Strife of Brian: Crowley’s values drifted from FF
The MEP’s separation from Fianna Fail followed five years of friction
Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30
It was a brief conversation, but clearly terse. Brian Cowen was approached by Brian Crowley as he arrived for a function in the Council of Europe's offices, adjacent to the majestic Parc du Cinquantenaire in the European quarter of Brussels.
Later that day, in March 2009, Cowen was due to attend a lunch with leaders from Fianna Fail's new European home, the liberal group.
The then Taoiseach had sprung the move to the staunchly pro-European and reformist liberals, then known as the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR), at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis a fortnight earlier.
The party hierarchy viewed being associated with the extremist right-wingers and Eurosceptics of the Union for the Europe of Nations (UEN) group as an embarrassment to a governing party.
After scuppering a previous attempt by Bertie Ahern to leave the UEN, Fianna Fail's MEPs were kept in the dark this time.
Crowley, the party's then leader in the European Parliament, made his unhappiness known and expressed concerns about Fianna Fail policies - particularly on abortion - fitting with the liberal group.
Being a vice-president of the UEN group afforded him a valuable status and connections in the European Parliament - along with perks of the job.
As the pair exchanged words in the office on Avenue des Nerviens in Brussels, Cowen was having none of it and Crowley left the building.
The game was over.
After the 2009 European elections, Fianna Fail's MEPs became members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
But there was mystification in the party over Crowley's behaviour.
"He never really joined the liberals," a party source noted.
Five years on and the feeling in the party towards Crowley has escalated to bewilderment as Fianna Fail's only MEP has effectively reversed the decision by unilaterally leaving the liberals to join the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR) group.
Crowley was expelled from the Fianna Fail parliamentary party because the ECR is "incompatible with the core principles of Fianna Fail, the Republican Party".
Micheal Martin described elements of the group as "racist, xenophobic, homophobic" and "anti-European Union".
Just weeks after getting a phenomenal 180,000 votes, topping the poll for the fifth time in a row, Fianna Fail's biggest vote-getter is out in the cold.
Crowley is currently in hospital following surgery on a leg wound, the latest in a series of treatments he has received, so is unable to put forward a defence.
The relationship with Martin was already fraught, particularly following the decision not to even ask him to run as a candidate in the presidential election.
"Crowley may have a point about not running someone but he was in hospital at the time for a long period, so wasn't in a position to run. Besides, there was no money," a source said.
The falling out with Fianna Fail has cast a spotlight on the greatest enigma in Irish politics and posed questions about what he actually stands for.
He's not strongly associated with any particular issues.
He has never particularly specialised in any area.
His constituency operation is efficient yet low-profile.
Yet he is Ireland's longest-serving and most popular MEP.
The source of his popularity appears to stem from his affability and admiration for the way he has risen above the setback of losing the use of his legs in an accident in his youth to make a contribution to public life.
Yet he never comes across as a crusading campaigner for people with disabilities.
The contradiction behind Crowley's current alignment is he is positively oriented towards the EU.
By no means a Eurosceptic, he has been known to argue that successive governments have not given enough credit to the EU's role, yet were happy to blame Europe when policies go wrong.
However, he has never had a strong profile during EU referenda.
Fianna Fail has never been able to manage him, as best evidenced by his defiance of efforts to impose a constituency divide on him when Gerry Collins lost his seat in 2004.
During this European campaign, the party didn't even bother suggesting any effort to share the vote with his struggling running mate, Kieran Hartley, in the Ireland South constituency, with a party strategist describing it as a "fruitless exercise".
"The Europeans have become a different type of election, very personality-based. With the big constituencies it suits him even more.
"He gets a very solid Fianna Fail vote and then a huge personal vote on top of that. It's urban. It's rural. It's young. It's old. It's male. It's female. It's right across the board," the strategist said.
He is regarded as socially conservative, with a professed devotion to Our Lady, yet he has never made any pronouncements on the party's position on abortion or gay marriage.
Fianna Fail allowed a free vote on the X case legislation last year and its official policy is in favour of same-sex marriage.
And though staunchly pro-life, he always argues the European Parliament has "no competency" on abortion, which is a national issue.
During their time in ALDE, Fianna Fail MEPs never had to vote with the group if they disagreed on an issue.
Whatever about the liberals' policies, Crowley's values appear at odds with Fianna Fail.
The relationship with Martin was never terribly strong anyway.
"Micheal Martin holidays in west Cork but they never once met up. Before 2011, it was only phone calls," a Fianna Fail source said.
The key element behind Crowley's move is viewed as the presence of Frank Barrett, the son of former Fianna Fail minister Sylvester Barrett, as the ECR's Secretary General. After originally coming to Brussels to work with Fianna Fail, Barrett went on to become Secretary-General of the UEN and now the ECR.
"You can't underestimate the Frank connection. In the old UEN group, Brian and Frank got on well. "Brian may not have over-thought this decision," a party source said.