Fianna Fail internal row on lucrative church gate collections
FIANNA Fail chiefs wrestling with the party's debts are gearing up for a row with grassroots members who want to abolish the traditional church gate collection.
The lucrative money-spinner outside mostly Catholic chapels across the country netted close to a quarter of a million euro for the party coffers last year alone.
The cash has made a huge contribution towards halving Fianna Fail's bank debts since being ejected from government to around €1.2m.
But some rank-and-file members who have condemned the age-old church collections as "bad taste" and "outdated" have forced a debate at this weekend's ard fheis.
Dara Calleary, Fianna Fail's jobs spokesman, has already signalled top-level backing among party leadership for the fund-raising drives.
"The church gate collection is incredibly important from a revenue point of view but also from a point of view of our members getting out and about," he said.
Setting out his stall, he said he will be driving back to his own constituency straight after leader Micheal Martin's keynote address to the conference at Dublin's RDS on Saturday to take part in a church collection.
The Mayo TD insisted the practice was not outdated and did not align Fianna Fail solely to the Catholic church.
"We are not fussy what church we collect outside, we will collect outside any church," he said.
But Malachy Noone, a Galway county councillor whose cumman (local party organisation) put the issue on the agenda, said it was time to scrap the collections.
"It's about time political parties gave up church collections," he said.
"It is not the place to do it. It is not in the best taste."
Mr Noone, who has himself collected outside churches, said many rank-and-file Fianna Failers in Galway West were of a similar view, but insisted the row was not on religious grounds.
"It is outdated and it is not the way to collect money," he said.
The party begins their annual country-wide three-month church gate collections this weekend.
Sean Dorgan, Fianna Fail's general secretary, revealed the party has cut it debts from more than €2m two years ago to around €1.2m.
"We have met our commitments to our banks each year," he said.
"Despite the tough economic times, our members and supporters are still in a position to support us.
"So we have made significant inroads in repaying that debt and we will continue to do so. Our objective this year is to make another significant dent in it."
A party "super-draw" also helped raise well over half a million euro in each of the last two years, with total fund-raising last year close to one million euro.
Mr Dorgan, who has predicted a "strong debate" on the church collections at the weekend annual conference, claimed most people within the party would back the practice.
"That's a view I suppose some people within the organisation have had for a while," he said.
"But that's a minority and most of our members - most of our units - up and down the country put a lot of store in the collection.
"Not just as a revenue raising method but as a way to meet people and voters."
Mr Dorgan said the party had overhauled its fundraising model since 2010, with nearly 90% of all donations now being made at 50 euro or less.