described an article in the Village magazine containing the allegation that he acted unlawfully as “inaccurate and grossly defamatory” and said he was seeking legal advice about it.
The Green Party noted the statement from the Tánaiste, but called on him to give a full and detailed account to the Dáil on the issue and to allow sufficient time for questions.
“It is clear from what has been revealed that the passing on of sensitive information in this manner was not appropriate. The timelines and the full impact of the disclosure on all involved needs further scrutiny,” it said.
O Tuathail was the former president of the now defunct National Association of GPs (NAGP). The NAGP was not involved in talks that were taking place at the time between the Department of Health, the HSE and the IMO. The article claimed Varadkar had breached the Official Secrets Act of 1963 by passing on a copy of the new agreement.
The article contained a screenshot of a text message exchanged between O Tuathail and other members of the NAGP on April 17 of last year, which showed O Tuathail had received a copy of the new GP deal.
The image was also sent by O Tuathail to Chay Bowes, a businessman the magazine described as a whistleblower. The magazine said O Tuathail had added the comment “Leo always delivers”.
In his lengthy statement, the Tánaiste said that following negotiations a new GP deal had been announced by the IMO on April 5, with “extensive details” about it included in a press release that was issued that day. Further statements were issued by the HSE and the government the following day.
“The fact that an agreement had been reached, and the nature of that agreement was not something that was confidential or sensitive after April 6, 2019. On the contrary, this information was in the public domain,” the statement said.
Varadkar, who was Taoiseach at the time, said that in order to boost acceptance of the deal among the GP community, he decided to provide a copy of it to O Tuathail at some point between April 11 and 16.
He said he “hoped to use O Tuathail’s influence to encourage all GPs to accept it including those represented by NAGP”.
“The then Taoiseach did provide a copy of the agreement to Dr O Tuathail on a date between 11th and 16th April 2019. The agreement was provided to Dr O Tuathail, as president of the NAGP in circumstances where the Taoiseach believed that the deal was a positive one for general practitioners that the government wished to see implemented. He hoped to use Dr O Tuathail’s influence to encourage all GPs to accept it including those represented by NAGP.” the statement said.
It added that the government had publicly committed to keep the NAGP informed as to how the negotiations with the IMO were progressing and said the decision to share the document with O Tuathail was him “honouring” that commitment.
It said the Tánaiste now regretted the manner in which he had shared the agreement.
“The Tánaiste accepts that the provision of the agreement by an informal communication channel to the president of the NAGP was not best practice and he regrets that he did not ensure that it was provided in a more appropriately formal manner,” the statement said.
“There was however, nothing in any way unlawful about the provision of the agreement to the president of the NAGP.”
A series of opposition TDs from Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit had called on the Tánaiste to make a full statement after the article first appeared.
They were joined by Fianna Fáil backbenchers, Jim O’Callaghan and Marc MacSharry.
Responding to Varadkar’s statement, Paul Murphy, the Rise TD, said that while press releases had been issued about the new GP deal on April 5, the full document was not public.
“That's a very different thing,” he said.
He called for time to be set aside in the Dáil on Tuesday for questions and answers about the matter.
The deal at the centre of the allegation was reached after lengthy negotiations and reversed previous cuts to GP funding. Its terms were offered to all GPs and not just members of the IMO.
O Tuathail has not commented on the issue.