Government leaks; strategy or incompetence?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

As leaks related to government bodies become increasingly prevalent, Grace Donnellan analyses where these leaks are coming from and why.

Since the formation of the current Government, leaks have become a regular occurrence. Over the past few months in the context of changing Covid-19 restrictions, The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) recommendations have been leaked before any official decision has been made. ‘Leo The Leak’ became a popular social media topic after it was revealed Leo Varadkar had shared confidential information with GP Maitiú Ó Tuathail. Most recently, the details of the Mother and Baby Homes report were leaked before it was officially released. The prevalence of these leaks causes one to consider whether they are a government strategy, the strategy of individuals trying to undermine the government, or simply a result of incompetence.

In October, amid rising Covid-19 case numbers, the public learnt through the media that NPHET had recommended moving Ireland to Level 5. Considering the country was currently in Level 3, the idea of moving to such tough restrictions was a shock to many - including to many members of Government, with Cabinet members declaring that they had first learnt of the recommendations through the leak. The Government blamed NPHET, stating that the body had bypassed agreed reporting structures. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar took advantage of the situation to lambast NPHET and their recommendations in an interview on RTÉ with Claire Byrne, while his colleague and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was in a press conference stating the government's relationship with NPHET was “absolutely fine”. Varadkar appeared to wish to remind the public, and his own colleagues, that while others may be at the wheel of the Cabinet, he was driving from the backseat. While Donnelly denied the leak came from him or anyone who worked for him, there has been suspicion that the leak did come from inside the government. Varadkar is no stranger to spin, and it is not farfetched to imagine that he had a role to play in the leak, in order to assert his own, as well as the government’s, authority over NPHET.

This is not the only leak that Varadkar has been linked to. In November, it was reported that Varadkar had leaked a confidential document regarding a €210 million GP pay-deal to the former president of the National Association of General Practitioners, Maitiú Ó Tuathail, and other senior members of the group. Ó Tuathail alleged that he and Varadkar were close friends, implying that this had resulted in him gaining special access to the document. Varadkar denied that the two were as close as the GP alleged. Varadkar eventually apologised before the Dail for “an error of judgement”. However, he denied that he had any dubious intentions. Varadkar received a large amount of criticism from opposition TDs, the public and even members of Government. It has emerged this week that when the document was leaked the then Minister for Health Simon Harris was still trying to attain a copy. Harris’ officials had warned that leaking the document would endanger the agreement, while officials in the Irish Medical Organisation considered a leak would “represent a serious breach of trust”.

Most recently, the report by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was leaked earlier this month. This leak was heavily condemned as the press had access to the report before survivors, especially as survivors groups had lobbied to be the first to receive the report. Philomena Lee, a survivor and advocate, said she was “dismayed” by the leak. The Taoiseach denied this leak had come from his department, while Varadkar said the leaking of the report was “very disrespectful”.

In light of these leaks, the Secretary-General in the Department of An Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, will be asked to investigate the issue of unauthorised circulation of information related to the work of the Cabinet and Cabinet sub-committees. It is impossible to say for certain why these leaks keep occurring. Considering the NPHET related leaks, it is possible that Cabinet members leaked the information in order to undermine and assert dominance over NPHET or perhaps to test the popularity of a move to Level 5. However, it is also possible that a member of NPHET leaked in order to try and force the government to enforce stricter lockdown rules. Varadkar’s leak to Ó Tuathail seems to reveal a politician who believes he can pull strings and do whatever he deems necessary for his political end goals. Whereas the recent Mother and Baby Home leak could simply be a result of incompetence or the report ending up in the wrong hands. Nonetheless, it is possible it was an attempt by an inside actor to undermine and attract negative attention to the current Government. 

Despite more pressure being placed on the Government to investigate these leaks and punish leakers, with leaks seemingly becoming a de facto Government policy, it is unlikely those responsible will face any serious consequences.