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Thursday 25 May 2017

Territorial O'Keeffe finally top dog

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

FROM his robust dealings with him at a local level, Micheal Martin ought to have known Batt O'Keeffe would defend his patch to the hilt.

Mr O'Keeffe's master-minding of the leadership defence strategy of his close friend, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, was a victory over Mr Martin in a quarter of a century long tussle between the pair on Leeside.

The Enterprise Minister is, for now, the only Cabinet minister in Munster. And he has finally got the upper hand on the young buck who temporarily took his Dail seat in the late-1980s and went on to dominate politics in Cork since Fianna Fail returned to power in 1997.

The wily Cork TD was likened to Phil Hogan of Fine Gael owing to his advisory role to his leader in an attempted coup.

But Mr O'Keeffe always acted in a low-profile way, behind the scenes during the crisis -- a pattern that often pops up.

The protection of his base in Ballincollig -- a suburb of Cork city -- from incursions by Fianna Fail running mates has become legendary. Mr Martin had an early experience of the tactics of the 'Ballincollig Mafia' when he went canvassing inside Mr O'Keeffe's heartland in the 1987 General Election.

As the young, first-time candidate and his team went door-to-door in a Ballincollig housing estate, they began to be followed by two cars, whose drivers shone the headlights into the houses as they stood on the doorsteps. Mr O'Keeffe was not present.

Mr Martin was summonsed to the Fianna Fail director of elections office and told he had conducted an "illegal raid" on Ballincollig and it was never to happen again.

The concerns of Mr O'Keeffe's supporters about the ambitious Mr Martin proved well-founded. In 1989, Mr Martin got elected for the first time, while Mr O'Keeffe lost out.

Mr O'Keeffe, Mr Martin and former Fianna Fail TD John Dennehy fought hard over the Cork South Central constituency for the best part of 20 years.

Bite

The no-holds-barred strategy employed by Fianna Fail in the constituency was often accurately described by Mr Dennehy as "The three Bs: boot, bollock and bite".

"The role of director of elections was the same as the latter day archbishop on All-Ireland hurling final day -- throwing in the ball and letting them at it," a Fianna Fail activist said.

The most celebrated incident occurred in 1997 when Mr Dennehy's canvassers were confronted by a group of Mr O'Keeffe's supporters outside the White Horse Inn in Ballincollig.

During the exchanges, a passing garda was asked to prevent Mr Dennehy's posters from being torn down. Again, Mr O'Keeffe was not present.

'The Battle of Ballincollig' made the front page of the local papers just four days out from polling day.

From 1997, Mr Martin's star ascended to Cabinet, while Mr O'Keeffe was stuck on the backbenches. He was eventually made a junior minister in 2004, by which time he was moving to Cork North West after a constituency redraw. Mr O'Keeffe finally became a Cabinet minister in 2008.

Relations between the pair have improved a lot since the days they shared the same constituency, but they are regarded as different characters.

"They would have got on to the extent they needed to, but there was no love lost. Batt would be a pints in the bar man, where you wouldn't see Micheal do that. They are cut from different cloths," a local party source said. "Batteen has taken the baton that was once held by Gene Fitzgerald and then Micheal as Mr Fianna Fail in Cork."

Irish Independent

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