Invincibility and disengagement shaped Crowley’s decision to switch grouping
Opinion: Fianna Fáil MEP is most successful Irish election candidate ever
‘Brian Crowley MEP always resented efforts by Mount Street apparatchiks and senior party figures to manage the vote between candidates in the European elections.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Coverage of election results inevitably focuses on the last seats filled. It follows that until this week Brian Crowley’s predictable win in Ireland South got insignificant attention.
Crowley is actually the most successful Irish election candidate ever. While a few have, in presidential elections for example, got higher votes in individual contests, nobody has matched Crowley for sustained vote share over multiple elections.
In 1993 Albert Reynolds parachuted Crowley into the national political arena by nominating him to the Seanad. Reynolds was a political friend of Brian’s father Flor, who was a TD for 13 years and a senator for five. It was assumed the Seanad appointment was a precursor to a Dáil run by Brian himself.
A year later Crowley, then only 30, ran instead in the European elections, topping the poll in the Munster constituency with 84,463 votes, 23 per cent of all votes cast.
Youthful good looksHis success at that time was put down to a combination of youthful good looks, a massive province-wide canvass where voters flocked out of their houses to meet him as he rolled down their street and an innovative political marketing strategy which owed more to modern American design than traditional Fianna Fáil approaches.
Crowley’s 1994 vote looked impressive until he nearly doubled it five years later, polling 154,195 votes.
Notwithstanding constituency redrawings he has managed to top the poll each time he has run. His vote share never fell below 23 per cent and once peaked at 34 per cent.
Crowley just has the political X factor. He is personable and has an extraordinary back story of overcoming adversity. He has a competent media and parliamentary style and an inordinate capacity for attending political and non-political gatherings across his large constituency.
He has also put in place a formal network of offices across the constituency and an informal network of hundreds of party and non-party campaign operatives.
Electoral featNotwithstanding the general Fianna Fáil collapse since 2009, the lengthy hospitalisations he had to endure in recent years and the tragic loss of his brother and campaign manager Flor Jnr, Crowley pulled off an even more impressive electoral feat last month.
In the newly extended Ireland South constituency, which now includes six Leinster counties, Crowley polled an incredible 180,329 votes.
The size of this renewed mandate must inevitably have contributed to Crowley’s sense of political invincibility, and because he was returned as the only Fianna Fáil MEP he had no party colleagues in the parliament to consider and clearly felt he could do whatever he wanted in terms of political groupings.
He has never felt himself bound to the diktats of party headquarters back in Dublin, from whom he always felt detached and from whom he has been entirely disengaged in recent years.
ApparatchiksHe always resented efforts by Mount Street apparatchiks and senior party figures to manage the vote between candidates in the European elections.
There was never much love lost between himself and Micheál Martin, and relations worsened when Crowley felt Martin frustrated his attempt to run as a candidate for the party in the 2011 presidential election.
This sense of invincibility and disengagement mixed with other factors to shape his peculiar decision this week to leave the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) to which Fianna Fáil has been aligned since 2009, and instead join the Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.
Before Fianna Fáil joined the ALDE group its MEPs were members of the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN) of which Crowley was once group president. He was a smaller fish in the bigger ALDE pond. Some of the senior officials in UEN, who are personal friends of Crowley’s, now work with the ECR group.
Crowley himself always sat uncomfortably in the ALDE group; he is not a liberal in either the classic economic sense or on social issues. Quite apart from the fact that Fianna Fáil has little in common with the ECR, in moving to it Crowley has marginalised himself.
Technical groupThe ALDE, while now slightly behind the ECR in the number of MEPs, is a more significant political entity in wider European politics. It has been organised for decades through its affiliates across Europe, and is not merely a parliamentary technical group.
It also operates in the Committee of the Regions and in the Council of Europe. The prime ministers of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Estonia (and, of course, the deputy prime minister of the UK) are all members of parties within ALDE, as are eight members of the current European Commission, including those holding very significant portfolios, like Olli Rehn.
In contrast, the ECR has one prime minister in David Cameron and one British member of the European Commission. It is hard to believe that Crowley expected Martin to merely shrug and row in behind his switch of group.
Crowley made this decision indifferent to Martin’s view or the wider interests of Fianna Fáil’s international political relations or domestic political positioning. Brian Crowley simply suited Brian Crowley.
It may not dent his personal political appeal, but if he retains ambitions for anything other than being an MEP it’s a decision he may come to regret.