Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

General Practitioner Contract: Statements

 

4:55 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome this opportunity to give an account to the Dáil of my actions in April 2019 in relation to the contract negotiated between the Government and general practitioners, GPs, represented by the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO. I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight, to refute some of the allegations against me and to apologise for my errors of judgment.

I want to share with the House my motivations throughout this. I am a doctor by training and a qualified general practitioner. So is my father. I grew up over the shop which was his surgery in Blanchardstown. I believe the solution to many of the shortcomings in our health service lies in developing primary care and community care. At the heart of this are general practitioners, hard-working, committed, dedicated people, rooted in their community, who already provide high quality, easily accessible medical care with no waiting lists, 24-7, 365 days a year. They are willing to do more and all that they ask is that they are properly resourced and supported and it is the role of the Government to enable this. For most of the last decade, as a consequence of the financial crisis, we were forced to do the opposite and resources were taken away from general practice and community care. This had a detrimental impact on our health service as a whole and led to many newly-qualified GPs, including many I knew personally, losing heart and deciding to emigrate.

Only from 2016 onwards did it become possible to change this. As Minister for Health, alongside the then Minister for State, Kathleen Lynch, I was able to secure agreement on a new contract with GPs to manage diabetes in the community rather than in hospitals. It was a major step forward that has improved care for tens of thousands of patients. We also made implanted contraceptive devices, first-line investigations such as 24 hour blood pressure monitors and other services more available than before.

This was just a prelude of what could be achieved through a wider contract, if we had had the budget to do so.

We also negotiated a new contract with the IMO to extend free GP care to all children under six years old and all seniors over 70 years old. While the latter was well received, free GP care for children under six years of age was not. It was controversial and caused division among GPs and the medical community. It was broadly supported by the IMO which represents all doctors, including GPs, but not by another organisation representing GPs only, the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, which actively campaigned against it. Rivalry between the organisations was often bitter; it made agreement harder to achieve and held back progress. The NAGP wanted to be at the table. Some GPs were members of both organisations and some were members of neither. Ultimately, the Government decided to deal with the IMO alone, as its long-standing negotiating partner and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, affiliate. The Opposition was very critical of this at the time.

We committed, however, to keep the NAGP engaged, involved and informed as to the progress and outcome of negotiations. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, informed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health in February 2019 that while negotiations were with the IMO, "there was a role for the NAGP to play in terms of being consulted and involved". In fact, in a Government memorandum at the start of the talks process in March 2018 the Cabinet was informed that there would be "formal consultation" with the NAGP. It is important to understand that general practitioners are not employees. They are contractors and self-employed, and have an individual entitlement to accept or reject any contract, regardless of any ballot. Any agreement made by their representatives is not a collective agreement in the normal sense. In fact, such negotiations are more correctly termed consultations. Each GP has to be convinced individually to sign up.

In 2015, the campaign led by the NAGP against the Government-backed contract for children under six years old was very disruptive and resulted in the service not being available universally across the country for some time. I wanted to avoid a repeat of that in 2019. When I became Taoiseach in 2017, I said that I had unfinished business in health. I meant it, and I still mean it. Among my priorities was to finish off some of the work I had left in the Department of Health. I wanted to use the influence of the Taoiseach's office to secure a new contract with GPs and to reverse the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, Act cuts in return for a commitment to provide new and better services in the community for more patients free at the point of use. It would be a big step forward towards achieving universal healthcare in Ireland, which I believe in, and while we might disagree on the model, almost every Member of the House agrees on that too. It would also make general practice financially viable again.

As Taoiseach, I was fortunate to have an active and energetic Minister for Health in Deputy Harris, who shared that vision, and a Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, who knew this was a political priority for me and was willing to find the funding to make it possible, even if his officials would have preferred otherwise. I took an active and personal interest in the talks, was frustrated at times when they were not progressing quickly enough and kept in personal contact with a number of GPs whom I felt were opinion leaders during all this. I was determined to get the deal done and ensure it secured universal acceptance across the GP community. I wanted to get it implemented and then move on to the next items on the agenda, such as GP care for children under 12 years old as well as further services being moved from the hospital system to the community, for example, minor surgery and antenatal maternity care. This was my sole motivation all along. I wanted what was best for general practice, patients and the public. The suggestion that in any of my actions I had anything to gain personally in any way is false, without foundation and deeply offensive.

The facts are as follows. Following lengthy negotiations, an agreement was reached on 3 April 2019 and in the words of RTÉ health editor, Fergal Bowers, the "fine details" were publicly announced on Friday, 5 April 2019, by the IMO. The details of it were extensively described in a press release issued on that day. There was also a five-page document issued by the IMO, entitled "Summary Information". This set out the financial details as well as anything that could be considered commercially sensitive - €120 million extra in fees, a 10% pension contribution increase, enhanced maternity and paternity leave, €80 million for chronic disease management and a detailed revised fee schedule. The IMO had struck a very good deal for its members and publicised that fact. I am placing this document on the record of the House this evening. The following are the words of Dr. Padraig McGarry, chairman of the IMO GP committee, on 5 April 2019:

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has announced details of a negotiated agreement with Government which secures €210 million in increased funding for General Practice over the coming years. This is an important step towards investing in General Practice and valuing it as a vital part of the health service. It will do two things: restore the draconian cuts imposed on GPs and bring new and much needed funding to deliver new services to patients in the community.

I am also placing the following full statement on the record of to the House. On Saturday, 6 April 2019 the HSE issued a statement entitled: "GP Contract Launch". "Launch" was the term used by the HSE. Anne O’Connor, interim director general, publicly welcomed the agreement on GP contractual reforms. I am putting her statement on the record of the House as well. In addition, at a public event in a primary care centre on the Navan Road on the same day the agreement was welcomed and endorsed by me, as Taoiseach, and the Minister for Health. I am placing that statement on the record of the House.

On Tuesday, 9 April, a memorandum was brought to Cabinet by the Minister for Health informing the Cabinet that "engagement had concluded" with the IMO. The matter did not return to Cabinet as no significant changes were made between then and its formal publication on 17 May, although there were minor ones. The fact is that an agreement had been reached and the nature of that agreement was not something that was an official secret, highly confidential or commercially sensitive after 6 April. On the contrary, all the salient information was in the public domain and was being discussed at public meetings that GPs were attending. There were calls in the Dáil at the time for the full text of the agreement to be published. Deputy Louise O’Reilly said: "we should have had it the day after it was agreed by the IMO". Deputies Alan Kelly, Stephen Donnelly and Róisín Shortall were all critical of the fact that it had been agreed but not published in full. Another Deputy mentioned the possibility that GPs who were members of the IMO might see it before those who were not and pointed out that some GPs who were not members of either organisation might be at an unfair disadvantage.

In the normal course of events, agreements are published within days if not on the night they are made. As the Taoiseach said the other day, on reflection it would have been better if that practice had been followed here. I fully respect, however, that the IMO wanted to do it differently and wanted to hold meetings around the country to consult and engage with its members before doing so. For my part, as Taoiseach and in my capacity as Head of Government, I was keen that the agreement should be well received by the general practitioner community as a whole and not just those who were members of the IMO. It was a good deal and I wanted it to be universally accepted. In particular, I wanted to avoid a repeat of the problems we had getting the agreement on children under six years of age implemented.

As I said earlier, GPs are not employees. They are self-employed contractors and they had an individual entitlement to accept or reject it. Indeed, there are some who are still operating on very old contracts to this day, having chosen not to accept those negotiated in recent decades. At this time, Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail was president of the National Association of General Practitioners. It claimed to have 1,200 GPs among its members. I posted a copy of the agreement to Dr. Ó Tuathail between 11 and 16 April 2019, most likely on 15 or 16 April. I did so on a confidential basis, believing publication was imminent anyway. I wanted his opinion on it and hoped that in seeing how favourable it was, it would remove or mollify any opposition from that organisation. I wanted him to see that there was nothing in the terms of the agreement that was contrary to what was publicly announced and that there was nothing in it worth opposing or agitating against.

In the end, the deal made by the IMO was demonstrably good for general practice. The NAGP did not oppose it and, in any case, the organisation fell into decline very soon after due to internal issues. Providing it with the information did not confer any advantage over the IMO on anyone else. Indeed, arguably, anyone affected by it should have been given access to it as soon as agreement was reached or shortly thereafter. This is the normal practice. The Government had publicly committed on multiple occasions to keep the NAGP informed as to the progress and outcome of negotiations. Indeed, the Opposition went further and argued that we should have included it in the talks from the start. In providing a copy of the agreed and publicly announced terms of the agreement, I was honouring a political commitment made by the Government which I led, including commitments given here in the Dáil. The agreement having been made, the question at that point was different - how to get GPs to sign up to it quickly and en masse. This was my objective.

It has been alleged that there was something improper, perhaps even criminal, in my connection with Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail. This is not the case. It has been reported that he is "a Varadkar cheerleader".

Yes, there are many examples of his public support for me, but there are also plenty of the opposite. For example, on 13 April 2019, in the middle of this timeline, he publicly attacked the Government for providing more GP visit cards, calling it a shameful "vote-getting exercise". He went on to describe the policy of the Government that I led as "the biggest con job in the history of the health service". That was not exactly cheerleading. This was someone who was president of the NAGP, who I wanted to be in support of the agreement and not vehemently opposed to it, as it had been in 2015.

It will not surprise you to hear, a Cheann Comhairle, that Ministers have lots of people's numbers in their phones. Prime Ministers have each other's phone numbers and speak informally in between official meetings. Occasionally, we even exchange what are termed "non-papers". In fact, any party involved in the talks relating to Northern Ireland would be very familiar with all of this. The same goes for informal contacts between Ministers and union leaders, business leaders and indeed Deputies and Senators. There is nothing inappropriate about informal contacts of this nature per se. In fact, little would get done without them, and we all know it.

Sometimes people like to exaggerate the nature of their relationships, to inflate their own influence or to claim to speak for a person when they do not - to claim to have greater access than they really have. Friends, acquaintances and supporters may claim to be closer than they really are. This is clearly a big part of this story. If we are honest, most of us in this House are familiar with that phenomenon too. I am always willing to help people, those whom I know and those whom I do not know, just as I am willing to help a constituent in need, but I never do so in a way that confers on them any sort of special treatment or advantage. This is never something I have been accused of before.

Having said that, I do accept that the provision of the agreement by an informal communication channel to the president of the NAGP, in the way that I did, was not good practice. I regret that I did not ensure that it was provided in a more appropriately formal manner. It was an error and one I accept sole responsibility for. I know it has caused people to question my judgement, but I hope, having heard my explanation, no fair-minded person will question my motivation or integrity. I do regret it and I am sorry for the controversy and annoyance that my actions have caused, including to members of the medical profession, members of the IMO, my colleagues in government and to the House.

