Andrew Lynch: Frances Fitzgerald can't afford to show weakness on claims of IRA activity
Frances Fitzgerald needs to get a grip. It is widely believed that whenever Enda Kenny retires, he wants his veteran Justice Minister to succeed him as leader of Fine Gael.
Right now, however, her department is sliding into chaos - raising grave doubts over whether or not she has what it takes to reach the very top.
Fitzgerald faces problems on several different fronts. She gave a weak initial response to the recent uproar over IRA activity and is still playing catch-up.
Her subsequent U-turn has annoyed Garda Headquarters, with one Phoenix Park source claiming that she threw Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan "under a bus".
Perhaps most importantly for Frances' leadership ambitions, she has also come under fire from FG backbenchers who complain that gardai are not being given enough resources to tackle the current wave of violent burglaries.
In short, Fitzgerald no longer looks like Fine Gael's answer to the Iron Lady. She replaced accident-prone Alan Shatter in the Department of Justice just over a year ago precisely because Enda Kenny saw her as a safe pair of hands.
Until recently that seemed to be true, which is why many pundits started tipping her as Ireland's first female Taoiseach.
Fitzgerald's woes can be traced back to August 19, when ex-IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan was shot dead in Belfast. George Hamilton, Chief Constable of the PSNI, then dropped a political bombshell by declaring that the Provos still existed. Since the IRA's political masters could soon be in power down south, this was a shocking claim that demanded an urgent reply from the Irish Government.
Fitzgerald's first chance came after she delivered a keynote speech at the annual Michael Collins commemoration in Beal na Blath. She fluffed it badly, failing to challenge Sinn Fein's insistence that the IRA no longer acts as a terrorist organisation.
She also backed up a letter sent to the Shinners by Noirin O'Sullivan last February, in which the Garda Commissioner said there was no intelligence to suggest that the Provos still had a military structure.
Within 24 hours, it became clear that Fitzgerald's softly-softly approach was not going to work. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin took full advantage of her dithering by pointing out exactly how the republican murder machine continues to pull Sin Fein's strings. Last Tuesday the Justice Minister finally caved in and asked Noirin O'Sullivan to carry out a "fresh assessment" of the IRA's current status.
In fairness to Fitzgerald, she is not the only senior Fine Gael figure who has handled this controversy badly. Charlie Flanagan and Simon Coveney, two other possible leadership candidates, also seemed intimidated by the old Sinn Fein line of: "Don't hit us now with the peace process in our arms."
As for Enda Kenny himself, the Taoiseach could not even be bothered to interrupt his holidays for the 10 minutes it would have taken him to release a statement. Fitzgerald, however, is in a special position. Fine Gael has always prided itself as the guardian of law and order, which places an added burden on any Blueshirt Minister for Justice.
She simply cannot afford to show any weakness on the issue of republican violence, particularly not when the next general election is shaping up as a battle between her party and Sinn Fein.
With Northern Ireland's executive now on the brink of collapse, these issues are only going to get more heated in the days ahead. Most Fine Gael TDs, however, are more worried about their own back yards.
A rural crimewave has prompted some to publicly complain about short prison sentences and the closure of over 100 Garda stations - problems for which the Minister does not seem to have any solutions.
Frances Fitzgerald has taken a tumble in the Fine Gael leadership stakes. There is time enough for her to make up the ground - but only if she is good enough.