Keaveney claims 'dirty tricks' at heart of his Labour battle
Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00
Relationship with party hierarchy broke down before Budget fallout and goes back to before he was ever elected as a TD
Colm Keaveney, the Labour Party chairman, is currently in the throes of battle with the leadership for voting against the Budget. He was thrown out of the parliamentary party and is fighting to hold on to the chairmanship.
According to Mr Keaveney, there were difficulties in his relationship with the party hierarchy before he was ever elected TD for Galway East. A second candidate – the barrister and now senator, Lorraine Higgins – was added to the ticket by party HQ. Mr Keaveney feared this could damage his chances, but in the end he won the seat.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, he tells a story of alleged "dirty tricks", and threats of litigation that surrounded his efforts to win the role of chairman of the party.
In the early days, he said he would have "taken a bullet" for Eamon Gilmore. He toed the party line, defended the unpopular government measures such as "rationalising" rural schools, the septic tank charge and curbs on turf-cutting.
He said he "immersed" himself in work: "I am around long enough not to be drawn in by bright lights and deep carpets," he said. "I was ambitious for my constituency."
He admits that there were "tensions" with some senior party figures over various issues within the party. He claims that tensions turned to acrimony when he decided to run for the chairmanship of the party in April 2011.
He was proposed and seconded by his constituency organisation. But shortly before the closing deadline, Mr Keaveney's constituency office was told that the forms were incorrect and fresh ones would have to be resubmitted. According to Mr Keaveney, there simply wasn't time.
In any case, the trade union had already decided to nominate Mr Keaveney as their preferred choice for party chairman.
The vote was to take place at the Labour Party conference in April 2011, with the decision resting with delegates forwarded from constituencies and branches.
He was the outsider against the other two candidates, Derek Nolan and Brian O'Shea.
Mr Keaveney worked through a register of Labour Party members to canvass for his campaign. He claimed that a little over a week before the party conference, he noticed that the number of new members in Galway East on the Labour Party's membership was up by 52 in a matter of days. Mr Keaveney found this sudden influx – effectively doubling the constituency's Labour membership – mystifying.
A stormy meeting was held to ratify their membership. Days later, at a second meeting in Mountbellew, the 52 new members voted in 12 delegates who would each cast a vote at the forthcoming contest for the role of party chairman.
Mr Keaveney later wrote to the party leader, Eamon Gilmore, questioning "how 52 people turned up at the meeting claiming to be party members".
He wrote: "None of the names appeared on previous membership lists, the most current of which had issued only a few days beforehand. Even if they were properly deemed to be what was described as 'individual members', an even more serious question mark arose as to whether they had been members for the prescribed time which would entitle them to elect delegates to annual conference."
Mr Keaveney won the chairmanship in what was widely regarded as victory for "Old Labour" and a blow to the party leadership which had backed Derek Nolan.
"I won the election. A number of days later I got a call from Mr Gilmore, to meet him. He said he told Mr Gilmore: "What was done to me in my constituency was unacceptable."
Mr Keaveney's Labour supporters in Galway East did not let the so-called Mountbellew "recruitment drive" rest. Noel Gibbons, who was then secretary of the local Labour constituency council, wrote an initial letter of complaint to the party's executive council.
Ten days later, he received a solicitor's letter sent on behalf of a prominent party member, accusing him of making "utterly baseless and defamatory" allegations.
Mr Keaveney also received a solicitor's letter – sent on behalf of another key member of the party – copied to Mr Gilmore, accusing Mr Keaveney of making defamatory remarks about her.
The Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, intervened. He wrote to both the Galway East TD and the complainant to suggest an "informal resolution or mediation", to be facilitated by three trained industrial relations practitioners.
"I believe that the Labour Party has a duty as a good employer to deal with the matters raised expeditiously and with fairness to all parties involved," he wrote.
Mr Keaveney replied, giving a qualified agreement to participate in mediation, and raising a series of questions about the recruitment of 52 new Labour Party members in his constituency just days before the chairmanship contest at which he claimed their vote was used against him.
The mediation never happened, not because of any reluctance by the parties involved, but because of practical issues in getting people together. Over subsequent months, Mr Keaveney suspected that some figures within the Labour Party were "briefing against" him to journalists.
He claimed his authority as party chairman to make certain decisions was disputed by the party headquarters. He also claimed he was not made aware, as chairman, of an invitation to the British Labour Party conference.
Mr Keaveney also said that he was sidelined from the Labour Party's Centenary Celebrations in Clonmel in December. As party chairman, he expected that he would have a role to play but he was invited to "introduce the band".
Why is any of this relevant now, at a time when he has voted against his own government, and put the Labour Party in a difficult position by refusing to step down as chairman? Mr Keaveney wonders.
He insisted this weekend that the rancour with the party leadership had no influence on his decision to vote against the social welfare bill.
He said he was telling a story that needed to be told. "I think there is a story to tell. There is a lot of virtuous commentary taking place by senior politicians in relation to social media and. . . the print
media. People would want to reflect on getting their own house in order first," he said.
"I will go to any lengths to shine a light on this sort of conduct."
As to his future, he said: "I suspect there are a lot of unforeseens in this for me. As a politician once said to me, every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
Jack O'Connor, Siptu's general secretary, said this weekend: "We don't agree with any suggestion that Colm should be removed (as party chairman).
"That being said, he has as much a responsibility, if not more, to act in such a manner as to preserve the unity of the Labour Party."