I know I have made mistakes as a Minister and when I was Taoiseach. I have tried to learn from them. There are things I wanted to do and failed. Even with the things we did achieve, I wonder if we could have done more. Over my career I have been guilty of errors of judgment, but I have never been motivated by a desire for selfish financial gain or motives corrupt; not for a minute. My guiding principle today is the same as it was when I entered political life. That is, to serve my country to the best of my ability, to make a difference while I have an opportunity and to reward the enormous privilege of being elected to this House by helping to improve the lives of all our citizens. I knew the new GP contract would make a difference and help some of the most vulnerable in our society who needed it the most. I made an error of judgement in trying to achieve that result, motivated by the best reasons, but there was nothing selfish or dishonest, let alone corrupt or illegal, in what I did.

I have been asked to give a full and detailed account of my actions to the Dáil. I have done so. I have been asked to set out the timelines. I have done so too. I have also been asked about the "full impact" of my actions. There was no impact, certainly no negative one. The deal was done. It was well received and was accepted almost universally by GPs. It is now a reality and is being implemented and providing better, more accessible care to more patients in the community and that is what really matters. I am happy to answers the Deputies' questions.

5:10 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Maitiú Ó Tuathail certainly did not have to exaggerate because he obtained from the Tánaiste a document that had "Confidential: Not for circulation" on its front cover, a document which the Tánaiste wrote on the top corner: "Subject to amendments and changes". Where did the Tánaiste obtain a copy of the document that he provided to Maitiú Ó Tuathail? Did he receive it at Cabinet? Was the document that he furnished to Dr. Ó Tuathail an original or did he copy the document? Was the document requested by Maitiú Ó Tuathail or did the Tánaiste just decide to stick it in an envelope and give it to him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I got the document from the Department of Health. It was a hard copy. I did copy it. I kept a copy for myself, which I no longer have, and I posted one to him. He did request it.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Who in the Department of Health provided the Tánaiste with the copy and did he request it at the time for that purpose? Could he also outline to me when Maitiú Ó Tuathail requested the document from him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I received copies of this twice. I would have got briefings from time to time about the negotiations. I was not at the talks at any point but I was briefed on them. I got one copy from the Minister for Health, which my records tell me I read and put in the recycling bin. I requested a second copy through my adviser. I have an adviser, Clare Mungovan, who covered health issues for me when I was Taoiseach, and she got the second copy from the Department of Health.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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When?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have the exact date, but it was all in that time period, obviously.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Was it after Maitiú Ó Tuathail requested the document from him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Again, I do not have the exact time period on that, but the document I had was from after 4 April, because that is when it was agreed. He would have requested it sometime between 4 April and the date which I gave Deputy Doherty as to when I sent it to him, which was between 11 April and 15 April or 16 April. I think it was 15 April or 16 April but I do not know exactly on which date.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Did the Tánaiste check his text messages?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I did, yes.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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When did he request the document from the Tánaiste?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have a text message on that.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Okay. Has the Tánaiste checked with the Department when he actually requested the document from the Department to give to Maitiú Ó Tuathail?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The document that I was given by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, was some time around 4 or 5 April. This was the document that I read and put in the recycling bin. Then when I got the second copy I-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Why did the Tánaiste get the second copy? Was it only for the purpose of providing that copy to Maitiú Ó Tuathail?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, because I wanted to read it again.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Seriously?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Yes. I did. I requested my adviser to get it for me. I think that was on 10 April.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Did the Tánaiste just happen to then give it to Maitiú Ó Tuathail without knowing whether Maitiú was looking for it before he actually requested it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I know he was looking for it.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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He was given a commitment.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know the exact date but it was all obviously in that week, which was the week after it had been launched, announced and approved by the Cabinet.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Could the Tánaiste indicate "Yes" or "No" whether he told anybody in the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Health, the IMO or the HSE that he was providing a copy of this document that has "Confidential: Not for circulation" to his friend, Maitiú Ó Tuathail?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I did not tell anyone, or at least I have no recollection of telling anyone, but in doing so, as I said earlier, I was following on from a Government commitment that we would keep the NAGP informed and involved in all of this.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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So the Tánaiste did not tell anybody. Is he aware that the NAGP's head office is across the road? It is actually on Kildare Street. Is he aware of that, as a GP and a former Minister for Health?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Actually, no I am not.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Okay.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am sure I could have found that out, but I was not aware of it.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Okay, so the Tánaiste decided instead to seek out Maitiú Ó Tuathail's home address and to put this contract into an envelope and post it off to him instead.

In her defence of the Tánaiste's actions, the Minister for Justice told RTÉ radio this was not the first contact. There had been engagement with the NAGP throughout the negotiations. Is that statement true, and if so, could the Tánaiste tell the Dáil what engagement there was between the Department and the NAGP from the resumption of the talks in October 2018 to the conclusion of the talks in April?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is a good question and I cannot answer it for sure. The NAGP, in its statement the other day, said that it had monthly meetings with the HSE and the Department of Health. The Department of Health says otherwise - that there were not meetings in 2018 or 2019, so we will have to get to the bottom of that obviously, but none of the meetings would have involved me. Again, the commitment was there in the Government memo in 2018, and in the commitments of the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris to the joint Oireachtas committee that we would keep the NAGP informed and involved.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Let us get to the bottom of it, because the Government did not keep the NAGP involved. The Tánaiste regurgitated that statement about the commitment again in his statement to the Dáil today. I am sure the Tánaiste has been making a lot of inquiries in recent days. There was no engagement between the Department of Health and the NAGP from October 2018, on the resumption of the talks, to the time the talks were completed. If the Tánaiste disputes that he should publish the records within the Department of Health.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Department of Health and the HSE were involved in this too. The NAGP in its statement say there were monthly meetings on the chronic disease package. The Department of Health says that there was a prolonged period where there were no meetings. I am not sure what the HSE is saying.

What I can say is that there was a public commitment given by the Minister for Health and by me that the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, would be informed, involved and consulted. If it was not, then it should have been.

5:20 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister for Justice went on national radio yesterday to bat in the Tánaiste's defence and said there had been engagement with NAGP throughout these negotiations. The Tánaiste is telling me that the Department of Health said there was no engagement. That is the problem. We have asked for these documents which are all covered by freedom of information to be released in order that there would not be any confusion on this matter. There was no engagement with the NAGP and the Department of Health. The Tánaiste, however, is relying on that defence in some way to suggest that this was an ongoing process and it was not about doing a trick or a favour or pulling strings or a dig-out for a friend. Is that not the case? Is the Tánaiste aware that there was no engagement with the Department of Health and the NAGP throughout this process? Does he accept that the statement by the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is in accurate in that regard?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In fairness the Minister for Justice is the Minister for Justice and she would have had no involvement in this. It would not be fair to expect her to know everything about it or to be aware of all the details. That is not a fair proposition that the Deputy is putting forward.

My defence is not about how many meetings were held between the NAGP, the HSE and the Department of Health. My defence is that there was a Government decision to formally consult and involve the NAGP and to keep it informed and up to date. We committed to doing that here in this House. The Minister committed to doing it. The Government decided to do it. If the NAGP had not been informed all along, it should have been.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I am not even going to go there because it is ridiculous that the Tánaiste is suggesting that he decided to take it on himself, with no engagement all through the process, to give a confidential document to a friend and this was supposedly fulfilling a Government commitment.

The Tánaiste wrote in this document - in his own handwriting, I presume – "subject to amendments and changes". Does he accept that this document that he gave to his friend, the rival group to the IMO, which the Department of Health and the HSE were in engagement for a long period, could have been amended and changed at the time he decided to post it to his friend?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Any agreement, even when it is done and passed by Cabinet, can be amended. We all know that. Agreements can be made and one can come back, amend them subsequently and they can be subject to change.

I have put the records out there for the information of the House tonight. Engagement was concluded - it says that in the Government memo - on 3 April. The details were publicly announced on 4 April. It was launched by the HSE on 6 April, publicly announced and endorsed by me and the then Minister, Deputy Harris, on the same day. This was a week or two after all of that. Yes, any document can be subject to change or amendment. That is a simple fact. However, in this case, any changes that were made were minor because they did not go back to Cabinet.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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This document was changed. I presume it was changed through ongoing discussion after this date between the IMO and the Department. If the Tánaiste wants to suggest that it was not changed - I do not think that is the Tánaiste's defence anymore - that is what one of his Ministers suggested yesterday, however. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, out to bat for the Tánaiste on national radio, told RTÉ that no other amendments were made to agreement, subject to the Tánaiste providing the confidential copy to his friend, Maitiú Ó Tuathail. That simply is not true. The Tánaiste has confirmed that now. Why would he give a document where it was not completely tied down to a friend, who belonged to a rival organisation to the IMO? The IMO was engaged in good faith in negotiations with the Department of Health and the HSE. It was a rival organisation which was dependent on GP membership retention and signing up to it. It was dependent on the financial subscriptions paid to it. Why would the Tánaiste do that, knowing that the document had on its front cover the words "Confidential" and "Not for Circulation" and in the Tánaiste's handwriting an acknowledgement that the document was not finalised but subject to amendment or changes? What was the Tánaiste's motivation?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I gave it on a confidential basis to Maitiú Ó Tuathail, as president of the NAGP. He shared it with some people in the NAGP but certainly did not publish it or decide to circulate it. It was a document that I had and gave to somebody in confidence. I explained why I did earlier, that I wanted to see if we could get the NAGP on side and make sure it did not oppose this agreement like it had in 2015. It was an attempt to get it on board.

I know the Deputy will keep going back to the point that Maitiú Ó Tuathail was my friend. That is true but I had lots of friends who are GPs. I still have lots-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Well-----

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Please, let me finish.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Will Deputy Pearse Doherty let the Tánaiste finish?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I trained as a GP. I had lots of friends who are GPs and I still do. I did not give the document to my friends who are GPs. I only gave it to one person because he was president of the NAGP, not because he was my friend.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Has the Tánaiste ever given Maitiú Ó Tuathail any other confidential information? Has he leaked any other confidential reports?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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When this accusation was made to the Tánaiste by the Villagemagazine on Tuesday last, did he contact any other Cabinet colleagues to discuss this with them? We know he did not inform the Taoiseach until it was publicised on Saturday.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I did not contact any other Ministers about it. The query did not come to me about it at all, actually. An email, however, was sent to our office asking if I had ever given the document to another doctor or an associate. We did not reply to the query.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Tánaiste aware of any other members of his Cabinet at that time being asked by any senior member of the NAGP for this contract?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Not that I am aware of.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Tánaiste aware that Deputy Harris, his then Minister for Health, was approached by Maitiú Ó Tuathail on 9 April requesting this document?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Again, the Deputy is asking me about contacts between the then Minister, Deputy Harris, and Maitiú Ó Tuathail-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I am just asking about his awareness.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I would not be surprised. It would be entirely normal for the president of the NAGP to ask the Minister.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Tánaiste aware that on the morning of 10 April that the then Minister, Deputy Harris, responded to that, said he would make inquiries on that and saying to him, let us grab coffee soon?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am aware because I saw this tweet published somewhere in the last hour. That is the only reason I am aware of it.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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At 8 o'clock on the morning of 10 April, the then Minister, Deputy Harris, said he would make inquiries. At 2 o'clock, the Tánaiste sent a message to Maitiú Ó Tuathail looking for his home address.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Deputy, I can answer questions about my actions, not-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Can the Tánaiste confirm that at 2 o'clock on the same day, he sent a message asking Maitiú Ó Tuathail for his home address?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have that in front at the moment. I asked him for his home address and I sent the document to him in the post. I do not have the exact time.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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It is suggested by the Tánaiste's friend, Maitiú Ó Tuathail, that he met the then Minister, Deputy Harris, for lunch in Wicklow on the afternoon or the morning of 12 April. Is that something the Tánaiste is aware of or not?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is reading out tweets or WhatsApp messages that were put on the Internet in the last hour or so that are not from me. They are between other people. I cannot account for that. I can account for the ones from me.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Okay. There is another one where Maitiú Ó Tuathail asked if there had been any luck in getting that contract. That was the Monday. The Tánaiste said it should be in the post and acknowledges he will probably put it in the post on Monday, 15 April, or Tuesday, 16 April.

