Friday 15 November 2019

Political football: how dissidents outplayed FG

Fine Gael rebels are doing the State some service by challenging the old boy orthodoxy, writes Daniel McConnell

Two events of the last seven days reveal Enda Kenny's attitude toward those willing to challenge the orthodoxy in his party.

Last Monday, eight Fine Gael TDs risked their political careers and put their head above the parapet and voiced their dissatisfaction with the controversial Croke Park deal in a letter to a national newspaper.

Driven by paranoia, the heavy handed response by party bosses to the letter looks set to culminate in sanctions being handed out to some or all of the group next week.

Then on Friday it emerged that six county councillors in Waterford had been cleared by party elders for voting in favour of a controversial development, which ultimately led to the jailing of Fred Forsey for corruption.

"Legitimate but ill-advised," was the conclusion from party headquarters about their actions.

Meanwhile, two other FG councillors -- Maxine Keoghan and Ann Marie Power -- both linked to fellow party dissident John Deasy and who objected to the project and who have refused to kowtow to the party line, have lost the whip, until next year.

But, back to the eight TDs, or the Five-A-Side club as they have become known.

They first came to prominence in a Miriam Lord Irish Times column in July, the gang of 10 young and not so young male Fine Gael TDs, who began socialising and playing football together but were quickly discovered to be discussing policy matters.

On getting wind of their meetings, after one of the gang ratted them out, Enda Kenny called in Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy, the perceived leader of the group, and told them to disband, as he would not tolerate factions in his party.

The original gang of 10, (hence the Five-A-Side moniker) were: Sean Kyne (Galway West); Paul Connaughton Jnr (Galway East); Brendan Griffin (Kerry South); Eoghan Murphy (Dublin South East); Anthony Lawlor (Kildare North); Sean Conlon (Cavan Monaghan); Pat Deering (Carlow Kilkenny); Noel Harrington (Cork South West); Martin Heydon (Kildare South) and Brian Walsh (Galway West).

Walsh appears to have stepped back from the group since, while Heydon's name was not included in the final letter in the Irish Examiner last Monday.

"Once bitten, twice shy, Enda was not taking any chances, having survived one heave," is how one senior party figure described the reason for the dressing down.

Then last month, the gang came again to prominence after I wrote about them at the FG party think-in in Westport. "Some of us feel the direction of the party is not what it should be. This was not a plot to topple the leader, but rather a forum to vent and discuss what the party should be doing," said one of the rebel TDs.

My report brought heat back upon the group and they since have become a constant talking point in the corridors of Leinster House, succeeding in cultivating the sort of mythology that grew up around the Lemass group of dissidents in the previous Fianna Fail administration under Brian Cowen.

But what prompted the group's intervention in the Irish Examiner?

It seems Eoghan Murphy was asked by Paul O'Brien, the Examiner's political editor to write an opinion piece for the paper, but throughout the course of last weekend amid reports of alleged inflation of savings achieved under the Croke Park Agreement (denied by Brendan Howlin) the decision was taken to submit a letter from the group instead.

The matter had arisen under questioning by Murphy of the Croke Park implementation body chief PJ Fitzpatrick, and was reported by this newspaper and The Sunday Business Post last weekend.

A first draft was sent round and each of the group made additions and changes to the letter before it was signed off and sent to O'Brien at about lunchtime on Sunday.

The well-crafted letter represents an important turning point in the lifetime of this Government.

To paraphrase, they said: Croke Park is not working; increments should be stopped; frontline services like home helps and disability payments should be protected and basically everything should be on the table come Budget Day.

But the significance of what they said, the manner in which they delivered their blow and the reaction to it from the top brass in Fine Gael. tell a lot about how this Government, but in particular Fine Gael under Enda Kenny, operates.

As often happens in Irish politics, the substance of the letter has been overshadowed by the machinations of how it came about, and what has happened to those eight since its publication.

