Miriam Lord: FG’s rural TDs take on party’s city slickers

The country crew were not about to let the Dubs bag all the top parliamentary party jobs

An urban-versus-rural battle in Fine Gael this week revived memories of the Great Heave of 2010, when country and western Enda Kenny routed the leadership challenge of city slicker Richard Bruton in a victory described at the time as a win "for the men who eat their dinner in the middle of the day".

At the parliamentary party’s agm on Wednesday night, it looked like the top jobs on the officer board would all go to Dublin-based TDs, with Dublin Bay North’s Bruton standing unopposed for chairman, and Dún Laoghaire’s Jennifer Carroll MacNeill getting the uncontested position of vice-chair. The first-time TD is already an established media performer.

Another newcomer, Dublin West's Emer Higgins, was hotly tipped to win the election for secretary of the parliamentary party. However, a group of rural TDs had other ideas. They included former minister Paul Kehoe, who won his spurs as part of the Phil Hogan team which scuppered Bruton's assault on Kenny's leadership. In the run-up to the agm the group mounted a fierce campaign to put another first-timer, retired Mayo footballer Alan Dillon, into the secretary's job.

Kehoe, along with former minister for rural affairs Michael Ring, Clare TD Joe Carey and Mayo Senator Paddy Burke, strongly lobbied colleagues on Dillon's behalf. Ring proposed his fellow Mayo man on the night and he was seconded by new Senator, Roscommon's Aisling Dolan.


They thought they had it in the bag in 2010 and they thought the same again this week

Ringo delivered a passionate nomination speech, pleading with his colleagues to give a voice to rural Ireland at the top level of the party. The city slickers cannot be allowed have it all their own way and they can't be allowed run Fine Gael, he thundered.

Higgins, who was supported at the meeting by former Dublin West TD – now MEP – Frances Fitzgerald, was proposed by Donegal's Joe McHugh and Galway's Hildegarde Naughton.

“They thought they had it in the bag in 2010 and they thought the same again this week, but we did our homework. The Dubs weren’t going to have it all their own way,” said a jubilant member of the dinner-in-the-middle-of-the-day brigade after their man won through. Emer Higgins is the new assistant secretary.

In accordance with party rules, the voting figures have not been disclosed. We're not sure who counted the votes on Wednesday, but we remember who did the job when Ends and Richard locked horns in 2010. It was then chairman Pádraig McCormack and secretary Paschal Donohoe; a young Paschal, upset by the brutal nature of politics, cried his eyes out as he counted the ballots.

Alan Kelly adds some bright sparks to his backroom staff

Labour leader Alan Kelly has been beefing up his backroom staff. He has just appointed Cónán Ó Broin as his political director, Billie Sparks as new party general secretary and former senator Kevin Humphreys as Labour's new national organiser.

Cónán was one of Kelly's special advisers when he was environment minister, and went on to work in communications with the Central Bank. A former president of Trinity College Students' Union, he knows the ropes in Leinster House having previously worked as parliamentary assistant for former TD Robert Dowds.

Billie Sparks takes over as general secretary from Brian McDowell and is handing over as national organiser to Kevin Humphreys, who just can’t keep away from frontline politics.

She had a strong track record of recruiting women to the Labour party and is a former chair and director of the 50:50 campaign for gender equality in Irish politics.

Showdown by the river as TDs hand in their weapons

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael held their parliamentary party meetings in adjoining rooms at the Dublin Convention Centre on Wednesday night.

In an effort to stamp out the scourge of real-time leaking to the media from supposedly private proceedings, the Fianna Fáil politicians were asked to hand up their mobile phones at the door. Some flatly refused while younger members were traumatised by the mere idea of doing such an unthinkable thing.

“They were like sullen cowboys having to surrender their guns outside a saloon in Tombstone,” said an onlooker.

If the politicians are unhappy about using the centre’s vast auditorium as an occasional temporary Dáil chamber, they are also unimpressed by the private facilities.