The Tánaiste was Head of the Government at the time. There is a lot of information to be put out there. We heard from the then Minister for Health yesterday. He went on national radio but he did not tell one single person he was also requested for this document. He did not tell one single person he also said, thanks Maitiú, let us make inquiries on that and let us grab a coffee soon. Does the Tánaiste think that it is relevant that his friend was asking Deputy Harris, the then Minister for Health, for the same document which he decided to give without the then Minister's knowledge?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Once again, I am very happy to answer any questions he may have about my actions. I cannot answer questions about the actions of the then Minister, Deputy Harris, or the actions of Dr. Ó Tuathail. I can only answer for myself.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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We can establish a number of things. First, the confidential document, the draft agreement, was not complete. There were changes to it afterwards. We can establish that the Tánaiste's friend requested that document and that he told nobody in the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Health, in the HSE or in the IMO. He did not send it to the head office which is across the street. Instead, he decided to get the home address of his friend and post it in an envelope to him. He had a number of text messages and engagements with him. The Tánaiste knew that the organisation was a rival organisation to the IMO with which the discussions were being had. However, he decided to do that. Maitiú Ó Tuathail has made claims to others in the past that his intention was to undermine or destroy the IMO. Seriously, this is not as simple as a junior official. The Tánaiste was the Head of Government. This is insiders. This is old boys' club. This is not something that one just apologises for and try to make excuses that this was a part of an ongoing engagement. We now know there was no engagement.

This was a matter of favours for friends. It is simply unacceptable and I do not buy the Tánaiste's analysis.

5:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It was none of those things. This was an agreement that had been concluded. It had been published in substance, or at least the salient details had, including all the financial and commercially sensitive information. This agreement had been launched by the HSE and welcomed publicly by me and by the Minister for Health. It had gone to the Cabinet. The Cabinet memo very clearly says that engagement had concluded. The head of the NAGP requested it. I gave it to him because he was the president of the NAGP, not because he was a friend of mine. He is not as close a friend as he has made out, which I can come to later. My intention, as I outlined in my statement, was to try to mollify, reduce and negate the opposition of that organisation because I did not want-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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He had already tweeted about his acceptance of the agreement the week before.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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There is something sadly inevitable about this debate and the controversy in which the Tánaiste finds himself. I was hoping that today he would stop treating those in the political system and the people of Ireland like fools. He has chosen not to stop. His explanation is just not credible. He waltzed in here this evening and to the cheers of his party colleagues equated giving this document to his friend to exchanging documentation as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. He seems to want to paint himself as a victim. He said there is nothing inappropriate about informal contacts of this nature per se. He said that friends, acquaintances and supporters may claim to be closer to him than they really are, and that this is clearly a big part of the story. Of course it is a big part of the story. It is the entirety of the story. As Taoiseach, with the immense responsibility placed on him, the Tánaiste handed a document stamped "CONFIDENTIAL" to a friend of his who asked for it and who was the head of a rival organisation to the Irish Medical Organisation. The Tánaiste has said with a straight face that he was trying to enhance the possibility of this deal getting over the line. I want to ask the Tánaiste about the nature of his relationship with Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail. Has he communicated with him since the story broke on Saturday or since he became aware of it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I have. The first occasion was when I heard the story was breaking, to find out what it was about. The second occasion was when I was preparing my statement, to check the date on which I sent him the document. On the third occasion he contacted me, wanting to know if the NAGP should issue a statement. I said that was up to him and I did not want to direct or advise him.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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It would not be too much of a jump to suggest that either in the Tánaiste's mind or in Dr. Ó Tuathail's mind, or from the point of view of people hearing what the Tánaiste has just said, statements coming from the Tánaiste and Dr. Ó Tuathail were co-ordinated over the weekend. The Tánaiste sent out his statement after a full day of putting it together. Dr. Ó Tuathail sent out his statement the next day. The Tánaiste spoke to Dr. Ó Tuathail three times about the statements both parties were going to release.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I spoke to him once about my statement, to see if I could check the date on which I sent him the document. I still have not been able to find the exact date. As I have said, it was some time between 11 April and 16 April.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Tánaiste's judgment is really being called into question here. He is in the middle of a huge controversy about inappropriately handing someone a document that he should not have had, and he is chatting to him about it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am not sure that is a question. I was not chatting. I wanted to make sure I pieced together everything in my recollection so that I could share all of these facts with the House. One of the things published in Villagewas a WhatsApp message from me to him looking for his home address. I did not have that WhatsApp message any more and I wanted to check the exact date on which I sent the document. I knew that was one of the questions I would be asked. It was being put about on Twitter by one of the Deputies here that I sent it on 2 April, which would have been before it was agreed. I wanted to make sure that was not true. In my recollection it was not true. I recalled the date as being closer to 17 April, and that was something I wanted to check.

Yes, we are friends. However, there are friends and there are friends. We are not close friends. Dr. Ó Tuathail is the kind of friend I would meet two or three times a year, probably at a drinks reception or through overlapping social circles. Otherwise he would have been in touch with me about medical matters such as Safetynet, the charity he works for through which GPs provide medical care to the homeless. I have had some involvement in that. We are not best mates or anything like that. I know some people are trying to create that impression, or perhaps the impression that we are more than that. That is not the case at all.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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In a message to his colleague Dr. Ó Tuathail wrote "Leo constantly pulling strings for me. You’ve no idea". Is he over-egging the nature of his relationship with the Tánaiste? What are these strings which Dr. Ó Tuathail suggests the Tánaiste pulls for him constantly?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". He is over-egging it. That is clearly a big part of this story. Someone who is known to me, who is a friend but not a close friend, made out to various people that he was closer to me than he was and that he had special access. That is a big part of what this is about. I am not trying to make out that I am some sort of victim. That is simply the fact.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Tánaiste said in his speech that he finds some of the allegations against him "offensive". A lot of people in Ireland would find it offensive for the Taoiseach to give his pal a document he should not have.

Let us move on. I still find it remarkable that the Tánaiste decided to make contact with this individual over the weekend. The Tánaiste sent him a document. Was anybody else involved in sending this document?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Yes, my personal assistant, PA, to whom I gave the document for postage.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Did the Tánaiste's PA know what was in it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am not sure how often my PA reads documents that I post. When I was trying to put the timeline together, she did recall it. I doubt she read it.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Tánaiste managed to put somebody else in an impossible situation in which they were sending a document which was not for circulation. Did the Tánaiste instruct her to do this? Did he ask her to do it? He must understand what he did. The words "CONFIDENTIAL - NOT FOR CIRCULATION" were written on the document. The Tánaiste asked his PA to send it to Dr. Ó Tuathail. Did he ask her or instruct her? Was she in a position to say "No"?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Either my PA or my private secretary handles any phone calls or post for me in the normal course. As I said, I gave this document to Dr. Ó Tuathail on a confidential basis as president of the NAGP. As I said earlier, all the salient details had already been published. The engagement with the IMO had concluded. The fact that a hard copy of a document is marked "CONFIDENTIAL" does not mean it remains confidential forever. There comes a point where it ceases to be confidential and becomes widely known.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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It was published a month later.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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It is like the Northern Ireland peace process.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I did not say that.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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That is according to the Tánaiste's speech. Has the Tánaiste or anyone in his office ever given a document marked "confidential" to a person or body in a manner which was "not best practice", to use the Tánaiste's own words, before this instance or since?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Not to my knowledge, but a situation like this had never arisen before in my experience. If this had been a traditional pay agreement, we would have published the agreement that night or within a day or two. If it had been a dispute settlement, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, or the Labour Court would have released the document that evening. If it had been a commercial contract, I would not have had it because of the rules around commercial contracts.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Earlier today the Taoiseach said that the Tánaiste said "No" to him. He also said "No" in answer to Deputy Pearse Doherty's question. When he answered my question, maybe because of the way I worded it, he said it had not happened to his knowledge. What is the Tánaiste's answer, "No" or "Not to my knowledge"?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy asked about anyone who worked for me. Hundreds of people have worked for me in the last ten years. I cannot answer on their behalf. I can answer on mine. The answer on my behalf is "No".

5:40 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am asking on the basis of the kind of operation he runs - his close advisers, his circle, the one or two people he has had around him for years and years. Has a confidential document been sent in a manner which was not best practice, either with or without his knowledge?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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To the best of my knowledge, the answer is "No".

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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We are getting a "to the best of my knowledge" answer again, whereas the Tánaiste previously stated "No" and the Taoiseach previously stated "No".

