Brilliant organiser helped drag party back from the brink
FINE Gael have put a brave face on Frank Flannery's departure as political strategist and director of elections. But the reality is that his departure is a hammer blow as they face into local and European election campaigns with polling day now barely 10 weeks away.
Flannery's loss as a strategic planner with an encyclopaedic political knowledge is compounded by the controversy which has surrounded the party in recent weeks.
It is the kind of thing they loved to condemn when it happened to Fianna Fail.
A small group of people have helped Enda Kenny drag the party from a point where its obituary was being written in summer 2002, to a landslide general election win in February 2011, and the chances are that they can win again in 2016.
Central to that group was Frank Flannery.
His links with the party go back to his student days at University College Galway in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he also served as president of the Union of Students in Ireland.
Working in Dublin in the early 1980s he joined a group, known in the media as the 'national handlers', which advised FG leader and Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald.
Under the leadership of Garret's successors – Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Michael Noonan – Flannery drifted somewhat from the party. But soon after Enda Kenny's election as leader in June 2002, Flannery was back in favour at Fine Gael headquarters in Upper Mount Street, Dublin.
In November 2002, he produced the famous Flannery Report – formally entitled '21st Century Fine Gael' – which charted how the party needed to modernise.
He was a key backroom organiser in big local election advances in 2004 and 2009, and in the general election campaign in May 2007, which for a long time looked on target to win, only to be pipped in the final week by a wilier Fianna Fail late burst.
Flannery had various job titles – but titles as such did not especially interest him. There were the usual tensions with other Fine Gael kingpins but in recent years the power group at headquarters centred on Flannery, the astute general secretary Tom Curran, and others including the main Dublin organiser, Terry Murphy, who also has other responsibilities.
Together they coordinate a team of six regional, full-time organisers dotted around the country. They also liaise with research companies and the other professionals who are either on staff with, or on contract to, the party.
Enda Kenny as leader has empowered this group. Under their management, Fine Gael has become focused and professional but also more centralised. Critics say it is also becoming less democratic.
Frank Flannery is well-liked at FG HQ – but not universally popular among the party's TDs, senators and councillors.
He has been among those who vetoed candidates, moved them and imposed newcomers on the election ticket. It is tricky stuff which has often caused considerable tensions.
Relations with Kenny have been usually quite good. However, the pair clashed, and Flannery was forced to take a step back from the 2009 local and Euro campaign, because he publicly suggested the party 'could do business with Sinn Fein' in future coalition arrangements.
But rather like Fine Gael itself, predictions of Flannery's demise proved premature in 2009. Soon again he became a strong and persistent backroom presence in the party.
Only last Thursday he was spotted rubbing shoulders with colleagues at the European People's Party conference in the Convention Centre in Dublin.
Last night, he was not the only one in Fine Gael speculating that he could yet figure in the party's election preparations – albeit ever so quietly.