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Maeve Sheehan: How firebrand Clare left the Socialists reeling


Mick Wallace and his political ally Clare Daly. Photo: Tom Burke

Mick Wallace and his political ally Clare Daly. Photo: Tom Burke

Mick Wallace and his political ally Clare Daly. Photo: Tom Burke

RUMOUR followed Clare Daly into the Teachers Club last weekend. News had yet to officially break about her resignation from the Socialist Party.

But word spread fast among the 120 delegates attending the latest meeting of the campaign to boycott the household charge, in which Daly is a leading light. Some were from the party she had walked out on, to the apparent fury of her former comrades.

"She came into the room with everybody else. There was no announcement but the whispers went around the room that she had left the Socialist Party," said Seamus O'Brien, a People Before Profit councillor from Wexford. "I think, like everyone on the street, I would have assumed that it had to do with Mick Wallace."

Ah, Mick Wallace. The capitalist property developer-turned-TD who claimed he was a socialist at heart until his tax-dodging confession caused the Left to denounce him -- with the exception of Clare Daly, his unlikely ally.

All summer, their friendship was a focal point for disarray within the party. And on that Saturday, anti-household-charge campaigners such as Seamus O'Brien didn't have to wait long to have their assumptions that Wallace was the cause of Daly's departure endorsed by the Socialist Party.

Revenge was in the air. It had a statement on its website by 9am that, instead of communicating Daly's reasons for resigning, gave the official party version: she placed more value on her political friendship with Mick Wallace than on the political positions and work of the Socialist Party. Her political crimes included offering him "political support", she "publicly vouched for him" and "consciously and consistently" sat next to him in the Dail.

The timing of Daly's resignation and of the Socialist Party's swift retribution was significant. Among the mundane motions on the agenda that day was one to effectively ban Mick Wallace from their campaign. It should not "have any connection with or give any media or public meeting platform to Mick Wallace".

With accusations that she put Wallace before her politics ringing in her ears, Daly came to the defence of Wallace again -- albeit indirectly. With characteristic defiance, she spoke against the motion. Move on from this, she said. Someone in the Wexford camp shouted from the back of the room: "He hasn't even been convicted of anything." The motion was defeated, as she must have known it would be.

Afterwards, Daly issued a statement of her own, noting the "inaccurate statement" from her former colleagues. She followed up with her only interview, on RTE's News at One, in which she dismissed Wallace as a reason for her departure as "absolute nonsense". She was leaving in order to spend more time building up the United Left Alliance, the left-wing political grouping in the Dail, into a "real, serious political alternative to Labour, which I think is badly needed".

The truth, no doubt, lies somewhere in between. By refusing to acknowledge Wallace as a factor in her departure from the Socialist Party, Daly was denying the elephant in the room -- while the Socialist Party chose to attack Daly with what was really only a symptom of a very deep malaise between Daly and her former colleagues.

According to one close political source, the firebrand Daly had outgrown the dogmatic restrictions of the Socialist Party. "There were political issues that she didn't feel comfortable with in the party any more. She didn't agree with some of the positions they were adopting within the United Left Alliance. And there were other issues in the background. She said, 'no, I have to leave'. She felt that she could express herself better in the United Left Alliance," said the source. What kind of issues? Personality issues, for one, said the source.

One of the oddest sideshows in Dail this summer was how the friendship that struck up between Daly and Wallace has been blamed by Socialists for disarray within their ranks. Socialist Party members have declared themselves baffled by the political connection between Daly and Wallace, and accused Daly of failing to explain it to them.

And at first glance, a political affiliation between the two would seem slim. Wallace ended up in the Dail last year after the property crash destroyed his construction business and left him owing €40m to the banks. Daly arrived there after two decades of frontline agitation and activism.

Yet they share much common ground. Daly is the daughter of an Irish Army colonel, raised in Newbridge, Co Kildare, in relative privilege. Her brother and her uncle are priests, although she is an avowed atheist.

She joined Labour Youth in her teens and moved on to join the Socialist Party at the age of 21. She studied accountancy at what is now Dublin City University and became president of the Student Union. Despite her qualifications, after college she took a job in the catering department of Aer Lingus, on a low wage, her springboard to trade-union politics and, eventually, to the political arena.

Wallace, meanwhile, is one of 12 children born in Wexford, where his father ran a construction business. He went to UCD, studied English and Philosophy, and after a brief stint as a teacher he revived his father's business.

