Leo Varadkar has somehow convinced media that he’s not bound by that Act but he is – and faces an even more serious case under the Corruption Act.
By Conor Lenihan.
The latest twist in the Leo Varadkar leak controversy evokes yet more confusion and doubt.
The fact that the Garda have now confirmed that a formal investigation is underway will be severely discomfiting for the former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste.
The Varadkar spin-doctors have consistently asserted both his innocence and his entitlement to leak in the ” public interest”. A cursory reading of the Official Secrets Act shows no such entitlement exists. Varadkar himself has anyway already undermined his own defence by his frank admission of having done wrong through a Dáil apology.
Why apologise if you are entitled to do this kind of leaking of confidences?
Strangely, in their desperation to steer their man out of danger, the Varadkar advisors even managed to convince some media outlets that as a Minister he wasn’t even covered by the Act. This gravity-defying contention is based on a misreading of the Act.
All Ministers are not just bound by the Official Secrets Act but also required to sign a letter uncertainly agreeing to be bound by it within a short time of becoming a Minister.
A senior official from my Department made an appointment with me and produced a rather formal letter which, with an impressive solemnity, he insisted I sign there and then. On the day of my appointment the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also assiduously underlined my obligations under the Official Secrets Act.
I remember vividly signing to be bound by it when appointed for the first time as a Minister. A senior official from my Department made an appointment with me and produced a rather formal letter which, with an impressive solemnity, he insisted I sign there and then. It was like a rite of passage in my transition from mere backbench TD to the exalted status of holder of office, and Minister.
On the day of my appointment the then Taoseach Bertie Ahern also assiduously underlined my obligations under the Official Secrets Act, formally reminding me of that and other Acts that I should make myself familiar with – in particular those that covered corruption and ethical misconduct.
The point is that a Minister cannot plead ignorance as to their duties with confidential documentation.
If other Taoisigh have not been as scrupulous as Ahern on this matter then responsibility rests on the individual Minister to inform himself/herself of their duties. The Varadkar leak has raised eyebrows among both former and current Minister. Not least because the leak was so blatant. Normally Ministers like to remove their own fingerprints from a leaked document, often preferring to have the leak done via an advisor or a discreet civil servant.
There has been some puzzlement too among insiders in Leinster House at the media’s obsession with the Official Secrets Act angle on the Varadkar story.
Ministers from two separate parties, in the last week, have pointedly brought my attention to Section 7 of the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act of 2018 which casts a wide definition of corruption to include “obtaining a gift, consideration or advantage” [emphasis added].
Even if Leo Varadkar did not see his leak to a medical-doctor friend as being wrong, once an advantage is passed to one or both, above and beyond competitors, then the Corruption Act is triggered.
Conor Lenihan is a former Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation. His biography of Albert Reynolds will be published later this year by the Merrion Press