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On a point of clarification, if the Deputy asks me a question about my actions, I can give him a definitive answer, but if he asks me a question about another Minister, Deputy or somebody who worked for me, I cannot give a definitive answer. I can only answer to the best of my knowledge. I am not trying to be evasive. I am not hiding anything. I am just trying to give the Deputy, as best I can, a factual answer.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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As has been outlined, the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, was asked for this document and he basically said "No". Why does the Tánaiste think the Minister for Health said "No"? Why did he say "Yes"? Why did Dr. Ó Tuathail write, "To be fair. Leo always delivers"?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Again, I cannot answer questions on behalf of other people. I think it is evident from all of this affair that Dr. Ó Tuathail, for his own reasons, made out to be closer to me than he was. On this occasion, I shared that document with him in confidence for two reasons. First, the agreement had been done and announced and it had been approved by the Cabinet and I wanted to ensure it would get maximum support from the GP community and was trying to avoid a repeat of what we had in 2015. That was my motivation. We had moved from the point where the deal was done to the point where we were trying to canvass maximum support for it. That was the reason.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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There are a million and one holes in that tale. The NAGP was a basket case. It was not a credible organisation at that stage. The previous year, its entire council had resigned. Within weeks of the Tánaiste giving it this document, it had collapsed in on top of itself. Its motivation in getting this document was not to promote the document. That is obvious because it did not promote the document. In the words of Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail himself, "no doubt it will take the wind from the IMO's sails... I would love to destroy IMO too." Is it not really the case that the NAGP was falling apart? There were all sorts of questions about its corporate governance, its dealings and how it managed its affairs. It was getting desperate. As the Tánaiste has acknowledged, it began to threaten him and members of his party. The Tánaiste helped his pal who asked for the document. Either the Tánaiste is complicit or he is a stooge. Which is it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The organisation was very effective in 2015 when it came to undermining support for and acceptance of the contract relating to children under six. I provided the document for two reasons: first, because there was a Government commitment to inform, consult and engage it on these talks; and, second, because I wanted to mollify or reduce any opposition to the agreement. I wished to demonstrate to Dr. Ó Tuathail that it was a good agreement and the NAGP should not try to oppose it.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Again, the Labour Party finds utterly incredible the Tánaiste's explanation to this House and the Irish people that what he was trying to do was to promote the agreement, an agreement the NAGP did not promote among its members and which some of the NAGP members were saying it would use against the IMO. There are references in the text messages to what it was going to do with the 17 roadshows the IMO had planned. The Tánaiste stepped outside his area of responsibility. He stepped into a negotiated deal between the Minister for Health, the IMO and the HSE. It was a sensible enough agreement which was not signed off on for another month when it came to the acceptance of the members. The Tánaiste's buddy or pal, the guy with the Leo t-shirt, asked him for a copy of it and he said "Yes". Does the Tánaiste not feel that either he was reckless in his behaviour, considering the organisation with which he was involved, or that his explanation to the House this evening has no credibility whatsoever?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I was wrong in the way I went about it. I should have done it differently. I should have brought Dr. Ó Tuathail in and given a full briefing, even if it was line by line or page by page. That is the way it should have been done. I did not do it that way because I knew him and, almost as a shortcut, I did it in the way I did it. I should not have done it that way. I should have set aside an hour or two to do it in a more formal and proper way. I absolutely accept that was an error of judgment. It was a mistake on my part not to do it in that way. Had I done it that way, I think we would not be here today.

In the text exchanges to which the Deputy referred - again, I do not know if they are real as they are not from me - I believe I am also accused of being an IMO head, being a former member of the IMO. On one level, the Deputy is using the texts as evidence to accuse me of helping out the NAGP but on another level the texts accuse me of being an IMO head and somebody who is trying to help out the IMO. It cannot be the two. Yes, of course my motivation was to get the agreement ratified. I put a lot of work into the agreement. I do not think it would have happened had it not been for the fact that I was Taoiseach and prioritised it. The Department of Health wanted to do a whole new contract, starting from scratch, which would have taken far longer to negotiate. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had real concerns that this would kick off demands from other unions and sectors for FEMPI reversal. I pushed to get the agreement across the line. I wanted it done.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will stop the Tánaiste there. If Deputies are going to ask questions of the Tánaiste, they must allow him time to answer them. Deputy Ó Ríordáin is now over time. That sets a precedent for the other groups. The Deputy asked a question when his time was up. I allowed the Tánaiste to answer it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Thank you.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will go back to ensuring Deputies keep within their time. I am asking Deputies to comply with the time limits. I did not wish to stop Deputy Ó Ríordáin in full run.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I wish to pick up on that last point. The Tánaiste stated it was a legitimate objective and that he had worked on the agreement for some years and wanted to encourage its acceptance by a broad number of GPs. If that was the case, then why was the document not disseminated through official channels and the line Minister?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I explained, if I was doing this again, I would do it through official channels. I would perhaps bring Dr. Ó Tuathail in and do a page by page or line by line briefing. What I wanted to do was to share the document with him on a confidential basis to get his opinion on it and see whether he thought it was a good deal. I believed that in sharing it with him, he would come to the conclusion that it was a good agreement and that the NAGP should not campaign or agitate against it or try to undermine it, as it did back in 2015. The objective was to try to, at least, mollify any opposition to the agreement.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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It was not signed off for another month. Obviously, the IMO was party to the agreement. I am sure it would have wanted to know what was happening to the document. It presumably would have expected that the document would remain confidential. This document was clearly marked as being confidential and not for circulation. What is the Tánaiste's understanding of that instruction in this context?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The document was not made public. It was not circulated among the NAGP membership or shared widely. It is a document I gave to a person in confidence for the reasons I explained, namely, to try to demonstrate that what had been announced was exactly what was in the document and that there was no reason to oppose it. That was the basis on which I gave it to him. It was not published or put into the public domain. What was happening at the same time, as an IMO council member confirmed recently, was that there were meetings and briefings around the country being led by the IMO at which people were being informed of the detail of the agreement. It was reported on in The Medical Independentand all the medical papers.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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That is not the question I asked. What is his understanding of the instructions "confidential" and "not for circulation"? That is what was written on the front of the document. I would have thought it plain that it was not for circulation and certainly not for circulation to a rival organisation. Is it not the case that it was not actually finally agreed until approximately 16 April and, as such, the Tánaiste breached the confidentiality of the negotiation process? One of the screenshots of the exchanges between Maitiú Ó Tuathail and the Tánaiste refers to any luck getting the contract and the Tánaiste replies that it should be in the post. He then goes on to say that there may be some changes made to it, so it should not be taken as gospel.

The date of that is 15 April 2019, which is before it was finally signed off on 16 April. It was in the post at that stage. Does the Tánaiste accept that he breached the confidentiality of the negotiation process, because it was subject to change even at that stage?

5:50 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I think I explained, it is important to note the memo brought by the Minister for Health to the Cabinet on 9 February said very clearly that engagement with the IMO had concluded many days previously. The IMO in its own statement said-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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These are the Tánaiste's words.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----that the agreement had been made. It was launched by the HSE. It was then welcomed by me and by the Minister, Deputy Harris, at an event at a primary care centre on the Navan Road. It is always the case that an agreement, even after it has been made, even after engagement has been concluded, can be changed.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Yes. I want to try to get a number of questions in. I want to try to keep this short. These are the Tánaiste's words, "There may still be some changes made to it so don't take it as gospel." That is on 15 April. It was still not concluded at that stage. It was still confidential at that stage. What does the Tánaiste believe the consequences would be for an official in his Department? He has just told us that an official put this in the post and was aware of what was going in the post. What does he think the consequences would be if a document was going to be disseminated or leaked to a rival association while the Government was still in the process and had not concluded it, as has been said by his words on 15 April in that screenshot to Maitiú Ó Tuathail?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I think it would depend on the circumstances, but this was not done by an official. It was done by me as a Minister, as Taoiseach, as Head of Government. I took the decision to do that.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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What would be the consequences if an official did this?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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An official did not do this. This is something-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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That is not the question I asked.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Let me explain the answer.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Should we be in a different category from an official doing this, any of us?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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A Minister, as a member of Government, is the one who makes decisions. We had made a commitment to keep them engaged and informed of the process and the outcome of negotiations. I was honouring that political commitment and Government decision that was made. An official could only have done this if he or she had been directed to do it by a Minister. If he or she were not directed to do it, it would be different. If he or she were directed, it would have been okay.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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If he or she were not directed, there would be serious consequences for him or her.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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If he or she were not directed, yes.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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There would be serious consequences.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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If he or she were not directed by a Minister to do it, but the Minister in this case and the Prime Minister or chief Minister in this case was me, and I was doing this on foot of a Government decision and honouring a commitment made by the Government. I could have instructed an official to do it. I did not, but I could have.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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But none of the Tánaiste's colleagues knew that he was providing this document to the NAGP.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, excuse me?

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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None of the Tánaiste's colleagues knew that he was providing this document on a confidential basis.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, but it would not be the case that my colleagues would be aware of everything-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Even the line Minister.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----that I would do as Taoiseach or as a Deputy. That is not the way our lives work. It is certainly not the way Government works. One is not able to tell everyone of everything one does on every given day. It is a fair question that people have asked as to why I did not discuss it with the Minister for Health at the time. The truth is that, like many things, it is probably because events were moving on. This was done. This deal was going to be ratified and it was going to be going through. I was looking at the other things that were happening in health at the time. What were we talking about? In that same period, we had the issue of the 80,000 smear test backlog and we had the PwC report on the national children's hospital. They were the kinds of things I was discussing with the Minister for Health. This was a done deal. This was going to be ratified. This was something that we were glad we had done. It was not an active live issue in the way it is now.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Maybe the former Minister for Health might say himself whether he felt undermined by virtue of the fact that this was being provided without his knowledge, given that it was sought from him, but he decided not to provide it. I will leave that there as a statement.

Others have asked the Tánaiste this. Can he guarantee at any point in any of his roles in government that he has not provided or leaked documents that would come under this category that it was not best practice?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I can. As I think I explained earlier, a circumstance like this never arose before. If it was a commercial contract, there are particular rules around that, and Ministers do not have access to those contracts. If it was a pay deal or a pay agreement with a union in the normal sense, it would have been published immediately or within days. In circumstances like this, I can say that this did not happen before and has not happened since. However, there are occasions when I think anybody who is in government will show people documents. For example, I was drafting the national maternity strategy at one stage-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Not to a rival organisation.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I can say a circumstance like this never arose before or since.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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What does the Tánaiste understand Dr. Ó Tuathail's motivation was in getting his hands on the document? I am sure the Tánaiste has looked at the screenshots and the evidence presented in the article. What would his view now be of what the inner sanctum of the NAGP thought in relation to the document, in relation to Villagemagazine?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I can only speak for myself. I cannot speak for other people's motivations. I can speak for my motivations, and I have explained-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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What does the Tánaiste think of it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not want to express an opinion on other people's motivations, and most of those people I do not know at all. So how can I express my view?

