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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 14, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    Defections and Expulsions

    Harry McGee

    The expulsion of Colm Keaveney this week brings the total of its parliamentary party back to 33, the same as during 1992 to 1997, the ‘Spring Tide’ years.

    Fianna Fail was in power so long that you tend to think that defection is an unusual phenomenon for either Fine Gael or Labour, and that is was just the soldiers of destiny who experience their peopel going overboard.

    But one starts doing a non-exhaustive glace back, you see that both parties have had their fair share of expulsion and defections. A general rule of thumb is the more turbulent the period the more likely a conflict. Secondly, you can never account for mavericks. Thirdly, there have been a small group of politicians who have been involved in behaviour that has made their membership of [parliamentary] parties untenenable.

    We’ll start off with Fianna Fail which is freshest in the memory. There’s a long list there of expulsioins and defections, both voluntary and compulsory. In the last Dail, the party Mattie McGrath and the former Wicklow TD Joe Behan vote voted against the Government and essentially became independents after that. Ned O’Keeffe had his problems with the party leadership, and was in and out of the parliamentary party, because of disputes over policies. Jim McDaid had a semi-detached, if even that, attitude to the party had also deserted before the Fianna Fail-Green coalition implled. Then there was Beverly Flynn, who was expelled and then brought back in by Bertie Ahern in 2007. Before that Ray Burke resigned before he could be flunt out. In a sense Martin Cullen also defected. He did have health problems but his sudden departure from both the party and the Dail in the middle of the political crisis put Brian Cowen’s government under extraordinary pressure.

    Most famously, Charles Haughey, Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney were all expelled from the parliamentary party during the Arms Crisis. When Haughey himself was leader, there was a revolving door of expulsions and defections. The most serious occurrence – by a country miles – was when Des O’Malley, Mary Harney, Pearse Wyse, and Bobby Molloy all defected to form the PDs.

    It is worth pointing out the paradox that the smaller party in Government – despite some very shaky moments – stayed relatively cohesive. Senator Deirdre de Búrca left after the party’s diastrous performance in the 2009 European elections. But that was the only departure. The rest all stayed on to sink together.

    Fine Gael and Labour have also had their moments but until now, neither has come near Fianna Fail in terms of scale or drama. Fine Gael has lost one TD in the current Dail. That’s Denis Naughten who left the party over its failure to fulfil pre-election promises in relation to Roscommon Hospital.

    In the last Dail there was a spectacular defection when former RTE economics editor George Lee resigned from Fine Gael and from the Dail less than a year after winning the Dublin South byelection by a landslide. That proved the catalyst for a heave against Enda Kenny later that year.

    Michael Lowry parted company with the party in 1996 after revelations came to light about his relationship with Ben Dunne, and separately, with Denis O’Brien.

    In 1982, Fine Gael plucked a local self-made businessman Liam Skelly, with scant connection to the party, as its candidate in the Dublin West byelection. Against expectations, Skelly narrowly won the seat but thereafter was a thorn in the side of then leader Garret Fitzgerald. He had resigned the whip by the time the general election was called in 1987. He stood as an independent but won only a little over per cent of the vote.

    For Labour, its most notable moment was in 1989 when Dick Spring and the party leadership expelled the militant membership of the party in its entirety. The disaffected included Joe Higgins and Clare Daly who subsequently went on to form the Socialist Party. Since then there have been some temporary expulsions – Tommy Broughan has been down that road before – but nothing like the uncomfortable position the party is in at present.

    It has lost five of its TDs and there is a sense that the party has lost direction and is flailing around in the dark. No matter how it tries to sell the Budget, its campaign to get a higher rate of USC for very high earners will be seen as a blunder.


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