Friday 19 January 2018

Fine Gael TDs out for blood after Perry trial

FG secretary general under pressure over "needless waste" of funding to force John Perry off ticket, writes Philip Ryan

ON TICKET: John Perry. Photo: Courtpix
ON TICKET: John Perry. Photo: Courtpix
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Fine Gael TD John Perry's Coalition career got off to a good start when he was appointed Minister for Small Business by Taoiseach Enda Kenny after the 2011 General Election.

Some would say this was a reward for remaining loyal to Kenny through thick and thin. But then things went downhill.

Danske Bank secured a €2.4m claim against Perry and his wife Marie, which threatened to bankrupt the TD, and eyebrows were raised over an AIB loan and mileage claims. To make matters worse, Kenny stripped him of his ministry and sent him to the backbenches after his Cabinet reshuffle.

Contrastingly, his constituency colleague, Tony McLoughlin, kept the head down and got on with things, which gave him somewhat of an advantage on Perry with the local support in the revamped Sligo Leitrim constituency.

The new four-county electoral area posed problems for Fine Gael before the selection convention ever took place.

The party believed it had a chance of returning two candidates in the four-seat constituency but only one would come from Sligo where Perry and McLoughlin are based.

The other would have to come from the Leitrim end of the constituency, where former TD Gerry Reynolds and Senator Michael Comiskey put their names forward.

With the convention approaching, Perry first threatened legal action over the exclusion of his supporters from the vote.

Fine Gael said they were ineligible as they had not registered as members in the previous two years as was required under party rules.

On October 16, Fine Gael members descended on the Mayflower Ballroom in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim for the hotly anticipated selection convention.

What happened over the following hours is disputed but Fine Gael secretary general Tom Curran would later describe the organisation of the event as "chaotic" in a strongly worded letter to local organiser Darragh Kelly.

At around 3am the next morning, McLoughlin and Reynolds were selected as Fine Gael's general election candidates.

Perry was left out in the cold but presumed he would be added to the ticket on the back of a commitment from Kenny that every sitting TD could contest the election if they wished.

Perry pleaded with Kenny at Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meetings but the Taoiseach remained steadfast.

During these meetings, he alluded to what he saw as serious irregularities around votes being cast and not cast on the night of the selection convention. There was a lot of sympathy for him in the party, with many believing removing him from the ticket set a dangerous precedent.

On November 9, Kevin O'Higgins, a solicitor representing Tom Curran and Fine Gael, wrote to Cahir O'Higgins, who was mediating between the party and Perry.

Mr O'Higgins said he had been "advised" that Curran "observed some unorthodoxy" during the convention which included the behaviour of Mr Perry, who he alleged was canvassing members before the vote ­- this is not allowed under party rules.

However, the solicitor said the general secretary regarded that the convention was "reasonably satisfactory" despite a "glitch or two". It was also noted that Mr Perry had not complained during the convention.

On November 15, Perry launched a High Court action against his own party seeking to overturn the result of the vote in Drumshambo.

In his affidavit, Perry listed a litany of concerns with the convention including allegations that members who did not attend the convention were recorded as having voted, while others who did vote did not have their votes recorded. Under questioning, he described panic and pandemonium on the night of the vote but was accused of exaggerating because he had lost by Fine Gael's legal team.

During his evidence, Darragh Kelly, the constituency organiser, accepted there were minor irregularities on the night but denied the event was chaotic or disorganised.

Kelly was also questioned on a draft report on the convention in which he said Curran suggested removing two votes belonging to Perry before the count but he decided not to do it as a "matter of conscience". Curran denied saying this.

There was no mention of this in the final report Kelly submitted as evidence and he denied he was asked to remove the reference to "take one for the team".

The next day, the letter Curran sent to Kelly on October 23 emerged for the first time - this was also not given to Perry's team before the trial.

In the letter, Curran tells Kelly he wants to express his concern with the "chaotic organisation" of the convention, where "not one mistake was made but a catalogue".

He said the litany of mistakes "drained people's confidence in the competency of the returning officer" and said he would be returning to the matter after the general election.

Perry's side sought to have the defence's case thrown out for not revealing the letter during discovery. The judge overruled. Later that day, Curran shocked the court room when he revealed that adding Perry was still an option. A

And then, before Curran could be cross-examined, Fine Gael added Perry.

The botched attempt to force Perry from the ticket now looks set to cost Fine Gael around €500,0000 and party members, who will spend thousands on their election campaigns, are looking for blood. Senior figures in the party want to know if Kenny gave the okay for the court challenge and, if not, will he hold Curran to account for the cock-up?

Perry is planning to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to look at how his own party spends public funding and Curran will face questions at the next Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting.

Cork East TD Tom Barry also called for an independent review of the "needless waste" of money and said there is too much power divested to the upper ranks of the party.

Mr Barry said Fine Gael was becoming like the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) with "too much power divested to the executive and particularly one member".

"It would be appropriate, following such a public trial where large sums of money were needlessly wasted, that a full independent review be initiated," he said

Many senior Fine Gael figures are also deeply concerned but did not want to speak out, fearing retribution from party headquarters.

"This is a scandalous waste of money. How is Curran ever going to have the credibility to ring up a TD and tell them to sell more superdraw tickets after this," a minister said.

Sunday Independent

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