Friday 30 September 2016

The dying days of dynasties for the party in Kingdom

Owen O'Shea

Published 04/04/2015 | 02:30

Owen O'Shea
Owen O'Shea

If your family has been represented in local politics since the 1890s, you are not going to pass up a Dáil nomination - and a chance to maintain and prolong the family's political foothold - without putting up a serious fight.

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The great-grandfather of Thomas McEllistrim was a member of the Tralee Rural District Council and the Board of Guardians in the late 19th century. McEllistrim's TD grandfather fought with the IRA at the Headford Junction Ambush in east Kerry in 1921 in which 10 British soldiers died and his father was a Minister of State under Charles Haughey. Politics runs in the blood.

McEllistrim, first elected to the Dáil in 2002 for Kerry North, lost his Dáil seat in the Fianna Fáil wipe-out of 2011. However, he has lost no zeal for a return to Leinster House.

Though he didn't succeed at last Sunday's convention to choose a Fianna Fáil candidate for Kerry for the next election, the 46-year-old topped the poll - securing more first-preference votes from party members than any of his rivals.

In the run-in to the convention, in public and in private, the McEllistrim history of service to the county tripped lightly from the tongue. The McEllistrims deliver and have been delivering in Kerry since the foundation of the State, was the message.

Tribal and dynastic politics have been a feature of Fianna Fáil in Kerry since the party was founded in 1926. The fate of the many political families in the organisation was an intriguing sub-plot as members gathered to pick a candidate for the next election in the new ultra-competitive five-seat constituency.

All three of McEllistrim's main opponents, all county councillors, had dynastic DNA: Tralee's Norma Foley is a daughter of long-serving TD Denis Foley; Milltown's Michael O'Shea is a first cousin of former government minister John O'Donoghue; and John Brassil of Ballyheigue - who prevailed at the convention - is a son of a former county councillor.

The intense competition over the years between the McEllistrims and the Foleys in Kerry North is the stuff of legend. Even last Sunday, when John Brassil trailed McEllistrim during the convention ballot, the seasoned party apparatchiks knew that Norma Foley's transfers would favour Brassil, rather than her family's nemesis from the McEllistrim clan.

Anyone without a dynastic pedigree rarely gets a look-in. The ebullient Dan Kiely, a former Fianna Fáil senator, ran unsuccessfully in four general elections alongside the McEllistrim and Foley candidates, but couldn't break the dynastic duopoly. "I hadn't a hope trying to get cumanns to back me because they were tied up by either Mac or Foley," Kiely once remarked.

When retiring Kerry South TD John O'Leary attempted to get his son, Brian, a place on the party ticket beside John O'Donoghue in 1997 - at Jackie Healy-Rae's expense - the Kilgarvan man went rogue. The rest is history and the consequences remain as potent as ever.

Similarly, the loss of Tom Fleming - now an Independent TD - ahead of the last election cost the party activists and votes. Fleming, originally from a dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáil family which sent four generations to Kerry County Council, triumphed in 2011 at O'Donoghue's expense.

The once-powerful O'Donoghue dynasty has now reached the end of the political line. The former minister's father, mother and brother all served on Kerry County Council. John's brother, Paul, stood down at last year's local elections, signalling the end was nigh.

Despite repeated pledges that he would make a bid to return to Dáil Éireann, the former Ceann Comhairle, still synonymous in the public mind with expenses excesses, was notably absent from the selection before Fianna Fáil members in the county last weekend. Accordingly, the ballot paper before Kerry voters next time round will be minus an O'Donoghue for the first time in over 50 years.

Apart from counterproductive inter-family rivalries and some botched attempts to pass the mantle to the next generation, a change in internal party rules has also dealt a major blow to the grip Kerry's political dynasties once had.

The control they exerted was facilitated by the old delegate system through which the cumann sent two or three delegates to selection conventions. Delegates often held that role for decades on end and were easily controlled and directed by the powerful factions.

But the introduction of one-member one-vote for all party members at conventions seems to be breaking the iron grip of the dynasties. Far easier to manipulate a few dozen delegates than hundreds of members of the rank and file.

If anyone doubted the strength of the Fianna Fáil organisation following their drubbing at the last general election, they will have noted that almost 1,500 party members were registered to vote at last weekend's convention in Kerry.

These are uncertain times for the many tribes in Kerry Fianna Fáil. Every TD which has represented that party since the 1940s in Kerry has been from a political dynasty. But now, for the first time, the once-mighty clans are beginning to lose their centuries-old stranglehold on politics in the Kingdom.

Owen O'Shea is a journalist with Radio Kerry and author of 'Heirs to the Kingdom: Kerry's Political Dynasties' (O'Brien Press, 2011)

Irish Independent

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