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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The Tánaiste was not happy with the article. He has said it was grossly inaccurate. Does he think that the screenshots expressed the motivation that he said he thought they would have, that this was something that was going to be advantageous in selling the contract to other GPs?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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All I can do is explain my motivation. The NAGP was an unusual organisation with many different players in it. To my mind - perhaps I was mistaken - Dr. Ó Tuathail was one of the decent people in that organisation. He was the president of it. I was sending it to him in confidence, asking him to see it, demonstrating to him there was nothing in it worth opposing and trying to avoid a repeat of 2015. That was my motivation.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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The Tánaiste described earlier in his statement, as we are all aware, that he is a medical doctor and that his father is a medical doctor. He has connections to people such as Dr. Ó Tuathail. He would have known and would have been paying attention to this, but did he know that this organisation was such a basket case? It seemed to be fairly well known at that point that it was in very serious trouble. Did he know that?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Not in detail. Certainly, I did not know it was going to have the difficulties it had subsequently - the financial irregularity and so on. I did recall that for a long period, even up to then, it was a relatively large organisation. Notwithstanding all that, it had well over 1,000 members. We all remember during the period of the medical cards for the under six-year-olds, the instances it had in places like south Tipperary, south Dublin and other places where it actively encouraged and succeeded in getting GPs not to sign up to medical cards for the under six-year-olds. It had many members. It does happen sometimes that organisations turn out not to be so good. The Deputy will be aware of charities, GOAL, for example, that we all thought to be good organisations but were not.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Essentially this is in a field where the Tánaiste has very close connections. He has outlined that to us. He would obviously pay attention to an organisation that he was going to use in trying to sell a document. He would surely know that this was a basket case at this stage. That will not come as a surprise to the vast majority of people. I think it was in the public domain that there had been resignations and a range of other problems. What could possibly have been gained in an organisation that was publicly known to be in such difficulty? In the field that the Tánaiste has a particular expertise, surely he would be more than paying attention to that area. Given that he would have friends and acquaintances in those organisations, surely he would have known that it was in such difficulty.

6:00 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I was not aware that it was in such difficulty and I am not sure how many people were at the time. It emerged in weeks that it was in serious difficulty. What I did know was that it had hundreds, if not thousands, of members who were GPs and had been very influential. The same would apply to any representative body, NGO, or union. One operates with them on the basis that they have a memberships, one does not necessarily know their internal difficulties.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Is this the standard that we can expect from the Government, that something can be justified on motivation, that it is okay to leak internal, confidential documents based on the public interest?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I accept, as I said in my statement, that this is not the way I should have gone about this. It was a document that I shared on a confidential basis with the president of the NAGP, an organisation that represented hundreds, if not thousands, of GPs. I wanted to get them on board, or at least that they would not oppose it and to demonstrate to it that there was nothing in it that had not publicly been announced. I accept the way I went about this was not right. I was mistaken in that regard and I should have done it in a different way. I could have and should have. I totally accept that, I have learned from it and I will not do it again.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Is it accurate to describe Maitiú Ó Tuathail as a friend of the Tánaiste and someone who supported his campaign for leadership of Fine Gael?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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A friend, yes, not a close friend. He is someone who turned up at one event during the time I was running for leader of Fine Gael. He is also someone who since then organised a rally outside the Dáil on Molesworth Street-----

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is fine, I thank the Tánaiste.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----that many Members attended, where he said -----

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is fine -----

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy does not want to hear it - where he said that Fine Gael was responsible for destroying general practice and the health service.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is fine. I will move to my next question. Is it the Tánaiste's contention that the fact that Maitiú Ó Tuathail was his friend and political supporter was purely incidental, that it was simply coincidence that he got this document from the Tánaiste and that no matter who the president of the NAGP was, the Tánaiste would have given them the document in this way?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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He was very definitely not a political supporter at that time. Some have brought the letter from the NAGP to members of my party to attention, which clearly threatens to campaign against us. Many Members were at the rally which he organised on Molesworth Street where he told everyone that Fine Gael was responsible for destroying the health service so he was certainly not a political supporter at that point, far from it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Will the Taoiseach answer the question? Is it purely a coincidence that this friend and political supporter of the Tánaiste's received the document or would the president of the NAGP have got it not matter who? "Yes" or "No" will do.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The president of the NAGP would have got it. I have lots of friends who are GPs, they did not get it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is fine.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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He did not get it because he was a friend of mine, he got it because he was president.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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If he received the document in his position as president of the NAGP, why did the Tánaiste send it to his home address rather than to the office of the president of the NAGP?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Essentially, as I explained earlier, because I wanted to share it with him on a confidential basis. I wanted him to see there was nothing in the deal, or nothing of substance, that had not been publicly announced, that there was nothing in it worth opposing or agitating against and that it was a good agreement which was good for GPs, for general practice, for the public and patients and one that he should not oppose. Where I erred was that, because he was a friend of mine, I did it in this way - a sort of short cut way. I should not have done that. I should have done it more formally. It totally accept that.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Tánaiste talks of doing it more formally. Earlier, he mentioned the way to do that would have been to get Dr. Ó Tuathail in and go through it line by line over the course of two hours or so. The Tánaiste contends that he would have been able to do that without the permission of the IMO, that even though the Government was in the final stages of finalising an agreement with the IMO, that it was completely open to the Tánaiste to give it to the leader of a rival organisation and a personal friend. Is that the Tánaiste's contention?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As the Cabinet memo of 9 April says, the engagement with the IMO had concluded. There were some minor changes subsequently. They were of no major significance. We did not have to go back to Cabinet on them. A press release had already been issued. The salient, commercially sensitive financial details had all been put out in the public domain on 4 April. The HSE launch was on 6 April when there was an event attended by myself and the Minister, Deputy Harris. All that had taken place before I shared the document.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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So the Tánaiste did not need the permission of the IMO to share it with someone else, with the leader of a rival organisation. The Tánaiste is not saying that is the mistake he made.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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What I could have done would have been to bring him in for a formal briefing and gone through the contents of the document. That would have been the right way to do it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Tánaiste thinks it would have been perfectly okay to bring him in, go through the contents of the document without the permission of the IMO. He did not think that would have been breaking any confidence with the IMO?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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What I was doing, as I said earlier, was sharing this on a confidential basis. What the IMO wanted then was to go around the country and do its own meetings to share it with its members. I respect that is how it wanted to do it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Does the Tánaiste understand why Maitiú Ó Tuathail in a conversation with Chay Bowes, unfortunately using very vulgar and inappropriate language, said in relation to the Tánaiste that "he would be [unfortunately] raped if the IMO lads knew he was giving me shit", meaning material like this? That is that the Tánaiste would be in trouble with the IMO if it knew he was giving Ó Tuathail this material. Is it accurate that he would have been in trouble if the IMO knew?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is a conversation between two other people. It is very difficult for me to comment on it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I asked is it accurate that the Tánaiste would have been in trouble if the IMO had known he was giving the NAGP this material.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know about trouble but certainly it would have been annoyed. I have seen a comment from a former president who expressed displeasure. I have seen comments from other members of the IMO, including council members, who said that this is a non-story. I have also seen comments from other council members saying that the NAGP was an amateur organisation that they thought this was such a big deal when it was being provided to GPs all around the country at meetings and by telephone and being talked about in deep detail in the press.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Does the Tánaiste accept that conversations from the inner sanctum of the NAGP suggest that regardless of the Tánaiste's story now, it certainly did not think it got the document in some official capacity? One person wrote, commenting to Maitiú Ó Tuathail, "where did you rob it? Did anyone see you? Did you make a clean getaway Matt?" That person did not perceive that it had it in any professional capacity.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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They did not get it in an official capacity. I provided it to them on a confidential basis in the way I did for the reasons I did. I explained that already.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The point is that the Tánaiste did not, he provided it to his friend and political supporter Maitiú ÓTuathail. Does he see how Maitiú Ó Tuathail received a benefit, an advantage, as a result of having that confidential document? Now he is the person within the NAGP inner sanctum who has access to these documents, who has the kind of insider relationship that he can boast about, which the Tánaiste suggests he is exaggerating, but he is the guy who got the document from the Tánaiste so there is a question mark over that. The key point is whether the Tánaiste accepts that Maitiú received an advantage as a result of the Tánaiste giving him the document.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No I do not, I did not receive any advantage from it-----

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I did not ask that.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----as some people are alleging. He was not a political supporter of mine, certainly not at that time. I have already pointed out that many Members attended a demonstration that he organised outside the Dáil which was very critical of the Government. I gave it to him because he was president of the NAGP. I do not know what advantage it confers on someone who is president of the organisation.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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It means they may be re-elected potentially.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The person is already the most senior officer in the organisation.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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One might wonder why Deputy Varadkar does any politics or why he did as Taoiseach.

Village magazine described the Tánaiste as a law breaker. Today, an article on its website says bluntly "he has committed a crime". The Tánaiste's statement in response accepted the core factual claim made in the article while simultaneously describing it as "grossly defamatory". Does the Tánaiste plan to sue Village magazine?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I have very strong legal advice on this that the front page is defamatory, that a large part of the content of the article is defamatory, particularly in relation to the suggestion of criminality. The article claims that the benefit I got from this was that Dr. Ó Tuathail wrote nice tweets about me a year later. Not only is that defamatory it is also laughable.

I received no benefit from this in any way. The anti-corruption legislation is very clear-----

6:10 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Is the Tánaiste going to sue Villagemagazine?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I have advice on that. I have not decided yet. They appear to be goading me, wanting me to do so, which gives me some degree of suspicion, quite frankly. I am told that it is a fringe publication which is largely self-funded, has no editorial board, does not have a legal team and that suing it would be like suing somebody on Twitter. I have yet to decide what I will do.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I think people can draw their own conclusions if the Tánaiste does not sue a magazine which has publicly and repeatedly described him as a lawbreaker and as having committed a crime. Does the Tánaiste believe, as he said in his statement on Saturday, that the Official Secrets Act does not apply to him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On the first point, I am not somebody who goes around suing the media at all. It is not the way I operate. I know that lots of people do so and that some people in this House have done so, but it has not generally been my modus operandi. What I seek usually is a right of reply. If one does not get a right of a reply, then there is the option of going to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. There are many options other than tying oneself up in the High Court for three years at considerable cost. It is not something that I would do extremely lightly.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Official Secrets Act.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On the Official Secrets Act, there are two aspects to this that are of significance. One is that the ambit of the Act is limited to persons holding public office, which is a term defined in section 2 of the Act. The definition of public access expressly excludes Members of either House of the Oireachtas. In addition to that, the Official Secrets Act makes clear that the persons who are authorised to release official information are Ministers. The power to authorise the release of official information is one of the powers Ministers have. If the Taoiseach does not have the power to authorise the release of official information, I do not quite know who does. I do not think anyone honestly believes this was some of sort of official or State secret.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is the Donald Trump defence, that a person is entitled to do what he or she likes because he or she is the Taoiseach.

It's not just as simple as optics, perceptions do matter and when it comes to a contract of this size, importance and cost, it has to be seen to be all above board as well ... [He] left himself open to the perception of a conflict of interest, the perception that someone was given an inside track.

These are the Tánaiste's words about Deputy Naughten. Does the Tánaiste accept that his actions have left it open to the perception that someone was given an inside track, that people have seen behind the curtain of establishment politics, and that it functions on the basis of a series of golden circles of insiders looking after insiders?

