Tuesday 20 November 2018

Kenny will lose 40 seats without me - Flannery

Former strategist reveals Taoiseach called him first to discuss his possible return to Fine Gael

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Frank Flannery
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Frank Flannery

Ronald Quinlan and Philip Ryan

Former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery has warned that the party could lose up to 40 seats, more than half its TDs, in the next general election.

However, Mr Flannery said he is willing to work to limit the electoral damage - but only if the party wanted him.

The proposed return of Mr Flannery is set to dominate discussion at a meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators this week ahead of the return of the Dail on Wednesday.

Last week, it emerged that the Taoiseach Enda Kenny had a meeting with his former adviser in the basement bar of the five-star Merrion Hotel in Dublin.

Now, Mr Flannery has revealed it was Mr Kenny who had reached out to him over Christmas.

The two men have since had several conversations during which it is understood his proposed return was discussed.

Mr Flannery told the Sunday Independent: "I don't think anyone in Fine Gael has reason to fear my involvement in the sense that if I were to get involved in Fine Gael it would be with a view to absolutely maximising the party's position.

He predicted that Fine Gael could still win over 30pc of the vote but to achieve that, he said, the party "must have out their very best team".

"My objective would be to bring back as many of those 76 [current number of TDs] as is humanly possible."

Mr Flannery's proposed return represents a high-risk gamble by Mr Kenny ahead of the key meeting of his party this Tuesday.

Mr Flannery severed all official links to Fine Gael last year at the height of the Rehab controversy.

But with Fine Gael in opinion-poll freefall, Mr Kenny believes he now needs his former strategist to plot a return to power.

Fine Gael is to hold a meeting of TDs and senators on Tuesday during which a range of issues will be discussed, including relations with Coalition partners Labour.

Yesterday, former Labour minister Joe Costello said Health Minister Leo Varadkar's "honeymoon period" was over and it was time to address the hospital trolley crisis.

Also yesterday, Labour Communications Minister Alex White said public-sector workers were "more than entitled" to pay increases - a view which will annoy several Fine Gael TDs.

And last week Equality Minister Aodhan O Riordain blamed Fine Gael for all of the Government's mistakes: "People are frustrated with the Government and we have had a very bad year - none of it, I would say, caused by Labour ministers".

The proposed return of Mr Flannery will also raise eyebrows in Labour and could provoke a public outcry.

At the height of the Rehab controversy it emerged that Mr Flannery had received payments of more than €409,000 from the organisation for consultancy work.

Some of this work involved lobbying on behalf of Rehab at a time when Mr Flannery still retained close links to the Fine Gael hierarchy.

Mr Flannery then declined to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to discuss the payments.

He resigned as a board member of the Rehab Group and quit all of his roles in Fine Gael, including one as a party trustee.

Since then, Mr Flannery has been highly critical of Fine Gael strategy.

Two months ago, he said of the Taoiseach: "His best- before date has passed a while ago."

However, over Christmas, Mr Kenny made contact with his former close ally.

Mr Flannery told the Sunday Independent: "Enda took the initiative in that he spoke to the political correspondents before Christmas and he stated that, first of all, he regarded our friendship as an ongoing affair and that he'd be willing to have a cup of coffee with me any time that we'd meet. That kind of opened the door, so we moved on from there."

Asked if he had called the Taoiseach on foot of those comments, Mr Flannery said: "Well the next message was from him to be honest with you. But that's fine. It was a mutual event from then on. It was mutual. It was two willing parties.

"We've had a frank exchange of views, so we understand each other."

Asked how many meetings they have had, he said: "I won't go into that. There haven't been a lot of meetings. We've had a couple of conversations and we've resumed our natural discourse. Let's put it that way."

He added: "Bear in mind, at the last election I was heavily involved in, the party won 76 seats. There's a massive challenge facing them. As we speak, they could be looking at losses of up to 40 seats."

Mr Flannery also said he did not think the Rehab controversy would damage Fine Gael should the party officially ask him to return: "I don't think it's relevant," he said.

However, former Fine Gael minister Lucinda Creighton yesterday questioned whether Mr Flannery had ever fully broken links with Fine Gael.

Ms Creighton, who plans to start her own party, said: "The party and especially the Taoiseach when talking about this democratic revolution that was promised, they always point to strengthening Oireachtas committees to being central to what they were about."

"The only relevant and strong committee is the Public Accounts Committee and Mr Flannery chooses to treat it and its members with utter contempt, so it all rings a bit hollow."

However, Mr Flannery said: "Insofar as that was a controversy, it relates to the fact that the Public Accounts Committee wanted to question me on things which the Committee on Procedures and Privileges determined were way outside the scope.

"There's no way I could be expected to engage in what was an extra-legal activity. I think it's worth emphasising I never refused to attend the PAC, but when I asked the PAC to tell me what they wanted to talk to me about, and how it related to their remit, they were unable to answer that question."

Meanwhile, former Labour minister Joe Costello said Health Minister Leo Varadkar's "honeymoon period" was over.

He said: "It's time to get the primary care centres up and running, we can't have another winter go by without them.

"We can't go into 2016, an election year, with a winter of discontent. It's not tolerable, and it can't be allowed to happen."

Sunday Independent

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