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Monday 22 January 2018

Fianna Fail ard fheis: Party denies hiding rank and file division

Brian Hutton

FIANNA Fail has denied masking rank-and-file division over one of leader Micheal Martin's flagship plans to rebuild the party.

A debate on the contentious "one member, one vote" proposal will be the only session held behind closed doors at the party's ard fheis this weekend.

It is Mr Martin's first annual conference as leader and has been described by one frontbencher as one of the most crucial in the beleaguered party's 86-year history.

Dara Calleary, Mayo TD and Fianna Fail's justice spokesman, said the leadership welcomed opposition to the planned changes in who can vote to select the party's election candidates.

"We are not trying to hide dissent. The days of uno Duce, una voce are long gone here," he said.

"We want people to speak out."

But the former junior minister said the debate around the plans - which he branded as one of the biggest proposed changes since the party was founded - would be held in private at the RDS gathering in Dublin on Saturday afternoon.

Defending the decision to shut out the media and public, Mr Calleary said it was "internal party business".

Mr Calleary said it would be a "robust" debate between those passionately in favour and passionately against the plans, with the outcome disclosed later in the evening.

It will be the only closed session during the two-day ard fheis, he confirmed.

Fianna Fail front bencher and Wexford TD John Browne has publicly opposed the plans while grassroots meetings on the issue have been taking place almost every night around the country in recent weeks.

In the existing system, every branch, or cumann, sends forward three delegates to choose election candidates at party conventions.

Mr Martin has argued a 'one member, one vote' system - similar to that used by Fine Gael and Labour - will help bring in new recruits while empowering existing members.

Critics believe a change will hurt smaller branches.

Mr Calleary also shrugged off suggestions that Fianna Fail was rapidly losing ground to Sinn Fein after an opinion poll showed his party down four points to 16pc support. Sinn Fein are up four points to 25pc, in second place to Fine Gael on 32pc.

"We certainly lost a lot of votes to Fine Gael last year, and I think we lost more to Fine Gael than any other party," said Mr Calleary.

"If we are to seek some of the lost vote, that's where to get it back from."

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, whose Labour party dipped one point to 10pc, said it is too long until the next general election to read anything into opinion polls.

"I don't really think opinion polls at this stage, four years out from a general election, have any real meaning," he said.

"What the Government is doing is concentrating on the jobs that we have planned, which is to bring about economic recovery, get jobs into the country and I'm much more encouraged by the successes that we've been having in that area in recent times."

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