Maitiú Ó Tuathail supported the Tánaiste's campaign to be leader of Fine Gael. In return, he got access to a confidential document that he should not have got. It was a case of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" - political patronage amounting to corruption. The Tánaiste's leaking of the document was clearly in breach of point 10 of the code of conduct for Deputies and section 1.5 of the code of conduct for officeholders. It was also an offence under the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018. I do not see how it is tenable for the Tánaiste to continue in his role.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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If I understand correctly, when Maitiú Ó Tuathail contacted the Tánaiste and asked him for the contract, the Tánaiste did not check with the IMO, the Minister for Health or the Department of Health to alert them to the fact that he intended to give it to Maitiú Ó Tuathail. Could he explain why this was the case? Presumably the Tánaiste knew, if Dr. Ó Tuathail was contacting him, that he could not get the document through other channels. He was coming to the Tánaiste and the Tánaiste did not check with the Minister, Deputy Harris, the Department of Health or the IMO whether this would be a problem for them. It must have occurred to the Tánaiste that it might indeed be a problem, because if it was easily accessible, Maitiú Ó Tuathail would have got it. Was it possibly that the Tánaiste intended to give it to a friend, whether he was a good friend or not? Has that not something to do with the reason the Tánaiste did not check with IMO, the Minister for Health or the Department of Health, because the intention was to give it to a friend? Is that not the problem here, and quite a damning problem, that the Tánaiste was doing something behind the backs of the other Government members and the group with which the Government had negotiated a contract and he did not really want to let them know what he was doing because he was giving the document to a friend?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I explained earlier, this was somebody who is a friend but not a close friend. I have lots of friends who are GPs. I did not give them a copy of this document. I only gave it to this particular person, Dr. Ó Tuathail, because he was president of the NAGP and for no other reason. I did so because we had made a Government commitment, announced many times by the Minister for Health in a Government memo, that we would consult, inform and engage with the NAGP. I thought it was appropriate. I took a decision, and it was my judgment as Taoiseach, as Head of Government, that it was appropriate to share this document with that particular group because it represented perhaps 1,200 GPs and I wanted to see whether I could mollify and negate any potential opposition to the agreement being ratified.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Did it occur to the Tánaiste that he should have asked the Minister for Health, the IMO and the Department of Health before giving the document to a friend? Did that not occur to him at all?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know if I would have asked. When one is Taoiseach, one is Head of Government. From time to time, one can, and one does, personally intervene in issues. I know some people may see that as going over the head of a Minister but when one is Taoiseach, one is the head. When I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, there would have been occasions when the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, got personally involved in and intervened on particular issues. Every Tuesday and Wednesday in the Dáil, Opposition Members call on the Taoiseach to intervene in specific matters. They will often ask why the Taoiseach cannot just pick up the phone, and sometimes the Taoiseach does and gets personally involved and engaged. That is part of the job of being Taoiseach.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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It is clear that the Tánaiste's conduct and actions have been unethical, underhand and deceitful. His actions may also have been illegal. Indeed, I believe the Garda has been notified on two occasions regarding what the Tánaiste has been involved in. I am amazed that he is even seeking to create confusion here because the facts are obviously clear that this is a confidential document that was not for putting about the place. He leaked it to a friend, who stated, "Leo always delivers." It shows that Ireland in 2020 is not about what one knows but about who one knows. That is key to what happened here. It is an open secret in this Chamber that the Tánaiste leaks to journalists to improve his political lot. Deputies from Fine Gael have said that to me in the past.

The Tánaiste said in his speech that this was a public document, but he then contradicted himself in his reply to a previous speaker when he said that the document was not in the public domain. Will he clarify whether it was a confidential or public document?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The document had been agreed and engagement with the IMO had concluded. The salient details, including financial information and all the commercially sensitive aspects of it, were published. I gave the House the IMO statement from 4 April. The document was launched by the HSE on 5 April. On 6 April, it was welcomed at an event by me and the Minister, Deputy Harris. The full text of it was not published but all of the information - all the salient and financial information - was in the public domain and was being discussed at public meetings.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Was it a public document or a confidential document?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It was a confidential document and one that I shared on a confidential basis with somebody who was the president of the NAGP, a GP organisation, for the reasons I explained. It was going to be up to every individual GP to decide whether he or she wanted to sign up to this. We were in that space where the deal had been done and we were now trying to get as many people as possible to sign up to it. My motivation was to show to the individual in question that this was a good deal that should not be opposed or agitated against and that was going to move things forward for general practice so that we could then move on to the next thing.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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If this was a confidential document, there were other parties to the document and to the agreement that was being made in confidence. Was their confidence not broken when the Tánaiste released the document to a third party without their permission?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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As I said before, this was not the right way to do it. I can totally understand why some people in the IMO may feel that their confidence was broken. I know some have been critical for that reason over the past couple of days. That is why I have apologised for that today and that is why I have accepted that I should have done this in a different way. Equally, however, there have been other people in the IMO who have said that they believe this is a non-story, that the document was far from confidential, that it was being discussed at public meetings, that GPs knew about the contents of it, that there were telephone calls about it, and that it was not a sensitive or highly confidential document in the sense the Deputy is trying to make out.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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The Tánaiste has agreed here today that it was a confidential document, it was understood as a confidential document by the parties to the document, and that he broke that confidence. Is it not a very serious issue that the Taoiseach of the day broke the confidence of major parties with which the Government was negotiating?

Every time the Tánaiste was asked why he did not do this the right way at the time, he said that he would do it differently now. That answer skips over his motivation for doing it the wrong way in the first place. What was his motivation for doing this in a secret manner?

6:20 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is important to restate that negotiations were concluded on 3 April. If it had been before that, we would be talking about a very different situation. The negotiations were concluded on 3 April. That is what it says in the memorandum the then Minister for Health brought to Cabinet on 9 April. The salient details, including the financial information and the commercially sensitive aspects, were all announced on 4 April. I will give the Deputy the view of one member of the IMO council. He said that in the week the document was shared, he was submitting articles on the deep details to two medical newspapers, presenting on the deal to two GP groups-----

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I am sorry, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, this is irrelevant.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and phoning dozens of GPs to promote the deal, the details of which were widely known by hundreds of GPs, and that the fact that the NAGP did not know shows its amateurism. That is one view.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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The reason I say the act of distributing this confidential document was secret is that the Tánaiste never told the then Minister who was charged with negotiating and developing the contract about it. He never told anybody about it. That is startling. Nobody was told about this particular action. Did the Tánaiste include a cover letter with the document that was posted?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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To my recollection, I did not but, as I said, the negotiations had concluded at this stage. If we had got into a real battle about trying to get GPs to sign up, a repeat of 2015, the then Minister, Deputy Harris, and I would have many conversations about it. The fact, however, is that things had moved on. Things move on very quickly in politics, particularly in the Department of Health. There is never a time in the Department of Health when there are not at least two other houses on fire. The kind of thing we were talking about that week and the next was not this because it was agreed and it was a success. We were talking about the backlog of 80,000 smear tests and the PwC report on the children's hospital.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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The Tánaiste left no paper trail whatsoever. There was no cover letter and he told absolutely nobody. He sent the document, breaching the confidence of those participants in the contract, to a friend. He said that there was no material benefit involved, but of course there was; knowledge is power. When an individual gives confidential information to someone, it increases his or her influence with that individual or group. In addition, Dr. Ó Tuathail's organisation was a competitor to the IMO which actively sought to take members from the IMO. There was absolutely material benefit to be achieved by different organisations.

I asked the Tánaiste a question. What was his motivation, at that time, for doing this in secret? Why did he do so? I am not asking whether he would do differently on another occasion. Why, on the occasion about which we are now talking, did he do this in secret?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I explained my motivation. My only motivation was-----

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I am referring to the secrecy element. I am not asking about the Taoiseach's motivation for briefing a rival organisation to the IMO. Such a briefing could have been carried out publicly, formally or even in a published document. I am asking the Tánaiste about his motivation for doing so in secret.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I wanted the president of the NAGP to see, on a confidential basis, or a secret basis if the Deputy wants to use that term, that this was a good agreement, that there was nothing in it that had not been substantially announced publicly and that there was no reason for that organisation to oppose or agitate against it as it had in 2015. I wanted to do that confidentially, which is why I used the informal communication channel that we had. I accept that was not the right way to do it.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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The Tánaiste is asking us to believe that Dr. Ó Tuathail's judgment on the document would be materially affected by receiving it in a secret fashion rather than a formal or public fashion. How would his understanding of that document have been in any way affected by the method in which it was received?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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All I can give the Deputy is the explanation I have given as to why I did this. I wanted to keep it confidential. We had an informal communications channel. I hoped he would see it, read it and understand that what I was telling him was true, which was that everything of interest had already been published and that there was nothing in it which was contrary to what was in the public domain. I wanted the NAGP not to oppose the agreement. As it happens, it did not. Events moved on very quickly and that organisation fell into decline.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I am sorry but that is not believable to anybody in this Chamber, not least those on the Tánaiste's own benches. Has the Tánaiste ever leaked confidential Cabinet information?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I have not leaked anything of this nature. It depends on what the Deputy means. I do not believe I have leaked confidential Cabinet information but, let us be honest about it, there is not a person in this House who does not speak to journalists off the record. I have not leaked confidential Cabinet information, no.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I asked whether the Tánaiste had ever leaked confidential Cabinet information. I would like that question addressed.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I have not leaked confidential information.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Many people will be taken by, and disappointed by, the long pause before the Tánaiste's initial answer to that question. This is a very serious issue. The reason it is so serious and important is that if the very head of a government is involved in actions of this kind, it gives license to everybody else in government to act in the same way. It gives license to everybody else, at all levels of the public service and the Civil Service, to act in this way. It is critical that the Taoiseach leads from the top. The truth of the matter is that if this action goes uncensured by this Chamber, by the Tánaiste's party, and by his colleagues in government, there will be license to deliver in this manner in future.

With regard to Fianna Fáil's involvement in this, many will feel that the Tánaiste and the former Minister for Health have kicked the political shins of Fianna Fáil in this Government for a long time. They will be surprised at the manner in which the Taoiseach has ridden to his rescue in this instance. Many people in Fianna Fáil will see how Ministers and Fine Gael have circled the wagons around him when Deputies Cowen and Calleary were left out in the cold.

With regard to the Green Party, there comes a tipping point when any small party involved in government has to make a decision as to whether continuing on with an underhanded, deceitful process is best for it and for the country. There may be a cost to calling it out now but it will be a short-term cost. If it does not call it out now and allows it to proceed, it will be locked into this type of governance for the coming years. The cost of that will, in the long term, far outweigh any short-term cost in this regard.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the Deputy is entitled to make that statement although, obviously, I do not agree with it. Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are not involved in this. It happened in 2019, during the term of the previous Government. I do not believe they should be held to account for this in any way. This is something I did and for which I take responsibility.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am surprised by many of the answers the Tánaiste has given. This contract was worth more than €210 million and I would have thought that Cabinet confidentiality and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 would have prevented him from sharing confidential documents. Has the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, made any demands of the Tánaiste in exchange for his continued support and that of his party?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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He has made no such demands of me. That is not the way we operate. We are getting to know each other well and are working well together. I make no demands of him and he makes no demands of me.

