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‘The game was up’ – the inside story of Alan Kelly's downfall

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Former Irish Labour Party leader Alan Kelly (centre) speaking to the media outside Leinster House, Dublin, after resigning on Wednesday evening. Mr Kelly said that his parliamentary colleagues had told him they had lost confidence in his leadership. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Former Irish Labour Party leader Alan Kelly (centre) speaking to the media outside Leinster House, Dublin, after resigning on Wednesday evening. Mr Kelly said that his parliamentary colleagues had told him they had lost confidence in his leadership. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Former Irish Labour Party leader Alan Kelly (centre) speaking to the media outside Leinster House, Dublin, after resigning on Wednesday evening. Mr Kelly said that his parliamentary colleagues had told him they had lost confidence in his leadership. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Alan Kelly’s term as Labour leader was brutally ended by some of those who had, until quite recently, been his strongest supporters.

On Tuesday morning a delegation made up of Duncan Smith, the Dublin Fingal TD who nominated Mr Kelly for the leadership almost two years ago to the day, Cork East TD Seán Sherlock who backed him in that leadership election, and the Kildare-based Senator Mark Wall, another staunch supporter, told Mr Kelly he should either resign or face a motion of no confidence he would not win.

Mr Kelly immediately realised that, in the words of one party source, “the game was up”.

It was reminiscent of the Conservative Party members going to see Margaret Thatcher in 1990 to tell her it was time too. But they went singly or in pairs – and she had also been leader for 11 years, in comparison to less than two for Mr Kelly.

Sources suggested last night that the three senior figures were deputised to act on behalf of the entire Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after a meeting last Sunday where the strategy to oust the Tipperary TD was devised.

It had all come to a head the previous Thursday after the usual weekly Dáil votes where an issue with a recruitment process for a backroom position in the party arose.

During an emergency meeting of the PLP, several other matters arose around what a source described as “cultural issues” in the party under Mr Kelly’s leadership.

It was also the case that Labour has been stagnant in the polls under his leadership – an issue that has been the source of private frustration among many grassroots Labour members.

As one urban-based councillor put it last night, the party’s performance generally under his stewardship “meant you weren’t getting the most inviting response on certain doors in particular parts of my own constituency where Labour should be eating up the votes”.

Kelly himself identified the pandemic as part of the problem which much of his engagement with the grassroots playing out over Zooms in his home office.

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“I did find it difficult to get momentum,” he confessed last night.

But the more immediate issues last week left Kelly in a difficult spot and he was given the weekend to reflect on the matters raised by his colleagues. It was clear by Thursday afternoon, however, that he had, in the words of one person who attended, “lost the room”.

Labour may have engaged in internal revolutions in the past, but previous party leaders were less conspicuously given the nudge.

In comparison, Kelly has been forced to walk the plank – even if his colleagues stood four-square behind him on the Leinster House plinth as he made his departure, news of which was delivered via an emotional speech during which he paused several times to compose himself.

Last night a political wake was being held for him in the Dáil visitors’ bar. Labour was publicly closing ranks again, avoiding the privacy of the members’ bar. None of those supporting their leader in his personal sorrow were going to be seen to take any pleasure in his downfall.

Indeed there was a public handshake between Kelly and his rival in the leadership just two years ago, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, at the official departure on the plinth earlier in the evening. Kelly said he had always received the full support of his education spokesman.

The public saw snatches of Kelly in tough-guy posturing during the water charges crisis, when he was environment minister. But they may have assumed it was a tough-guy stance in a mission-critical government role.

Yet, tellingly, he was by then already unpopular among some officials within the department.

Kelly lost some key staff in recent times.

A major departure was that of his political director, Cónán Ó Broin, who abruptly decided that he wanted to go travelling last summer.

Kelly paid tribute to him and another former staff member, Siobhán de Paor, who left her position as an adviser last summer.

A well-placed source said last night: “You can’t rule the parliamentary party if don’t you have a strong office of staff and advisers. He never had the parliamentary party and he never had the others either. So it became very difficult to dominate, although he did try.”

Some people did speak to Mr Kelly about his tendency to raise his voice when impassioned, which he has demonstrated in the Dáil, and it was also noted last night that he did not play a prominent role in the party’s huge ground-level effort to win the Dublin Bay South by-election last July.

Nonetheless, Mr Kelly hailed Ivana Bacik’s election, hardly realising she was poised to be his successor less than a year later, having longer Oireachtas experience and a higher level of public recognition.

Ms Bacik is the “unanimous” choice of the parliamentary party, a source said. However, the task facing her could not be more challenging. As Kelly himself joked on the plinth: “If there was a choice between saving the world and saving the Labour Party, the world would be easier.”


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