Successors clash as Cowen demands action
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has hit back at Fianna Fáil leadership rival Jim O’Callaghan as war threatens to break out in the party over its disastrous by-election performance in Dublin Bay South.
Mr O’Brien yesterday told the Sunday Independent he was “surprised” at comments made by Mr O’Callaghan, who said after the humiliating defeat that Fianna Fáil did not understand the scale of the housing problem.
In a day of high drama that heightened the prospect of a leadership challenge to Taoiseach and party leader Micheál Martin:
• Sacked former agriculture minister Barry Cowen demanded an emergency in-person meeting of the parliamentary party, leadership and senior officials to discuss the “alarming” by-election result and last year’s general election outcome;
• It can be revealed attempts are under way to secure the signatures of 10 TDs on a motion of no confidence in Mr Martin — which would trigger a debate and potential vote on his leadership — with efforts to be stepped up in the coming days, according to one TD;
• Several TDs and ministers privately said Mr O’Callaghan now needs to make his intentions more widely known on the leadership.
Mr O’Callaghan is seen as the front runner to replace Mr Martin as leader, with Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien also in contention.
“I regret I don’t think Fianna Fáil understands the scale of the problem in housing,” Mr O’Callaghan, who was the party’s director of elections in Dublin Bay South, said after the humiliating by-election defeat.
Yesterday, however, Mr O’Brien said: “I was somewhat surprised by the comments made.
“The Taoiseach has consistently said housing is our number one priority, I’ve said it too and I think that really is recognised by the parliamentary party.”
The discontent in Fianna Fáil was underscored last night when Mr Cowen said it was “imperative” both the by-election and last general election comes under the parliamentary party microscope.
“There is little or no justification for further delay on these matters,” he said in an email to colleagues.
It is understood Mr Cowen has also written to the chairman of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.
Late last night, Mr Cowen confirmed to the Sunday Independent he had contacted members of the parliamentary party after the by-election. His statement was widely circulated on the WhatsApp messaging service, leading to feverish speculation.
Mr Cowen said he was not making further comment for now. “I believe the electorate deserve a focused, cohesive FF party that is fit for purpose to serve as a republican party in the 21st century,” his statement to colleagues said.
As the prospect of a Fianna Fáil leadership challenge grew last night, Mr O’Brien pointedly rejected rival Mr O’Callaghan’s comments on housing.
“We absolutely get the scale of it, we know what’s at stake, and since taking office just a year ago everything we have done is aimed at increasing supply and putting affordability at the heart of housing policy,” Mr O’Brien said.
Yesterday Mr O’Callaghan insisted he was not criticising Mr O’Brien when he spoke in the immediate aftermath of the by-election but said housing was “a very serious problem”.
He said of Mr O’Brien: “He has made very valiant efforts to try and turn around the housing crisis, but it’s a huge task. I am saying it is a huge issue and it will determine our fate, but I am not undermining Darragh O’Brien.”
The clash between two of the more prominent contenders to succeed Taoiseach Micheál Martin as leader comes after the party’s worst-ever election result, with Councillor Deirdre Conroy winning less than 5pc of the vote in Dublin Bay South.
As the fall-out threatens to escalate, other senior Fianna Fáil sources urged calm and maintained no attempt will be made to oust Mr Martin as Fianna Fáil leader while he is Taoiseach.
However, a majority expect he will step down when he swaps places as Taoiseach with Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar.
Other Fianna Fáil sources also believe Mr Martin should continue as Taoiseach but resign as Fianna Fáil leader now to allow his successor to be elected.
Mr Martin has said he will continue as Taoiseach and party leader and lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election.
But Mr O’Callaghan also said on Friday, when asked if Mr Martin should lead Fianna Fáil into the next election, that it would depend on when that is.
When it was put to him that it could be 2024 or 2025, the backbencher responded: “We’ll have to think about that.”
Such was the scale of the Fianna Fáil defeat in Dublin Bay South, Mr O’Callaghan’s seat would be in jeopardy at the next election. However, his supporters believe his seat would be shored up if he were to become party leader.
There is growing disillusionment, with the party’s justice spokesman among those agitating leadership change. One TD, who is a minister, said of O’Callaghan’s leadership ambitions: “Jim has to make up his mind if he wants this and he has to let people know.”
A second TD said “there is no appetite from Jim to do anything” and that the Taoiseach’s “position has been strengthened by the lack of an alternative”.
A third TD said: “A lot of the lads are getting disillusioned with Jim because he’s not doing anything, it’s all very half-hearted, you kind of wonder if the guy is up for it at all.”
Elsewhere, Minister of State Anne Rabbitte said the party needed to define its identity before there was any discussion of the leadership.
"Before there’s any talk of who should lead the party, we need to first decide what the party stands for and what the Fianna Fáil brand means because right now, it’s not clear. And the public can see that,” she said. “You don’t pick a Sherpa before you pick the mountain.”
Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill said there needs to be a “root and branch review” of what’s going wrong with Fianna Fáil.
Kildare North TD James Lawless said the party has a problem nationally.and while praising the work of the Taoiseach and ministers, he added: “Critics should be listened to, not dismissed. Are we there to win the argument or win the vote? We should be trying to do both.”
But another senior TD, who declined to be named, said: “Something has to happen, we can’t just muddle onto disaster, we’re heading over the cliff edge, we’ve no identity.”
Meanwhile, Housing Minister, Mr O’Brien said he was “fully focused” on our upcoming Housing for All plan which will be launched in the coming weeks and which would deliver “radical change”, particularly for young people and generation rent. He cited the “support and input” of colleagues like Paul McAuliffe, Mary Fitzpatrick and Cormac Devlin “to name just a few.”