With regard to the Regulation of Lobbying Act, under that Act the person carrying out the lobbying is responsible for registering that activity. As a Deputy, Deputy Mattie McGrath is lobbied all the time but he has no responsibility to register it. I imagine he never does or never has. The responsibility for doing so is on the person carrying out the lobbying.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I have done so once or twice. Does the Tánaiste accept that if Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were not in such a dismal situation, his actions would already have collapsed this Government when he has already got the heads of two Fianna Fáil Ministers, Deputies Cowen and Calleary, for very minor misdemeanours?

6:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. First, I do not. Second, the premise of the Deputy's question seems to suggest that in some way I sought the head of Deputy Cowen or Deputy Calleary but I absolutely did not. The case of Deputy Cowen was handled by the leader of Fianna Fáil in the way he thought best. I found out the former Minister, Deputy Calleary, had resigned one morning when I woke up in bed at 8 a.m. The suggestion I had any role in seeking their resignations is just not correct, if it is going around. That is absolutely untrue.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Tánaiste suggests he has different rating of friends, that some are distant friends, some are absent friends and some are friends for the time being. I have a picture on my phone of the Tánaiste and Dr. Ó Tuathail involved in a certain march in Dublin in 2019 - very close context and very good friends. Dr. Ó Tuathail used the Tánaiste as a puppet and the Tánaiste did not even know he was being used as a puppet. The amount of money involved makes one think about the children's hospital, and the Tánaiste's Government signed off on that site. We might also think about broadband contracts and how Deputy Naughten was forced to resign. I am very concerned. Will the Tánaiste reply about the way he was used by Dr. Ó Tuathail if the Tánaiste is saying he is not his friend?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Village magazine produced a photograph of us at a Pride march, although I am not sure which one it was. We all know the innuendo here. We all know what it is.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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It is shameful.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Tánaiste is denying he is a friend.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We all know it is a big part of what is in the article and what is online. I know what is being said and it is not true. This is somebody who is not a close friend but is a friend. He is in my wider social circle. I would say we have met twice in the past year - once at a Christmas drinks thing over a year ago and once when six people went out to dinner, and he and I were part of that six.

We would be in touch on other things. He is very involved with Covid-19 issues but we do not have the same mind on Covid, by the way. He supports the zero Covid strategy but I am sceptical about it. We would talk about that. He is involved with Safetynet, which is an organisation that provides GP services for the homeless, Roma and Travellers. I have gone out with them on that. That is it. It really is - anyway.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am not dealing with innuendo. The photograph was there. The Tánaiste has said Dr. Ó Tuathail was not his friend. Does the Tánaiste accept he is having a Nixon moment? Former US President Nixon said that when a president does something, it is not illegal. When the Taoiseach did this, it seems it was not illegal. What example does this give to the rest of the Government, as Deputy Tóibín has said, and to the country in general? It is not illegal if the Taoiseach can get away with it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is not what I am saying at all. I am saying it is not illegal, full stop.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I always compliment anybody who can stand up to say sorry if he or she has done something wrong. The Tánaiste has done that. He also indicated in his statement that he had unfinished business in health. He also complimented the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris.

I ask the Tánaiste to bear with me for a moment. On 15 October, I asked him about a Supreme Court judgment concerning assessments of disability. He told me that he did not know the question was coming up and that he would come back to me with a full report. I waited for the report but I got a reply from the HSE indicating that my parliamentary question had gone from the Department of Health to the HSE. The HSE replied to me on 23 October. There has been talk of Ministers and friends but I must not be the Tánaiste's friend because he did not reply to me yet. The HSE replied and told me that after the Supreme Court judgment, the Minister for Finance met the Minister for Health at the time, who told him to discontinue the assessments. The GPs were never told. If the GPs were the Tánaiste's friends, they would have heard it from him but they did not. I have not yet had a reply from him either.

We are going in circles and such a process, with no responsibility for actions, predates this Government. The responsibility lies with Ministers. If I did what the Tánaiste has done, I would be responsible and be held accountable. The Tánaiste should be held accountable for this.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I remember the Deputy raising a question about the primary medical cert and the Supreme Court judgment on that. I endeavoured to look into that and I have done so. I received a written briefing and I was not particularly satisfied by the answer I received. I wanted to know what was being done to solve the problem and that is why I have not yet reverted to the Deputy. The problem needs to be solved. I can give the Deputy an interim reply but it is not what he wants. This is a problem that must be solved.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I do not accept that answer. People have been told they are still on a list but a direction was given by the then Minister for Health to discontinue the scheme. I do not accept the answer. I accept that the Tánaiste has said sorry and I do not believe for a minute that the actions we are discussing were done intentionally. However, €210 million would have solved many problems in this country. Somebody has benefited but the most vulnerable in the country should have been the first to benefit. That is my unfinished business.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The people of Ireland are watching this debacle tonight and it is a very serious matter. It is clear to all of us that the Fianna Fáil leader, the Taoiseach of the country and the Fianna Fáil Deputies will bail out the Tánaiste. He will be saved by Fianna Fáil tonight. Deputies Cowen and Calleary and the former Commissioner, Phil Hogan, were not saved. The people of Ireland are wondering how there are different standards for different people.

Many people would like to know who leaked the story and whether it was the Tánaiste or Dr. Ó Tuathail. There is no difference now between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They have been together for the past five years. They brought in abortion together. They brought in the Bill championed by Shane Ross. They closed down Bord na Móna together. They are both trying to shoot down Shannon LNG. They brought in the carbon tax together.

The GP service in many parts of rural Ireland, including rural Kerry, has a serious problem. When a doctor retires, it is a serious effort to get a replacement. Tonight, people cannot visit their GPs and the GPs cannot visit the people who are sick. I am sad about that and I only wish we could do something positive about it tonight.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael now have no separate identity and are joined at the hip. They have been in bed together for five years and neither will get out of that bed. The question is when will they tie the knot because they cannot fool the people for much longer. They do not have separate identities and they are the same party now in every sense of the word. It is only a matter of a short space of time before they are one party because they cannot fool the people of this country for much longer. They are backing each other up day in and day out and they do not have a different notion about anything. It is clear it will only be a short space of time before the two parties are one. The question is what they will name themselves. Will it be Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or a conglomeration? What kind of baptism will there be? Their identities are gone.

It is sad that there are different standards for different people. Deputies Cowen and Calleary, as well as the former Commissioner, Phil Hogan, got no chance but the Tánaiste will be saved tonight by Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach of this country.

All I am sorry about is that we are not dealing with the real issues in the area of health, because people are suffering and in pain tonight.

6:40 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am very sorry about this whole affair. The Tánaiste is passing off this saga as if it was some sort of informal contact. This was a confidential document about a €210 million agreement. The rules and regulations that the Tánaiste has apparently broken were there for a reason. One of those reasons was to maintain confidence in the political system. Is this confidence now broken? People negotiating should be able to do so without feeling they are being stabbed in the back by the leaking of their positions, which is exactly what the Tánaiste did.

I believe the actions of the Tánaiste undermine all future negotiations between groups and Government. This in turn causes major damage to the State. Whether the Tánaiste gained personally is totally and absolutely irrelevant; it does not actually matter. Can the Tánaiste be trusted in the future? I return to a question the Tánaiste was asked earlier. Is it a practice of the Tánaiste when he is at a meeting, whether that is Cabinet or an agreement like he was dealing with in these negotiations, to be on his phone sending out messages from a meeting divulging the positions of the people negotiating?

To be honest, I remember a certain time going back to 2016 when the Tánaiste could not be kept off his phone and when people would leave a negotiating table and go outside and we would learn more about what went on during those negotiations then we did from being inside the room. That is a fact and I do not get pleasure out of saying it. I believe that is unacceptable. It is not a way for a Taoiseach, a Tánaiste or a Minister to conduct themselves. The Tánaiste knows I get no satisfaction whatsoever from what has happened or what is going on here this evening. I am sorry that we are where we are, but it is the Tánaiste who brought us here.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Regarding the Deputy's remarks, it is important to emphasise again that the negotiations had concluded. Some minor changes were made prior to publication, but none that required a return to Cabinet. It is in the Cabinet memo of 9 April that engagement had concluded with the IMO at that stage. The figure the Deputy used, regarding the potentially sensitive piece of information in respect of €210 million, was in the press release of 4 April. In fact, there was a detailed breakdown of the financial aspects of this agreement. There was €120 million for fees, a 10% increase in pension contributions, and €80 million for chronic disease management. Down to the last €1 or €2 million was published in the statement on 4 April long before any of this happened and it was all publicly announced.

Can I be trusted? I have been a Minister for nearly ten years now. I have dealt with bus and train disputes and all sorts of potential strikes at the airports as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. There were also issues in regard to social welfare offices when I was the Minister for Social Protection. There were also difficult issues to deal with, such as a nurses strike, for example, when I was the Taoiseach. I do not think anyone involved in those events would be critical of my performance or behaviour in any way. This was different, it was a particular set of circumstances and very different to those.

Regarding my phone, that is not my practice. The Deputy may not believe that, but at the time of those negotiations I was the Minister for Health and I was keeping in touch with the office. Those talks went on for 12 to 16 hours a day. I was the Minister for Health then, I had to keep in touch with the office and that was what I was doing. I know that during those talks that the Deputy actually took phone calls at the table, which was something I did not do. I do not believe he was leaking. I am sure he was just taking calls from his constituents.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Taoiseach. We move finally to the Independent Group, where Deputy Connolly is sharing time with Deputy Pringle. I call Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Tánaiste must be very happy to have had this opportunity to put so many documents on the record to show how much he had the public interest in mind when he carried out this leak. Why did the Tánaiste not put these contacts on the record between April 2019 and October 2020, if they were of such good service to the people?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It was not something that was at issue. We had moved on to dealing with other problems and other things Government has to deal with. This was a deal that was done and accepted. I consider it to have been a success for the Government, for Ministers Harris and Donohoe and even for me. We then moved on to the next problem, and in politics there is always a new problem. Ten problems come up at any given time.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Tánaiste just said that this was "not something that was at issue". He was not caught, that was why it was not put on the record.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is not what I said.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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That is what the Tánaiste said. He said that it was not something of issue. It was not of issue because nobody knew about it

