Wednesday 16 October 2019

Thousands desert Fine Gael, as nearly a decade in power takes its toll

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Thousands of members have quit Fine Gael in recent years as nearly a decade in power has taken its toll on the party.

Leaked figures obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal the scale of Fine Gael's decline across the country with the party losing a fifth of its membership since 2013.

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In total, just under 6,000 members have quit the party in the last five years with consistent year-on-year falls in membership which stood at nearly 31,000 in 2013 but was fewer than 25,000 last year.

Hundreds of activists have been lost in its traditional heartlands in rural Ireland such as Galway, Meath, Mayo and Kerry. This stands in sharp contrast to Dublin where the party's support appears to have held relatively steady in recent years.

The overall figures likely reflect the growing discontent with the party after its two-terms in government and a belief that Fine Gael is too Dublin-centric in its outlook at the expense of rural Ireland.

Despite record employment and strong economic growth, the housing and health crises have worsened in recent years.

There have also been seriously damaging controversies with the large overspends in the National Children's Hospital and rural broadband shattering Fine Gael's reputation for fiscal prudence.

This period in which Fine Gael has lost thousands of members covers over half of the party's two-terms in government where it has been led by both Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar.

The election of Mr Varadkar as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, replacing Mr Kenny after 15 years, failed to arrest the decline with the party losing almost a thousand members between 2017 and 2018 alone.

Mr Varadkar's election as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach over two years ago came despite two-thirds of the ordinary party members voting for Simon Coveney, who later became Tanaiste and has been spearheading the country's response to Brexit.

But all is not well for Fine Gael in Mr Coveney's native Cork where it has lost over 800 members in recent years, including nearly 400 in the constituency of Cork South-West where Minister for Older People Jim Daly, who recently announced he is stepping down at the next election, is based.

Senior ministers have suffered the loss of hundreds of members in their constituencies with over 230 members quitting the party in Wicklow, the base of Health Minister Simon Harris who, despite the success of the abortion referendum last year, has endured a troubled three years with various controversies, including the CervicalCheck debacle, the Children's Hospital overspend and ongoing budget overruns in the HSE.

Hundreds of members have also been lost in the constituencies of Education Minister Joe McHugh who is in Donegal and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan who is based in Laois-Offaly.

Some of the most alarming declines in membership numbers are in Meath where, despite having three ministers including the high-profile Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee as well as junior housing minister Damien English, Fine Gael has lost more than 400 members since 2013.

In Galway, where over 600 members have been lost in recent years, the constituency is the home of Government Chief Whip Sean Kyne.

The list also records provisional membership figures for 2019 showing that just over 19,000 people have renewed their party membership up to the end of August this year.

According to the provisional figures there are 100 fewer Fine Gael members in Dublin Bay South, the constituency of the beleaguered Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy with drops in other ministers' constituencies and Mr Varadkar's Dublin West base.

A Fine Gael spokesman said: "We don't anticipate any decrease in membership this year."

Sunday Independent

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