Such is the level of paranoia within FG, the following questions were asked: Why this eight, who instigated the letter and why was it given to the Examiner? But another question being asked is the following: is there a puppet master pulling the strings?

Media strategists have commented on the slickness of how the letter was dropped and followed up in a seemingly coordinated fashion throughout Monday.

First, it appears in the Irish Examiner. Then Sean Kyne appeared on Morning Ireland, while Pat Deering appeared on Newstalk. It wasn't just one TD fronting it. They spread it around. But then there was silence. They pulled up the shutters and allowed the matter play out.

Further requests from TV and radio shows were declined.

While senior ministers, including Phil Hogan and Michael Noonan, have sought to downplay the significance of the letter, and called on such debates to happen in-house, it is clear the young bucks went to the media feeling they had exhausted all other avenues.

"We raised this stuff in several meetings weeks back and nothing happened, and worse, having listened to Howlin it was clear nothing was likely to change. That's why we went with it. I don't regret it, and I am not backing down," said one country TD.

Three weeks ago at a parliamentary party meeting several of the group stood up one after the other to voice their criticism of Howlin's failure to deliver €71.5m in promised allowance savings. The similarity of their contributions led many to think it was a coordinated intervention, but to them nothing changed.

Following the letter's publication, Chief Whip Paul Kehoe called in seven of the eight rebels to give them a dressing down.

"It was suggested to them strongly that the parliamentary party is the best forum for these sort of discussions, not the national media. They learned their lesson, it is fair to say," one party elder has said.

In what may be a move to isolate Murphy -- who is seen by Kenny's inner circle as the main troublemaker -- he has yet to be called in by Kehoe.

"It is not decided what to do with him and them and he will be hauled in this week," the senior party source said.

But the group seems intent on sticking together and not allowing Murphy or any of them to be singled out.

Kehoe has already apparently been told by Lawlor: "If you want to hang one of us, then you hang all of us."

It has also been said that implicit threats have been made about future prospects in order to "put manners on us".

Despite the letter being all the talk of the party, strangely it did not feature at all formally during the parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday.

Some have said this was because Enda Kenny was in Brussels, and that it is likely to be raised this week.

"There was one or two off- the-cuff references to it, but it was not raised at all in any formal sense. I thought it would have kicked off but not a word was said," said one FG TD.

Aside from the heavy handedness from the party leadership, the reaction from other Fine Gael backbenchers has been somewhat mixed.

While many share the frustrations with Croke Park and are supportive of their comments and the manner in which they broke ranks, others are clearly angry about having their dissident clothes stolen from them. Some others feel the manner of the letter's publication has done damage to the cause of achieving progress on Croke Park.

Some others have refuted the claims that open debate within Fine Gael is being suppressed.

Cork TD Dara Murphy said: "As long as I have been here, I have never come across any attempt to stop or prevent a debate."

Murphy said he also disagreed with the group's tactics, that it would have been better to keep it in-house. "Absolutely not -- I would not have signed that letter. Many of the guys are friends of mine but I don't agree with what they did," he added.

With Murphy to be hauled in next week, it has also emerged that a number of the group intend using a two day debate on the state of the Irish economy to restate their critical views of the Government's lack of progress in relation to Croke Park.

Far from the honest and open transparent politics he promised, it is clear Enda Kenny's Fine Gael operates on the principles of "ein volk, ein reich".

Dissent is 'Verboten'; shut your mouth or risk your career; dare not speak your mind or you will be isolated, marginalised and dismissed.

But, they have said no.

The Five-A-Side Club and the two councillors in Waterford have risked a lot by speaking out. The councillors have lost the whip by standing up for what they believe in, while the eight TDs are now facing sanction for their troublemaking antics.

The attitude of Kenny should not be one of suspicion and punishment, but one of pragmatism. Let the arguments be debated and stand or fall on the strength of the case being made.

For at least prompting the debate, the rebels have certainly done their State some service.

Sunday Independent

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