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, Deputy.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Once people come to know about it, then it becomes of issue.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, Deputy, that is a misrepresentation.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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It was because the Tánaiste was caught that this became an issue.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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That is what the Tánaiste said.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The deal was done, we had achieved it and we had got acceptance from the GPs. We then moved on to the next issues on the agenda.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Tánaiste stated as well that he should have brought Dr. Ó Tuathail into the Department, sat him down and gone through the document line by line. However, he did not do that. Was that because the Tánaiste did not want anyone to know about this, and that is why he did not do it? Regarding his previous answer, it is only because it is coming up now that he wants to put this on the record. It is a case of the Tánaiste not wanting anyone to know about it and that is why he did not put it. Is that right?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, Deputy. If it had been at issue at the time and had I been asked about it, I would have put it on the record. I would of course have told the truth and given an honest answer to any question had it arisen at the time. I have heard the term "leak" being used, and I will not dispute anyone who wants to use that term in regard to this issue. Generally, however, a leak involves putting something into the public domain. Somebody, for example, gives something to a journalist and that then ends up in a newspaper or on a website. WikiLeaks, for example, is where things are published publicly. This was a document I shared on a confidential basis. It was my judgment as Taoiseach, having made a commitment to the NAGP, that it was appropriate that we would engage with, inform and keep in touch with that group regarding the progress and outcome of talks. I absolutely accept that the way I went about doing it was not appropriate.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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In his response, the Tánaiste said that had he been asked about this issue he would have put it on the record. So, only if we can ask the right questions will the Tánaiste answer them and put anything on the record. That is basically what he is saying.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am not.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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That is what he said in response to my question. He said that if he had been asked about this issue he would have put it on the record. That shows, therefore, the way he feels about it. Earlier, the Tánaiste said there was no personal gain for him in this, and I accept that there probably was not any personal gain for him. In reality, however, this leak took place a month before the local elections and the elections to the European Parliament, which was the first challenge the Tánaiste faced as the Fine Gael leader. There was motivation, therefore, to stop the NAGP campaigning and canvassing against Fine Gael candidates around the country. Would that have been enough motivation for the Tánaiste to do this?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No, Deputy. When one is in government, a long list of people threaten to campaign against you. I guarantee the Deputy that. There is a very long list of people. If there is a live issue about which people feel passionate, national or local, one meets groups which will say that if they do not get their way and if what they want is not done, they will campaign against the Government. Sometimes they even put up candidates, and that is just was part of the experience. I hope that Deputy Pringle will have the opportunity to serve in government some time and he will come to understand that. Everyone who has served in government knows that we are constantly being threatened by people who say that if X or Y demand is not delivered upon, then they will campaign against the Government or possibly even run candidates against the Government. Sometimes they do.

How does one deal with that? It is dealt with by addressing the underlying issue, the reason for the grievance. Many GPs had a grievance with us, not just in the NAGP but also in the IMO. What did we do about that? We tried to deal with the underlying problem, which was to come to a deal to reverse the FEMPI cuts and make general practice viable again. More importantly, however, was trying to ensure we had a chronic disease programme. That included an extra €80 million to ensure that those with chronic diseases could be treated better in the community, instead of having to go to hospital. That is what all this was about. This was something I really wanted to get done and I used my office as Taoiseach and my personal contacts to try to get it done. That is where my judgment slipped.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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In reality, we do not know what other groups were stopped from canvassing against the previous Government because we have not asked the right questions to get the Tánaiste to answer them and there have not been leaks in relation to the documents given to them. In reality, in 2019, Fine Gael got 20 extra councillors in the local elections and one extra MEP in the European elections.

What the Tánaiste did actually paid off and the NAGP did not campaign against him. To my mind, that is where the pay off came. I believe it is no coincidence that these leaks happened in April and the local elections happened in May. To me, it is no coincidence.

6:50 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not think anyone in this House seriously believes that Fine Gael got an extra MEP or 20 extra councillors because of anything to do with this.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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It was the Tánaiste's first challenge as leader.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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When local elections and European Parliament elections happen people make their judgment based on the candidate and probably the main reason we gained a seat in the European elections was the quality of our candidates with people like Mairead McGuinness, for example, getting a massive vote, and a new candidate like Maria Walsh getting elected. With regard to gaining an additional 20 council seats, people look at their local councillor and that is one of the reasons they vote the way they do, or they vote based on their attitude towards the Government in general, not based on a GP contract. I really do not think, quite frankly, that this is material to those elections. I really do not.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House and that he is prepared to answer questions, give a speech and apologise for his error of judgment. When did the Tánaiste realise that he had made an error of judgment?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is a fair question but I do not know. I know the right answer is-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Let me help the Tánaiste's memory. Did he realise that he had made an error of judgment when Villagemagazine contacted him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I cannot point to a date. I know the Deputy is trying to imply that I only decided this was an error of judgment when it entered the public domain but I do not think that would be fair. The truth is that I did not think about it for months and months. There are lots of things on one's plate as Taoiseach and as party leader.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Tánaiste. Let me put this into context for him. When all this was happening and the Tánaiste was leaking a confidential document to an organisation for GPs that did not come within the framework under which the Tánaiste was negotiating in private, the homeless figures passed 10,000 in Ireland for the first time in February 2019 and continued to rise, Social Justice Ireland had reported that one in six, or 760,000, people lived in Ireland with an income below the poverty line and so on, and with the help of children we were on the streets desperately forcing the Government to declare a climate emergency. That was the background. The Tánaiste takes a hands-on approach. I welcome his apology and his acknowledgement but I have asked the Tánaiste when he learnt about that. He said that he did not think about it and therefore he did not learn about it. Then there wasVillagemagazine. I have serious questions on how a whistleblower is telling all he knows now, but I only have a few minutes and will not go into it. There is certainly a context there. I asked the Tánaiste when did he learn. He clearly did not think about it until Villagemagazine rang him or contacted his office, presumably in relation to what it was going to print. Did I understand the Tánaiste to say he did not reply to that?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It did not contact me personally. It sent an email to my office in the week previously, asking if I had given a document to a different doctor.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Tánaiste did not reply to them.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I did not reply.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That is okay. Did the Tánaiste then discuss it with his friend - he was his friend at the time but not so much his friend now - Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail? Did the Tánaiste discuss that Villagemagazine had contacted him before the article was published?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No I did not, not at that point. It was not until the article was published, which was the Friday night, or whatever.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I looked at the Tánaiste's speech, which was full of good things, but what I have noticed since the day I was elected is that when those on that side read out speeches, they are full of spin and internal contradictions. The Tánaiste said, "Rivalry between the organisations was often bitter, and it made agreement harder to achieve and held back progress." The Tánaiste then went to the rival organisation that was not provided for under the framework and he gave it a confidential document. Does the Tánaiste think that was right?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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What I was trying to do was right which was, as I explained earlier, to demonstrate that what was in the terms of agreement, in the 110 page document, was what had been substantially announced already and that it was a good agreement for GPs, for patients, for the health service in general, and that it was something that it should not oppose or be against.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have heard all the Tánaiste's replies and he has repeated that very often. The Tánaiste has described it as "rivalry", which I read out. The Tánaiste knew that at the time and then gave it a confidential document. The Tánaiste has gone to great pains to say that a lot of it was in the public domain. That is not accurate because the Tánaiste's friend at the time and his friends, the chairperson of the organisation and the CEO, were texting each other at the end of April, or certainly very late in April, that they could not hold onto membership because they did not have the details of the contract. Is that not correct?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know. I have not seen any of that.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Okay. That is what we are being informed, when we read emails. Can the Tánaiste imagine we are now in a situation like this where we have to question the Tánaiste on emails, some of which are absolutely deplorable. A doctor is asking a business person if they would like to get involved in direct provision. Of course, we know the then Taoiseach's views on that at the time. They were deplorable texts. The Tánaiste has seen them because we have all seen them and they have been published. I do not expect the Tánaiste to answer any of that but this is the context of how this has come out. These friends told each other they had to keep this confidential because otherwise they would know where it came from. Having had the time to reflect, what does the Tánaiste think of the nature of that type of email between the Tánaiste's friend who has friends talking like that?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I believe the person who Deputy Connolly describes as the whistleblower was one of those people. I think that those messages were deplorable too, but I had never seen them until the last couple of days. They were not for me to anyone, they were between third parties, including people I did not know and had never met. I can be accountable for my actions, my messages and what I say, but I cannot be accountable for other people.

The Deputy was right to say they were rival organisations but that is not the full context. This was a contract that was being offered to all GPs to sign up to or not. It was important that it was-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I hope the Tánaiste does not mind me interrupting him, but I have heard that. I have heard the Tánaiste say that and he does not need to keep repeating it. I am more concerned with the Tánaiste's informal way of doing things and looking after his friends. He must accept that to any person looking on that it is insiders and outsiders. Dr. Ó Tuathail was an insider with the Tánaiste. To put that in context, the Tánaiste actually said in relation to golfgate in Clifden that one has to lead by example. Various members of the Fine Gael Party resigned their positions because what they did and their error of judgement was so serious, and so as to lead by example. Did the Tánaiste lead by example here?

I will go back to the planning matter where the Tánaiste phoned the county council and which was covered in Timemagazine. Trump did not want a wind farm or a windmill going up. The Tánaiste said he endeavoured to do what he could do about it. He said he rang the county council and inquired about the planning permission and that it was subsequently declined. It was very good of the Tánaiste to say that it probably had nothing to do with him but he got the praise for it and so on. In relation to Trump, who was not President at the time, the Tánaiste said, “In many ways, I actually like that approach because you know traditional civil service and diplomatic approaches can be all about hierarchies, and sometimes the principals just need to talk and sort it out.” The principals at that stage being the Tánaiste, then the Minister, and Mr. Trump, before he was President. That is the informal way the Tánaiste did business. I am running out of time for the Tánaiste to give me an answer, but I am telling the House that this is the way he continues to do it. There was certainly a political gain because he bought off the threatened massive political campaign by that organisation, of which Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail was a member, and who threatened to put posters everywhere and to go to all candidates and GPs, but Tánaiste bought it off.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not think that assessment is correct. The reason we concluded that agreement with the IMO not the NAGP, at a cost to the taxpayer of €210 million, was because we wanted to. We thought it was the right thing to restore funding to general practice to reverse FEMPI, to make it viable again, to stop the haemorrhage of young doctors from our country, and especially to bring in a chromic disease management programme at a cost of €80 million. That is why we did it. It was the right thing to do. It was not about buying off any campaign, not at all.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Doherty made two specific references to me during the debate and out of respect to him, and to the fact that the record of this House stands for evermore, I want to respond briefly to both. There is nothing wrong with having lunch or a coffee with anyone, but for the record I did not. On the date he referenced, 12 April, I was at an East Coast FM charity event right throughout my constituency and many hundreds of my constituents would have seen exactly where I was that day.

I want to clarify that for the record of the House. Second, on the message I received, I afforded someone the courtesy of a response to that message but I think it is very clear that I did not take further action as regards providing the contract. Third, as someone who was involved in the delivery of this GP contract, it would not have happened were it not for the leadership of the then Taoiseach and the work of the IMO.

7:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I ask the Minister to clarify that because he says it is clear. He does say in the response that he will make inquiries on that and that they should grab a coffee soon. Did he make any inquiries about the contract to anybody?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to clarify this matter if it saves time later. The only inquiries I ever made were about when we would be ready to publish the contract on the Department of Health's website and I do not believe I ever had coffee with that person.