Tuesday 16 January 2018

FG family at war in race for Big Phil's vacant seat

Three contenders for FG nomination in Carlow-Kilkenny are related to each other and live just 10 minutes apart

Former IFA President John Bryan (far right) withEurope's Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Phil Hogan and Sean Kelly MEP. Photo: Pat Moore.
Former IFA President John Bryan (far right) withEurope's Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Phil Hogan and Sean Kelly MEP. Photo: Pat Moore.
John Bryan

Daniel McConnell and John Drennan

The race to fill the seat vacated by former minister Phil Hogan in Carlow-Kilkenny has sparked a furious row within Fine Gael, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his party hierarchy want former Irish Farmers' Association President John Bryan to be the party's candidate in the May by-election.

However, two of the party's sitting representatives, Senator Pat O'Neill and Councillor David Fitzgerald are both seeking the nomination and are deeply opposed to any move by Fine Gael headquarters to parachute Mr Bryan into the race.

But the three-horse race is all the more delicate because it is also, to a large degree, a family affair.

Mr O'Neill and Mr Fitzgerald are first cousins and that isn't the only connection. The wife of Mr Fitzgerald's uncle is Mr Bryan's first cousin.

All three live within four miles of each other, close enough in the old days to meet at the parish pump.

Mr Bryan confirmed to the Sunday Independent two weeks ago that he is interested in contesting the seat for Fine Gael. Mr Fitzgerald retorted that Mr Bryan's bid for the nomination was a "bad move for the party".

"The party hierarchy are clearly tempted by a George Lee, X-Factor-type bid that Bryan offers, but it could end up doing the party more damage in the long run," Mr Fitzgerald told the Sunday Independent.

Mr Fitzgerald, who is a former Mayor of Kilkenny says that he is the best candidate for the seat given his geographical location.

He also suggested that Mr Bryan could ultimately end up hurting sitting TD John Paul Phelan, who has opposed Mr Kenny previously.

"There is certainly a view within the party that Mr Bryan could be used to take John Paul out," Mr Fitzgerald said.

Mr Bryan has been appearing before a number of branches in the Carlow-Kilkenny area in recent weeks.

"I am getting a great response and many, many people have told me I am the best man for the job," Mr Bryan told this newspaper.

It is clear that Mr Kenny and the party are very keen on Mr Bryan contesting the seat as they feel he is their best chance of holding the seat.

A senior Fine Gael source said Mr Bryan would be an "outstanding candidate".

"Of course, John Bryan is a great choice to run for Fine Gael. I would go as far as to say he will run for Fine Gael," the source said.

Mr O'Neill, who is from Bennettsbridge, Kilkenny, confirmed to the Sunday Independent, that he too is interested in the nomination. Mr O'Neill is a close political ally of Mr Hogan.

"Yes I will be going forward and seeking the nomination," he said. When asked about Mr Bryan, Senator O'Neill said he was not aware of his intentions either way.

Mr O'Bryan has been linked with Fine Gael last year as a possible candidate for the European elections in the Ireland South constituency.

He ultimately withdrew from the Fine Gael process and also rebuffed overtures from Fianna Fail, who also recognised his potential as a political candidate.

But Mr Bryan declared himself to be a Fine Gael supporter.

"I have always been a Fine Gaeler, but had to step back from such things given my role in the IFA for over 16 years," he said.

"I had to deal with politicians from all parties and none, so going for another party isn't an option."

But the decision to court Mr Bryan is driven by the findings of an internal party poll which suggests the party looks set to lose the seat.

In 2011, Fine Gael secured 40pc of the first preference vote, but internal polling reveals that the two current most likely candidates, Mr O'Neill and Mr Fitzgerald are securing just 12pc each.

Sources told the Sunday Independent that should the former Fianna Fail TD Bobby Aylward run he is likely to top the poll with 24pc.

Despite Mr Aylward's strong showing in the poll he is not assured of the Fianna Fail nomination either.

One Fianna Fail source said: "Micheal Martin is sweet on a female candidate like Jennifer Murnane O'Connor from Carlow but his plans may be sunk by a grand coalition of the Aylward and [John] McGuinness factions, gender quotas have a long way to go in Carlow-Kilkenny."

The poll indicates that contrary to national polls Sinn Fein will not be a major force in this by-election. Labour by contrast is polling just above 10pc which, if maintained, would give the party an outside chance of retaining its seat in any general election.

Junior Minister Ann Phelan topped the poll in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency for Labour in 2011.

Sunday Independent

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