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EOIN NEYLON: Serious issues emanating within Fianna Fáil in Clare

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*Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin & Cllr Cathal Crowe meet pupils from St Caimins Community School in Shannon. Photograph: John O’Brien

In the run up to polling in the 2020 General Election, few would have predicted the make up of the Government that would, four months later, be formed.

Historic votes in each of Fianna Fáil, the Greens and Fine Gael saw each party agree to endorse the Programme for Government negotiated by Parliamentarians and officials of each party. The Fine Gael vote was never in doubt, given the weighting of the electoral college in that party gave FG Parliamentarians half of the votes. The Greens and FF operated on a one member, one vote basis, giving all members equal voice regardless of position in the party. All eyes therefore last Friday were on the FF and Green count centres to see if the Dáil meeting the following morning would be a formality of electing a Government or if the country would face a constitutional crisis.

With the bar for the Green party set at a lofty 66% of members needing to pass the vote, many were worried if the environmentally focused party would get the necessary mandate from its members to proceed. The majority of those against the deal from the Greens included Cork City based members, inner city Dublin members, some of the more radical younger members and those based in Northern Ireland. Outside of Northern Ireland, Dublin and Cork, all Green public representatives did back the deal. The rural Green membership strongly endorsed the deal and this, alongside the support of the more established Green membership proved enough to ensure the Green party joined the Government with an overall 76% of the almost 2,000 members voting to join with FF and FG in coalition. Rural policies and the Greens perception in rural communities proved a bone of contention with the other two parties during negotiations.

To that end, Clare County Councillor Róisín Garvey, the Green party spokesperson on Rural Affairs, was called in to ensure those fears were put to rest. Her work, along with the Greens need to bolster their rural image, meant that she earned a call up to the Greens Parliamentary Party via a Taoiseach’s nomination to Seanad Éireann.

The main surprise of the party voting was that Fianna Fáil members were the least supportive of the Programme for Government, albeit with a still impressive 74% of the vote of members. With some 14,500 fully paid up members, the FF Parliamentary Party were busy in the proceeding fortnight fielding calls and appearing in Zoom meetings to sell the merits of the coalition deal. In the end, it proved overwhelmingly popular.

However, the FF members in Clare proved slightly more sceptical than the national average, with 68% of all Clare FF members backing the deal. This is in stark contrast to results of a member survey undertaken by Clare FF chairman Michael Enright. The postal survey, which involved posting out a ballot paper to all 650 or so eligible members in Clare along with a stamped addressed return envelope, cost in the region of €1,500 to undertake. The Chairman’s survey was sent to the media, including this paper, purporting to report a No vote of 68%. However, only a matter of days later, this Press Release proved to be a full 36% wrong with the flip of the result proving true. This has left Michael Enright with several questions to answer. Firstly, who paid for the undertaking of this survey, seeing as it was not sanctioned by FF HQ? Secondly, who made the decision to feed the survey results to the press rather than to FF leadership as the original survey instructions claimed it would? Thirdly, what was the uptake in the survey by members and how could the results have been so wrong?

This affair has given Enright credibility issues both with the local Fianna Fáil membership as well as local media. FF HQ were clear that feedback from members be channelled through Parliamentary Party members and Zoom meetings with senior spokespeople were organised to facilitate this discourse. Enright had appeared on a Zoom meeting of the Ennis FF Comhairle Cheantair to advocate his strong, personal opposition to any deal, prior to the final Programme for Government being agreed and published. However, none of the Clare FF CDC Chair, Secretary nor Vice-Chair appeared on the constituency Zoom with FF Finance spokesman, Michael McGrath. This begs the question, was the chair facilitating discussion, or campaigning via this dubious survey. The Clare FF members are owed a series of explanations.

Nevertheless, Clare FF members were celebrating on Saturday as news that their Parliamentary representation was to be doubled. Former TD Timmy Dooley was announced as a Taoiseach’s nominee for the Seanad, joining Cathal Crowe TD, who was successful in winning a Dáil seat for the party in February. All in all, there appears to be serious issues within Clare FF emanating from this process.

Not only are many displeased with this survey but there’s large disquiet amongst Clare FF members that FF Deputy Leader Dara Calleary was not given a full cabinet position. He has become the first Deputy Leader of the party, going into Government, not to be given a senior Ministry. Personally, I don’t believe in parochial arguments on Ministerial positions being gifted on based on geography but ability. That said, Calleary would still, on that metric, be most deserving of a full cabinet role. Many feel this as a snub to the West of Ireland. It’ll be the job of both Clare FF Parliamentarians to provide some leadership and get the party, locally, back on a united front.

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