Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he has confidence in Verona Murphy, the Fine Gael candidate in the Wexford by-election.

It follows comments made by the candidate about asylum-seekers coming to Ireland.

"Verona is a very outspoken, very independent person, she is not going to be the kind of person who toes the party line," he said to journalists at the National Broadband Plan signing event in Wicklow.

"I think on some occasions she has got it absolutely wrong. But she is the selected candidate and I will certainly be campaigning with her before polling day."

He said her comments about asylum seekers had been misinformed, ill-advised and wrong and she was right to apologise for them.

"We have hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland who are migrants and they contribute to our economy, to our society and to our public services and a very small number come from Iraq and Syria and those who do are much more likely to be fleeing ISIS than having anything to do with ISIS," he said.

"She understands that now and I think it right and important that she did withdraw those remarks and apologise for them."

Mr Varadkar denied that Fine Gael is playing the populist card, saying it is quite the reverse, with the party acting very quickly on the matter.

He said he had spoken to Verona Murphy, as had Charlie Flanagan as director of elections, and explained to her that her comments were unacceptable and misinformed and that she needed to develop a better understanding around asylum and immigration.


Read more:
Murphy says she has poor understanding on asylum issues


There is fresh controversy over remarks Ms Murphy made about immigrants, after it emerged she said in an interview with the Wexford People that "ISIS have already manipulated children as young as four".

She has already issued two apologies for comments made on RTÉ's This Week on Sunday and to The Irish Times while canvassing last Friday.

The candidate visited a reception centre for Syrian refugees in Clonea, near Dungarvan in Co Waterford, yesterday and afterwards issued a statement in which she said the visit had a "profound impact" on her understanding of the issues.

"I realise now I had a poor understanding of asylum issues and I apologise wholeheartedly for my remarks.

"We are a welcoming country and I am proud of that fact. I believe we must do everything to prevent division and anti-migrant sentiment," she said.

That visit in Waterford, and the statement, was made jointly with her director of elections for the by-election, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

She has already been criticised by politicians from other parties, with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin describing her comments as "shocking" and claiming there is "panic" in Fine Gael on the issue.

In an interview with Wexford People's reporter David Looby published today, Ms Murphy said on immigration: "We have to understand, no matter how we feel, the genuine people are coming from very bad situations, war-torn countries.

"Nobody wants to live like that. We have to have empathy in that these people are coming from the worst possible situations.

"We also have to take into account the possibility that ISIS have already manipulated children as young as three or four."

Ms Murphy was initially criticised on Sunday when she told RTÉ's This Week that asylum-seekers need to be "de-programmed" and linked them to ISIS, and then when it emerged she told The Irish Times that "ISIS is a big part of the migrant population".

She said afterwards that it was "a poor choice of words".

Ms Murphy was appointed a "diversity ambassador" recently by the EU Transport Commissioner and is president of the Irish Road Haulage Association.

There was further criticism of Ms Murphy during Leaders Questions in the Dáil this afternoon.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith called on the Taoiseach to deselect Verona Murphy saying "she's playing the race card and blames migrants for everything".

Deputy Smith also asked Leo Varadkar "how high does your bar go" and said "shame on you Taoiseach for not deselecting this woman". 

Bríd Smith told the Dáil that when she attempted to visited the  Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Dungarvan, Co Waterford she was initially told that she couldn't come in and when she eventually was given the go ahead she was only given access to a few families.

The Taoiseach was also asked by Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin to confirm Verona Murphy's views that the Road Safety Authority should be abolished.

Deputy Martin said, "I think Fine Gael is a safe house for right wing politics but I want to know is Fine Gael proposing the abolition of the RSA and also is there going to be a reversal of the drink driving laws that you introduced? Your candidate is openly saying they've decimated rural Ireland and apparently the enforcement is always on the "Irish individual" whatever that means?"

The Taoiseach said: "I can assure the deputy that we've no proposal to abolish the RSA nor will we be repealing any of the legislation that we've brought in which has been successful in reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our roads."

Ms Murphy has withdrawn from an RTÉ Late Debate programme taking place in Wexford tonight.

She informed the programme around 7pm that she would not be taking part.

She said her focus for the coming days will be listening to and engaging with the issues that concern all living in Wexford.