Friday 30 September 2016

For party candidates, there’s many a twist between selection and election

Published 11/04/2015 | 02:30

'Like it or not, more women on the ticket means fewer men. But that irks when the man is you'
'Like it or not, more women on the ticket means fewer men. But that irks when the man is you'

Fine Gael has ratcheted up the election pressure by issuing an edict that all selection conventions be done and dusted by October – six months ahead of the General Election, should the government run its full term.

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Early conventions are about being ready for every eventuality and having candidates “on the pitch”. Fine Gael has its strategists in place. MEP Brian Hayes and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald have been tasked to lead on this and maximise the party vote. The plan is to have 20 of the 40 conventions completed by the summer recess.

To the outsider, selection conventions are internal procedural matters with little news value. Yet for candidates and party insiders they are the real deal. It is where political careers are made and lost. They also concentrate the mind and force candidates to reveal their intentions. They can be vicious affairs with long lead-in times, as candidates constantly do their sums, competing to cultivate new members if necessary so as to have the numbers to secure the nomination.

However, sometimes too much democracy can be a dangerous thing. Just having the numbers and the support at local level in the organisation does not always guarantee success. Tensions between HQ and the local organisation can be poisonous if locals feel bullied. But sometimes party intelligence or private polls indicate the local man or woman has no chance of being elected and there is a decision to “parachute” or manoeuvre a more electable candidate into the constituency. Some candidates, even when incumbents, may just not be favoured by HQ – they may be accident prone or have had reputational issues.

Gender too can play a part. In the past, women were used as ‘sweepers’ for male colleagues on the ticket, if they got on it at all. This time there are skirmishes around the country as men are being pushed aside to make way for a woman. Gender quotas applicable for the first time in the next General Election require a third of the party candidates must be female, or parties will see their funding cut.

A colourful spat has emerged in the Taoiseach’s own Mayo constituency, where there are four sitting FG TDs and only four seats after the next election. Mayo TD John O’Mahony is understandably peeved that he is being asked to move to Galway West to facilitate a female colleague, Michelle Mulherin. He feels that men like himself are seen as “moveable feasts”.

Nationally, there have been mutterings of discontent in the big parties because of the gender quotas. Who can object to the long-overdue reform aimed at achieving more balance in our political system? Getting more women elected was not happening. The figures were stubbornly low and stuck for two decades at around 25 out of a Dail of 166. Like it or not, more women on the ticket means fewer men. But that irks when the man is you. The biggest obstacle and the first hurdle for female politicians is getting a nomination. The quotas, however crude, make space which the parties were not providing otherwise.

Finding electable candidates of any gender is no easy task. People may be talented, articulate and hard-working, but they can lack the ‘X factor’ – electability. Parties are full of talented committed people, but the attributes of a winning candidate are a rare combination. A political friend of mine reckoned the test was “someone you can go for a pint with” at the end of the day if they have all the other qualities and qualifications. Successful long-term TDs all possess that everyman quality.

Most TDs are battle-scarred from conventions. Some spend years waiting for an opening. In my case, to maximise our seats, I moved from Dublin South East – where I was a city councillor for Rathmines – to the green pastures of Dublin South. A new area, a new electorate and a whole new team of party workers. But there was a vacancy, as the previous party TD was not running, and there was space for me. Yet, when it came to the convention, which was meant to be a formality, there was a surprise motion from the floor that no candidate be selected based on a minority view that I was a “parachute” candidate. Luckily, Des O’Malley, then leader of the Progressive Democrats, was in the Chair. He gave the motion short shrift, by glowering around the hall and wondering “was there a seconder for that proposition?”. No hand went up.

Sometimes HQ does know best, but these selection conventions can be extremely divisive, festering rows that literally go on for years. The so-called ‘Drumcondra mafia’ are still trying to block Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick in her quest to be the candidate in Bertie Ahern’s old powerbase. And such territorial disputes are widespread in all parties.

On the one hand democracy requires that the local organisation chooses the candidate based on local work and loyalties. On the other hand there is merit in centralised strategy for the greater good of the party. This ultimately means getting enough seats to form a government. Fine Gael have languished in opposition for too long to risk going back there any time soon.

In the old days of Fianna Fáil, PJ Mara or a senior minister was dispatched to chair a particularly fractious convention with the full authority of the leader. Most politicians have a tale of backstabbing, usually with a Machiavellian twist. Such bouts are inevitable wherever power is at stake. Efforts by party HQ to restore former minister Mary Hanafin to the Fianna Fáil ticket in Dún Laoghaire are causing ructions there, with local councillors resisting the move. A rerun of the battle of Blackrock is anticipated within Fianna Fail. A convention will also force former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore to show his hand soon in a crowded field.

The next election is crucial for Fine Gael. To govern or not to govern. With so much at stake, there will be no time for sentiment. Being shafted at conventions comes with the trade. I recall one of our most experienced party workers and strategists’ retort about alleged unfairness following a bruising convention: “This is a political party, not a crèche”. Ouch!

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