Sunday 18 August 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Fine Gael is becoming a far from normal party'

The Taoiseach's party is dealing with racist language, bullying claims and state investigations into planning irregularities, writes Philip Ryan

Troubled: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar prepares to address a Fine Gael Ard Fheis - the party is now facing several internal issues. Photo: Frank McGrath
Troubled: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar prepares to address a Fine Gael Ard Fheis - the party is now facing several internal issues. Photo: Frank McGrath

Last Thursday morning, a Cork-based Fine Gael member called Humphrey Deegan arranged to meet the party's general secretary, Tom Curran.

Deegan wanted to lodge an official complaint over an incident in a pub involving Minister for Older People Jim Daly. He was told he should put the complaint in writing and he has yet to do so.

Deegan and Daly are in the same Fine Gael branch in Cork and it's fair to say they don't see eye to eye on everything.

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The complaint is just the latest in an escalation of tensions in the Cork South-West Fine Gael organisation. Deegan approached the party after hearing Daly raise concerns about bullying and constituency rivalries within Fine Gael on Independent.ie's Floating Voter podcast.

Daly's comments were in the context of the fall-out from claims of bullying and intimidation in the Waterford Fine Gael organisation which are currently being investigated by the party.

"Waterford, I think and I believe, is a symptom of a malaise within politics across parties," the minister said.

"I don't think it is party-specific and I think it needs to be tackled, to be honest," he added.

It may not be party-specific but Fine Gael has seen its fair share of ugly internal disputes in recent years. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar regularly criticises Sinn Fein for not being a "normal party", which they are not. But there is an element of throwing stones in glasshouses when you consider the dysfunctionality and indiscipline which has emerged within Fine Gael in recent years.

For instance, it is far from normal for a party to launch an internal review of a constituency after a group of members table a motion of no confidence in a local TD over his alleged lack of commitment to the organisation. Yet this is exactly what happened in Waterford.

Fine Gael's parliamentary chairman Martin Heydon is now overseeing the review of Fine Gael's operation in Waterford and he will interview local TD John Deasy and Senator Paudie Coffey who, despite running together in three general elections, haven't spoken to one another in years.

Deasy called for the branch to be disbanded after the motion of no confidence was tabled against him over his alleged lack of commitment to the constituency.

He also claimed bullying was rife in the organisation and his allegation was echoed by local Fine Gael member Fiona Dowd, who lodged a complaint with the party. Coffey insisted there was no bullying in the branch and there is disquiet among other members who feel the allegation is unfair.

It is also far from normal that a party would launch a separate investigation into the use of deeply offensive language by a former TD at a constituency meeting.

Yet former Meath TD John V Farrelly is going to face difficult questions from party chiefs after he publicly admitted to describing former Fine Gael member Gillian Toole as a "n****r in the woodpile".

Mr Farrelly has since apologised for the remark but categorically denied calling Toole a "f***ing bitch", which she alleged he also said. Not the type of thing you would expect a normal party to be dealing with in 2019.

It's not that long ago that former Fine Gael executive council member Barry Walsh was forced to step down from his position over a series of offensive social media comments he made about senior female politicians and abortion activists.

On Twitter, Walsh used the word "bitch" to describe both Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Social Democrats leader Roisin Shortall. He was also particularly nasty in his comments about actor and abortion campaigner Tara Flynn.

"From what Tara Flynn says, she was pregnant and just couldn't be bothered having a baby. So she had it killed. Why is she a feminist hero?" Walsh wrote.

Fine Gael's disciplinary committee suspended Walsh from the party for 12 months for his highly derogatory remarks but he appealed the decision to executive council and the suspension was overturned.

He remains a party member and Fine Gael say the matter is now closed. Again, not the most normal of political behaviour. It's the type of predicament you would expect US President Donald Trump to be dealing with, not the leader of Fine Gael.

Only last year, Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone said she had been bullied by a male party colleague. She claimed the colleague had been sexist towards her and had spoken down to her in front of other party members.

The issue was dealt with internally by the party and it did not result in a disciplinary process. Noone said she wanted to move on from the issue, which she first raised during a parliamentary party meeting.

Former Fine Gael Kildare county councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy actually resigned from the party last year amid accusations of bullying and harassment.

At the time, McLoughlin Healy said Fine Gael "has an inconsistent and often secretive approach to complaints of bullying and harassment within the party".

"Their response is driven more by the goal of protecting seats than it is by any principled stand against bad behaviour," she added.

That would not strike you as a normal comment about a normal party.

Meath Fine Gael councillor Paddy Meade made the extraordinary claim his car was fire-bombed outside his home after a particularly fractious constituency meeting. He also claimed he was assaulted at a party meeting.

Meade said he raised his claims with both gardai and Fine Gael headquarters. Fine Gael said the party "completely condemn" the attack on Meade's home.

It is also far from normal that the State's ethics watchdog would making damning findings against a sitting councillor and the party would take little or no action.

Yet this seems to be the case with the Standards in Public Office Commission's (Sipo) investigation into allegations of planning irregularities involving Fine Gael councillor Cyril Burke.

Sipo found Burke acted "recklessly" and in contravention of the code of conduct for politicians in his dealings with Independent councillor Frank Durcan, who also had findings made against him.

The watchdog also said Burke brought the integrity of Mayo County Council into disrepute.

The investigation centred on recordings and text messages between the two councillors in which they discussed rezoning land owned by Durcan.

Burke asked Durcan to withdraw Freedom of Information requests he submitted seeking information on a senior Mayo County Council official in return for helping him get his land rezoned.

The watchdog said the recordings of the conversations between the two councillors showed a "certain lack of honesty" on Burke's part.

Fine Gael launched a disciplinary investigation into Burke in January - four months before the local election in which he ran as a Fine Gael candidate.

Despite repeated requests for an update on that disciplinary process, no one seems to know what, if any, action was taken against Burke over the highly critical investigation by a state watchdog. It's all very mysterious and not very normal.

Every party has to deal with internal conflict. Not everyone will meet the standards set by the organisation. But finger- wagging at other parties doesn't seem the most effective approach for Fine Gael when the incidents are piling up on its own doorstep.

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