Fine Gael forced to grapple with another internal row as it investigates alleged racist slur
Fine Gael was forced to contend with another embarrassing internal row yesterday as it launched an investigation into allegations that a racist slur was used in reference to a former councillor at a party meeting in Meath.
The phrases "n****r in the woodpile" and "f***ing bitch" were alleged to have been uttered about independent councillor Gillian Toole, who quit Fine Gael earlier this year, at the party's district AGM in Kells last Monday.
John V Farrelly, a former long-serving Fine Gael TD for Meath, later issued a statement apologising "profusely" for using a "metaphor that has caused offence and hurt" following queries from the Irish Independent about the racist slur that was attributed to him by attendees.
Mr Farrelly, who is president of Meath Chamber of Commerce, said he apologised "unreservedly" on the night and has now stepped aside as chair of the Meath East Constituency. He "categorically" denied saying "f***ing bitch" during the course of the private party meeting.
"I am fully co-operating with the ongoing investigation that is being conducted by Fine Gael HQ, following last Monday night's Kells District AGM.
"I have stepped aside from my role as chairperson of the Meath East Constituency, pending the outcome of the investigation. I apologise profusely for using a metaphor that has caused offence and hurt, as this was not my intention," he said.
He added: "I also wish to put on record that I hold Councillor Gillian Toole with the highest regard and always have done."
Ms Toole quit Fine Gael in March ahead of the local elections, saying she felt the party's policies no longer reflected the needs of Meath people.
Asked to comment on the alleged remarks about her yesterday, Ms Toole told the Irish Independent: "This type of ongoing behaviour, accepted as 'norm' in Irish political life, is exactly why the advocacy of mental fitness/health, and the investment in same, is sadly lacking."
Local councillor Noel French said he was "horrified" by the remarks and said that Mr Farrelly was pulled up on them immediately at the meeting.
Another Fine Gael councillor, Sharon Tolan, who did not attend the meeting, said she was shocked to hear what had happened. "I would not be a member of a party where use of this language was commonplace or acceptable. It's certainly not reflective of the FG team in Meath," she said.
This latest controversy comes at a time when Fine Gael is grappling with allegations of bullying in its Waterford organisation made by local TD John Deasy, the Government's US envoy, and a former local election candidate, Fiona Dowd, who hit out at a "mob mentality".
Other Fine Gael figures in Waterford, including local senator Paudie Coffey and Fine Gael's former Seanad leader Maurice Cummins, have denied the bullying claims.
The party is now examining the matter and has said that any allegations of bullying will be fully investigated. But there is little doubt that the 'party of law and order' is now under scrutiny for how it handles internal disputes.
Mental Health Minister Jim Daly told Independent.ie's 'Floating Voter' podcast this week that the situation in Waterford was not an isolated incident and called on the party's general secretary Tom Curran to take action.
"I think the party needs to be managed by the general secretary and I think the general secretary needs to step up to the plate and take it seriously and acknowledge this is going on at various different levels and degrees in the constituencies," he said.
But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted yesterday that bullying is not a "systemic problem" in Fine Gael. "I don't think we should necessarily assume that all rows or all disputes constitute bullying," he said.
"But we need to take any claims of bullying very seriously, and the appropriate way of dealing with them is come to the party, go to general secretary and national executive and make a formal complaint and ask them to investigate it and they will."