Loyal Fianna Fáil servant Willie O’Dea has threatened to leave the party after four decades and run as an Independent Dail deputy rather than support the party in another coalition government anchored by a confidence and supply deal.
O’Dea, who last night celebrated 40 years as Fianna Fáil TD in his native Limerick, criticised his party leader and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, for extending a power-sharing deal with Fine Gael after the 2020 general election, and said the arrangement has alienated his party from its power-base.
“My understanding of a Confidence and Supply agreement – if you look at what happens in Europe where you have a lot of this – is that their life expectancy is about 18 months to two years. Micheál Martin signed up for three years, that was a bad mistake,” said O’Dea.
“His second mistake was that, even though (the agreement) had lasted almost three years, the (2019) local elections came along and we did surprisingly well, and Sinn Fein did surprisingly badly – that was the time to cut the confidence and supply agreement off and go to the people,” he offered.
“We had survived for more than two years without loosing popularity, which was an achievement in itself, by sheer luck. We were lucky our supporters tolerated this, but then we got a great opportunity and instead of doing what...you know, like, I wouldn’t consider Conor McGregor (MMA fighter) as any kind of intellectual, but Conor McGregor’s attitude would be when you get a fella down, don't let him get up.
“But, Micheál Martin seems to have a different mentality to Conor McGregor, so not only do we allow Sinn Fein to get up, but we allowed them plenty of time to reorganise and figure out what went wrong.
“We have lost ground by being undistinguishable from Fine Gael as a result of staying too long in ‘Confidence and Supply’; we’ve decided to coalesce with Fine Gael, so there is a probability that we could loose more ground, and if we do lose more ground and the party was (again) proposing to go into coalition with anybody, I wouldn't be voting for that coalition,” O’Dea said.
“It would mean that I would have to go against the party, I’d have to resign from the party at that stage, if that situation came about. I would have to become an Independent TD then, once I had resigned from the party.
“I’d change over and I’d leave the party at that stage, if I was being whipped into voting for another coalition, having done badly in this one,” he added.
O’Dea’s comments will be a blow to the Fianna Fáil party which has struggled to maintain popularity with voters after it’s catastrophic performance in the 2011 general election when it shed 57 seats.
O’Dea said Fianna Fáil needs a total reboot to reorganise itself, he reiterates another confidence and supply deal would be “the death-knell for Fianna Fáil” and a few years sitting on the opposition seats of Dáil Éireann would do his party “enormous good”.
“I think Fianna Fáil needs to get back into opposition, as I say I wouldn't be part of a government with any other party. I will not, even if I am elected next time – if I stand again – and if I’m elected as a Fianna Fáil TD, I wouldn't support the party if they were in coalition with anybody else, I would oppose that; that’s being as honest as I can with you.
“I think that another term in government would be the finish of Fianna Fáil, and I think the figures in the next election will prove that.”
O’Dea said he doesn’t see his party improving on its 2020 election result in which it was left dangling between power-sharing and the opposition benches with just one more seat than Sinn Féin.
“Fianna Fáil have been mauled as a result of being in confidence and supply, and all the indications are that they will be mauled further by the experience of being in coalition government”.
Clearly disillusioned with Micheál Martin’s leadership skills, O’Dea indicated he would support Jim O’Callaghan as the next leader of Fianna Fáil.
He is no stranger to taking sides during tumultuous periods within the party and was sidelined from the Fianna Fáil front bench for the first ten years of his Dáil career when he was part of several moves within the party to oust Charlie Haughey as leader.
“I’d like to see a fresh approach, and when Micheál Martin moves on - one might suggest one of the minister’s around him as a candidate, but I don’t think that will be seen as a real change by the public – I think Jim O’Callaghan would be an alternative, certainly, he is a serious contender,” said O’Dea.
“What I’m saying is that, if Fianna Fáil is to be seen as getting away from what it was, the last thing you need is more of the same. You have to present a new image and you must do it from the top down.
“It must be a new modern image, people who have no association really with the past, and what’s equally important is to have people who don't really have too close an association with the present government.”
O’Dea said supporters have “deserted the party because we are intermingled with Fine Gael, and if you’re to entice those supporters back, the last thing you want to do is put in one of the present ministers (as party leader) because – and I’ve nothing personal against any of them – but people would see it as more of the same”.
The Limerick TD, said Fianna Fáil has never fully recovered from tribunals into alleged corruption that rocked the party in the 1990s: “The stuff that came out of tribunals, the looking for money and accepting money and all that – the foundations of Fianna Fail’s difficulties today derive directly from that period.”
“When you read all the stuff that came out subsequently. I had been working with Pricewaterhouse accountants in Dublin (prior to being first elected in February 1982) and I was in their tax department, and naturally, like, I would have had a lot of contacts in the financial area in Dublin, and I thought that even if one tenth of the stories I had heard about Charlie Haughey were true, I couldn’t support him.”
Looking back at his four decades as a Fianna Fáil TD, O’Dea said he had very little regrets, however, the party’s woeful performance in the 2020 general election stands out as “a traumatic experience”.
O’Dea has kept a seat for Fianna Fáil warm in the Dáil across 11 successive General Elections, since he was first elected in February 1982.
He has proven to be a survivor despite challenges during his “colourful career”, including his resignation as Minister for Defence, in 2010, after perjury allegations followed a libel case that saw him fork out €100,000 to his political nemesis Maurice Quinlivan for wrongly linking the Sinn Féin TD to a brothel.
O’Dea, a qualified lawyer and accountant, has refused to fade away from the political landscape but he has contemplated more recently that the sun will set on his political life in the not too distant future.
He confessed he has been contemplating retirement more often but said he will carry on “as long as the people want me”.
“Yes, forty years in a job is a long time, I worked for ten years before that, so I’ve been working for a good 50 years, and a lot of fellas, when they're working for fifty years, feel they’re inclined to take a break.”
And he agrees it is going to be harder for Fianna Fáil candidates to win or keep their seats due to the party’s decline in popularity, “undoubtedly, the answer to that is an unequivocally yes, of course it is”.
While he may not like to admit it, he is still hurting since relinquishing his crown as ‘poll-topper’ in Limerick City, to his political nemesis Maurice Quinlivan, who romped home first past the post in Limerick City with 15 hundred more first preference votes than O’Dea, which O’Dea puts down to a rising “tide” of support for Sinn Féin.
His one personal regret, he said, was resigning as minister for defence, because he explained a subsequent garda investigation into allegations of perjury found he had no case to answer.
Despite it all, his secret to his survival in politics over fourth years has been “by going out knocking on doors and making myself available, the old fashioned way, I suppose”.
O’Dea said he is considering penning a tell-all memoir, from a treasure-trove of “diaries I have kept since my first day in the Dáil” and which has already attracted the interest of several publishers.
“Well, when I write it, it’ll be called WillieLeaks,” he jokes, “and I can assure you it’ll have to be scrutinised by the lawyers...there’ll be lots of fellas nervous, some of them are no longer with us, but a lot of them still are”.