Sunday 24 February 2019

Flannery was Enda's PJ Mara – and a bigger loss than a minister to party

Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

IT'S impossible to overstate the impact of Frank Flannery's resignation on Fine Gael and Enda Kenny. It represents an earthquake within the party measuring off the end of the Richter scale, more significant than any ministerial casualty.

This man has dedicated his complete passion, intelligence and energy to Fine Gael. Having been a member of the party myself from 1979 to 2009, I can testify to his enormous internal influence.

Few in the upper echelons, let alone amongst the grassroots of the party, saw this coming as the Rehab row rumbled on. It's reasonable to surmise that, privately, Flannery felt so isolated by the party hierarchy's abandonment of him politically to the ravages of the Public Accounts Committee that he decided to go the whole hog and quit as director of elections and trustee.

Like Oliver Connolly, any pain in parting will be endured privately – with a public facade of loyalty.

Originally one of Garret FitzGerald's 'national handlers', he played a critical role throughout three general election campaigns of 1981-82 in rapid succession.

Along with Peter Prendergast, Enda Marron and Ted Nealon, they marketed 'Garret the Good' as a political brand.

Frank's specialist expertise lay in forensic analysis of ground wars, including: geographic spread of candidates; optimal numbers of runners on a ticket; localised constituency issues/traditions; acute radar for winnability among newcomers.

He didn't leave much to guesswork, pioneering private opinion poll sample ballot papers, pilot-testing possible parachutists and assessing the strengths of opposing party candidates. Without the nod from Frank, candidates could struggle through a convention, with no chance of being added by the national executive.

Throughout John Bruton's leadership, he remained one of the original FG godfathers who wielded an effective potent control of all matters relating to headquarters, organisation, strategy, finance and campaigning.

When Bruton was toppled as leader in 2001, Michael Noonan dispensed with his services (he also did not appoint Enda Kenny to the front bench). After the disaster of a campaign of 2002, when Kenny was elected leader, Flannery was the most pivotal figure in the party – bar none.

Both men hailed from the West of Ireland, Frank having been reared and educated in Co Galway and UCG. There, as president of the union of students of Ireland in 1971 and 1972, he formed an abiding friendship with Pat Rabbitte. This later formed a basis to construct the Mullingar Accord of the 2007 general election campaign between Labour and Fine Gael, with Rabbitte and Kenny as respective leaders.

During nine years when Kenny was leader in opposition, Flannery became much more than a party Svengali. His loyalty was as much to Kenny as to Fine Gael. He became the brains of the operation, masterminding blueprints for the modernisation of FG.

Flannery became for Kenny what PJ Mara was to the Fianna Fail of Charlie Haughey and Bertie Ahern; Karl Rove to George Bush; Alastair Campbell to Tony Blair – indispensable, unswervingly loyal mentor in darkest moments.

For Kenny, his resignation is akin to bereavement. It is made all the more painful because it was inflicted in the classic 'whiskey and revolver' method: "Sorry, mate, there's nothing I can do for you. Good night, good luck and safe on the way home . . ."

Politics is the cruellest and most heartless profession, where personal and party survival makes even your closest colleague/friend expendable.

Few party insiders, except Environment Minister Phil Hogan, Mark Mortell (chief party PR guru/closest associate of Frank), Tom Curran (general secretary) and Mark Kennelly (Taoiseach's chief of staff) will ever know the debt that Fine Gael owes Flannery.

It's dubious whether Kenny would have become Taoiseach without Flannery's skills and commitment. That counted for nothing this week. At the political summit, loyalty is a one-way street. Coincidentally, it sends messages to ministers that if Frank can be let go, anybody can.

When Enda's political career is over, hopefully he will recall this as one of his saddest and darkest weeks – I'd expect no less in terms of human decency. It's events like this that make parents discourage their kids from careers in politics.

It's a personal tragedy for a man who could have handled things differently. Over recent months, there was open speculation about Flannery's private pension arrangements when retiring in 2006 as Rehab's CEO, having worked there since 1973 and as CEO since 1981. It was right in the middle of the Celtic Tiger era, when costs of defined benefit pensions started to escalate.

This matter from yesteryear came into sharp focus when the top-up payments of Paul Kiely's CRC pension contributions were revealed before the PAC. Two million euro was transferred from charitable CRC Friends funds to meet shortfalls in the staff pension fund. The depth of negative public reaction meant that the much larger Rehab charity's internal remuneration would inevitably come into focus.

Flannery quit the two organisations to which he had dedicated his adult life in order to evade further PAC probes. Given that transparency must emerge anyway, it's a dubious judgment call. Questions tend not to disappear.

Aside from those issues of genuine public interest, transparency and accountability, Flannery's exodus from Fine Gael deserved more fulsome generous tributes from former party colleagues.

Those enjoying high office as ministers, advisers and apparatchiks owe him mega debts of respect, gratitude and admiration for getting them where they are today.

Their silence is deafening.

Irish Independent

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