Wednesday 21 March 2018

Rural Five 'call FG and FF bluff' in effort to become kingmakers

The rural Independent deputies from left..Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath, Denis Naughten, Dr.Michael Harty and Michael Collins. Photo: Tom Burke
The rural Independent deputies from left..Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath, Denis Naughten, Dr.Michael Harty and Michael Collins. Photo: Tom Burke

Kevin Doyle and Niall O'Connor

Five rural TDs believe they have "called the bluff" of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to become kingmakers in the new Dáil.

The so-called 'Rural Five' have outflanked the Independent Alliance to put themselves at the centre of today's roundtable talks, which are a first step in Enda Kenny's plan to formulate a programme for government.

Pressure is now mounting on Mr Kenny to make contact with Micheál Martin as, by offering their support to Fine Gael, the five TDs have made it virtually impossible for the Fianna Fáil leader to become Taoiseach.

Roscommon-Galway TD Denis Naughten told the Irish Independent: "One thing we have definitely done is forced the hands of the two big parties. We called their bluff.

"Fine Gael has the numbers now for a minority government. It's very tight, but it's workable."

Mr Naughten said that he himself, Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins, Michael Harty and Noel Grealish will vote as a bloc when the Dáil attempts to elect a Taoiseach on April 6.

Their public advances towards Fine Gael have caused consternation within Fianna Fáil, who met with the group last night in an effort to regain lost ground.

Sources say the TDs were sternly warned that Fianna Fáil is not contemplating giving its blessing for a Fine Gael-led minority.

The five have also made life extremely uncomfortable for Shane Ross's Independent Alliance, which is struggling to maintain a united front.

Fine Gael has made great efforts to win over the Alliance's rural members and in the process sidelined Dublin-based Mr Ross and Finian McGrath.

Mr McGrath said last night that they were at a "different level" to Mr Naughten's group.

"We need concrete proposals. We have to see what's on offer and go away and digest that. We're not going to go running in saying 'you're great'.

"We're going to play our cards close to our chest. If there is messing around then we're out of there," he said.

Some 17 TDs, including the Green Party, the Healy-Rae brothers, Katherine Zappone and Maureen O'Sullivan, have accepted an invitation from Mr Kenny to take part in a formal round-table meeting today.

The Irish Independent has learned that Jobs Minister Richard Bruton is to be added to the Fine Gael negotiating team that currently consists of Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris.

It is understood the agenda consists of eight key headings including health, housing, tax, rural Ireland and disabilities.

Sources say the initial session will involve all 17 TDs and the Fine Gael team sitting around one table in Government Buildings to lay out their stall.

However, if that goes well there will be 'breakout sessions' where TDs will be divided up into the areas where they are most keen to have an input.

"This is the real business now and it's likely to take several days. They will see that we are open-minded and accept that the electorate want things done differently," said a Fine Gael source.

Mr Naughten said the five TDs decided to go public with their thinking on government formation because it became clear "a lot of key people in both parties were manoeuvring for a second election".

"Nothing else was happening, nothing was moving. They were ignoring the elephant in the room and that's not good for democracy," he said.

Danny Healy-Rae has confirmed to the Irish Independent that his brother Michael will travel to Dublin for the talks despite only being released from hospital on Tuesday following an attack by a cow. "What the people want is a stable government. I can't see how 60 or 61 TDs would be stable but we need to tease that out. We'll wait and see. It's our duty to meet with everyone," he said.

Who are the 'Rural Five'?

Denis Naughten

Roscommon-Galway poll topper Denis Naughten has been a TD since 1997. He was expelled from the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party in July 2011 for voting against cuts to the health service that would have directly impacted on Roscommon County Hospital. Before the 2011 election Fine Gael had promised not to downgrade the hospital’s services.

Michael Collins

The farmer was a surprise winner in Cork South West. Heavily involved in voluntary organisations such as the West Cork Community Alliance which campaigned against garda station closures.

Dr Michael Harty

He fought his  campaign under the ‘No Doctor, No Village’ banner, arguing rural practices needed to be done to help rural practices. Dr Harty worked as the GP in the Co Clare village of Kilmihill for more than 30 years and will be pressing for increased funds to maintain doctor surgeries in small towns and villages.

A native of Limerick he was involved in the battle to retain services in Ennis Hospital.

Mattie McGrath

McGrath is already a well-known name outside his Tipperary constituency. Having been elected as a Fianna Fáil TD in 2007, he quit the party in early 2011 before its election crash.

During the 31st Dáil he signed up to the Technical Group in order to get speaking rights but the arrangement ended acrimoniously.

Noel Grealish

The former Progressive Democrat has been in Leinster House since 2002. He has increased his vote at every election since and became an independent following the break-up of the PDs in 2009.

His campaign in Galway West centred around the prevention of crime, improving access to hospital and funding for flood alleviation measures.

Irish Independent

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