Sunday 24 September 2017

Rebel Fine Gael TDs feel wrath of party's grassroots

Members demand action against splinter group

Fidelma Healy Eames and Lucinda Creighton at the inaugural Reform Alliance meeting. Photo: David Conachy
Fidelma Healy Eames and Lucinda Creighton at the inaugural Reform Alliance meeting. Photo: David Conachy

Fionnan Sheahan and John Drennan

FINE Gael's deteriorating relationship with its rebel TDs has escalated into a grassroots backlash against the dissidents.

Formal complaints to party headquarters demanding further disciplinary action have been made against two of the anti-abortion rebels, the Sunday Independent has learnt.

Bitter exchanges in the wake of the departure of the Galway TD Brian Walsh from the Reform Alliance have also broken out between Fine Gael and the alliance of former Fine Gael TDs and senators who lost the party whip over the Pregnancy and Human Life Bill.

At the inaugural meeting of the alliance the group claimed that it was not "some secret society" and said it wished to play a "positive role in the next Dail".

Behind the scenes though, the departure of Mr Walsh from the group has raised suspicions within the alliance that "Fine Gael are engaged in an elaborate plot to slice us up to reduce our impact".

One source said "there is a bit of divide and conquer going on" whilst the former Fine Gael TD Billy Timmins said "of course an attempt will be made to peel people off".

In an indication of further heightened tensions on the issue, the Sunday Independent has also learnt that Peter Mathews was embroiled in angry exchanges for well over an hour with local party members at a meeting last week.

A party source present at the meeting said it was "an hour-and-a-half of members going through him for a short cut".

Fidelma Healy Eames's status was discussed at a meeting in her constituency, resulting in a formal complaint being drafted. There has also been an escalation of tensions between Mr Walsh and the Reform Alliance.

Mr Walsh said earlier last week he would not be joining the group because of concerns it planned to engage in an anti-Kenny agenda.

In sharp exchanges though, sources within the group of former Fine Gael TDs and senators noted that they had been mistrustful of Mr Walsh from the start.

One source within the Reform Alliance claimed: "Walsh had been gung-ho in meetings about setting up a new party, he was asking about running councillors, funding and did we need donors."

Another said Mr Walsh's departure "read like something that had been drawn up by the Taoiseach's office, he is still wearing his L plates; he needs a few more lessons from 'not-so-cute old Phil' about infiltrating parties".

Mr Walsh, however, emphatically denied the claims, telling the Sunday Independent: "I was not gung-ho at all, I attended one informal meeting and then another where they were talking about how they might engage PR people and administrative services and raise the question as to how would you fund these."

And he backed up his concerns about the anti-Kenny nature of any alliance, saying: "Is it credible that after Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail finish at leaders' questions that they would soothe the Taoiseach and put their arms around him in his hour of need."

In a further sign of the bitterness, Terence Flanagan is running an ad campaign in his constituency seemingly attacking Fine Gael for breaking its promise on the abortion law.

ANALYSIS PAGES 26, 29

The move comes as Taoiseach Enda Kenny struggles to contain the emergence of the splinter group, headed by Lucinda Creighton.

The local party organisations in the constituencies of Mr Mathews and Ms Healy-Eames want further action taken against their representatives.

Verbal complaints from grassroots members about some of the rest of the group, including Ms Creighton, have also flowed into the party hierarchy.

"There is a level of disappointment and anger within the organisation against them all," a senior party source said.

At a meeting of the Dublin Rathdown constituency organisation, Mr Mathews referred to a debate on hare coursing in 1993 where constituency colleague, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, voted against the party but didn't lose the whip.

Party members present said Mr Shatter did not respond to the "petty" comment, but Mr Mathews denies he was having a go at the minister.

"What I said was: 'Alan, you know that in the case of breaking the party whip on hare coursing didn't have any consequences.' That was a matter stating facts. There was no derision," he said.

Mr Mathews said the meeting in the Goat Bar in south Dublin was not acrimonious.

"It was very cordial, very pleasant and very nice," he said.

The conversation continued in the bar after the meeting. Mr Mathews then said there seemed to be "angst" amongst some members.

"It would have been a minority of members who expressed angst about the fact they feel a person who had been elected has only a representative role, rather than a duty to legislate," he said.

Mr Mathews was repeatedly asked if he intended to run as an Independent in the next general election.

But he maintained it was up to the party to invite him back and he had not broken the party pledge of allegiance to policy signed at the last general election.

"The day I joined Fine Gael and became a candidate I made it obvious, idiot-proof clear on party pledges that, on matters of a moral nature, my conscience would be my first responsibility," he said.

"The ball is in the party's court to say: 'This is self-inflicted damage and come back'."

Following the meeting, a letter was sent to party headquarters complaining about Mr Mathews and seeking guidance on excluding him from meetings as party matters were being discussed.

At a meeting in Galway West last week, the organisation passed a motion seeking further action against Ms Healy Eames following her decision to vote against the Government in the Seanad emergency debate on organ donations.

Ms Healy Eames said she hadn't seen the letter sent to party headquarters and was voting to ensure good practice on organ donation.

"I'd be disappointed if holding pro-life values was a reason to be kicked out of the actual party," she said.

Ms Healy Eames added that "FG has surely not changed to such an extent keeping promises is conduct unbecoming".

Fine Gael sources said the two letters had been received by party HQ and would be dealt with by the next meeting of the ruling body, the Executive Council, at the end of the month.

The Sunday Independent has also learnt Mr Flanagan is running a high-profile ad campaign in his Dublin Bay North constituency with the slogan: "Keeps His Promises."

"He's running a major bus shelter campaign in Dublin Bay North having ditched the Fine Gael logo and having a pop at Fine Gael breaking promises," a source said.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Flanagan noted of the posters "the response is really good, people are delighted to see a conviction politician, people now know my word is my bond, that I stand for something".

Sunday Independent

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