While Daly was practising socialism, Wallace became a practising capitalist, albeit with socialist leanings. During the boom, he reaped the profits of his construction business, MJ Wallace Construction, and indulged his passions -- football, food and family. At his height, he owned a string of developments in Dublin, most notably the Italian Quarter, a culinary corner on Dublin's quays. He stocked his restaurants with produce from Italy, sourced from his vineyard there.

He put his money where his mouth was to set up a football club in Wexford, bringing the local kids over to Turin once a year to play Inter Milan.

Both staged protests in their different ways. Daly campaigned against water charges and won a seat on Fingal County Council and went to jail for a month in 2003, along with Joe Higgins, during the anti-bin-charges campaign.

Wallace protested against the Iraq war by unfurling a banner from the city's quays, across the River Liffey: "No to War. No to Nice. No to American Terrorism", and took on Dublin City Council when it ordered him to take it down.

He was a property developer like no other in Dublin, using his notoriety as a contradictory socialist builder to highlight the deprivation he saw around his city centre building sites, his cynicism in establishment politics.

Both entered the Dail as first-timers, she for Dublin North and he as an independent for Wexford. They were both under the umbrella of the Technical Group, a grouping of TDs formed to avail of extra voting rights.

Wallace sat with Daly and her fellow TD, Joe Higgins. Wallace -- with his untamed locks, pink shirts and refusal to obey the sartorial code of suit and tie -- ensured they stuck out like a sore thumb, sitting next to her on Oireachtas Report. They were often seen having a drink together not far from Leinster House and once were photographed fine dining in One Pico.

Daly has bloomed under public scrutiny, physically and intellectually. She looks the part in sharp, edgy skirt suits, boots and well-cut hair. She is a strident and confident orator and refuses to be cowed in argument.

Wallace has not blossomed in the same way. In October last year, the Commercial Court ordered Wallace to repay more than €19m owed to ACC bank.

Two months later, he pleaded guilty to five charges of deducting pension contributions from his employees but failing to pay them into the Construction Workers' Pension Scheme over five months in 2008.

In June, he disclosed for the first time that his firm defrauded the Revenue Commissioners of €1.4m by making false VAT returns on apartment sales and reached a settlement of €2.1m.

Having admitted his wrongdoing, he planned to jet off to the Euro Championships but underestimated the public outcry at this perceived tax dodge.

He later apologised in the Dail, promising to repay the tax with half his €90,000 TD's salary. Under pressure, he left the Technical Group. But not without taking a potshot at the Socialist Party and People Before Profit for telling him how to run his business. "It is difficult to take lectures from people who never employed anyone in their lives. Many of them never did a day's manual work."

Daly didn't call for Wallace's resignation. But neither did Joe Higgins. In fact, the only members of the United Left Alliance to call for him to go were Seamus Healy and Richard Boyd Barrett.

Like other members of the United Left Alliance, Daly described what he did as wrong. Her sin was one of association with a tax evader and of failing to account for it before the party. She was accused of "promoting" Wallace in the campaign against the household charge and of refusing to work collectively with her colleagues.

Daly has had a fraught summer. Smarting from Wallace's dig at the party in the Dail, Higgins wanted Daly to sign a statement defending the party from Wallace's attack, as he saw it. Daly, he claimed, refused. According to sources in the Socialist Party, she was summoned to explain herself on three occasions before its national committee, the party's executive. But each time she refused to go. There was meeting after meeting, in their Dail offices, at the party headquarters, in the corridors of Leinster House, "advising" her on the damage she was causing to her own and the party's reputation. Clare Daly refused to budge.

Her relationship with Higgins disintegrated rapidly. The last time they spoke was before the August bank holiday. They were due to meet again before the Dail resumes this month. But Daly pre-empted the showdown last weekend, penning a letter to the leadership announcing her departure.

For someone with a reputation for being an independent-minded and pragmatic socialist, Daly's equivocation on Wallace has baffled her colleagues. But according to one source, Daly was already disillusioned with the party, had found a kindred political spirit in Wallace, and was not going to be party to banning him from rallying against the household charge in his own constituency.

As Clare Daly put it herself, the parting was akin to an "acrimonious divorce". Someone had to get hurt. Judging from the statement it put out nailing her departure to Mick Wallace, it was the Socialist Party, while still emotionally reeling from the break-up, like the jilted lover citing the other party in the divorce proceedings.

Sunday Independent