The two parties gathered in their respective cavernous spaces and sat two metres apart from each other at socially distanced desks.

A Fianna Fáil backbencher described their surroundings. “The meeting room was huge, the size of a football pitch with big wide pillars we couldn’t see around. It was like sitting the Leaving Cert. There were no microphones so people had to shout.”

It was the same setup for their coalition partners. “You should see the size of the place. Speakers had to stand in the middle of the room as there were no microphones because we were afraid the others would hear us. Everyone was roaring.”

The whole thing was mad. At one point, all we could hear was applause from next door

As it was Fine Gael’s agm, the parliamentary party elected a new officer board. This resulted in many rounds of applause as results were announced and the victorious and the vanquished had their say.

But a disconcerted Fianna Fáil could hear all this clapping coming through the wall. After a bruising start to their term in Government, they weren’t sounding so lively. For the first hour or so of their reportedly tense and fractious meeting, there was nothing to applaud.

Finally, during a discussion on the July stimulus plan, John McGuinness began his contribution by suggesting speakers pause every 15 minutes for a round of applause for the benefit of their coalition partners on the other side of the partition.

This had the desired effect. “The whole thing was mad. At one point, all we could hear was applause from next door,” a Fine Gael TD recalled afterwards. “What was that all about? I had half an idea of putting a glass up against the wall and trying to earwig, but then I thought, ‘sure they’ll only be coming out with the same aul shite as ourselves.’”

Zappone lends her expertise to the Biden campaign

Katherine Zappone, who lost her seat in February's general election but remained on as minister for children until the new Government was formed, is back in the thick of electoral politics .

Fighting fit and raring to go, the former Independent TD for Dublin South-West has signed up as a full-time volunteer with the Biden campaign and temporarily relocated to the USA. She returned to her home town of Seattle last Friday and has already had a number of meetings with senior campaign figures in Washington State.

While considering her own longer-term options, Zappone says she wants to dedicate the next few months to playing an active role in ending the Trump administration by backing and campaigning coast to coast for Democrat Joe Biden. The former TD and senator is expected to attend rallies across the country (subject to Covid-19 restrictions) ahead of the November election while drumming up support among Democrats Abroad for the former veep.

As a dual Irish and US citizen, she says her move back to her other home was prompted by Trump’s ill-informed and dangerous response to the pandemic as well as his blatant attempts to row back on equality, fairness and justice. Zappone’s legal challenge with her late spouse, Anne Louise Gilligan, against the ban on same-sex marriage is seen as a watershed moment for marriage equality in Ireland.

She will be speaking at town hall meetings – that mainstay of US elections – with a focus on social justice issues, drawing on her experience around marriage equality, repealing the eighth and her co-founding of An Cósan, Ireland’s largest community education service. She will also take part in efforts to rally the Irish-American vote.

Bruton has his Father Ted moment in the spotlight

Richard Bruton may find himself in the unfamiliar situation of having no senior ministry to call his own, but he seems happy enough in his new role as chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

When he was elected unopposed to take over from Kildare's Martin Hayden (new Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture), the former deputy leader's joy was unrestrained.

Upon accepting his great honour he declared: “I feel like Father Ted after he won the Golden Cleric award.”

Ted, of course, used his marathon acceptance speech to get back at all those fellow priests who “fecked him over” in the past.

Richard was far more reserved, jokingly reprising the Craggy Island PP’s attack on his colleagues in his short acceptance speech but naming no names.

The Drogheda-based TD certainly put in a lot of late hours on Virgin Media with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates

At the same meeting Bernard Durkan, thought to be a shoo-in for the coveted position of leas-cheann comhairle, declared in a magnanimous speech that he was not putting his name forward for consideration. The party leadership had already decreed Fergus O’Dowd would be the party’s (and Government) nominee, so Bernard was putting a brave face on what was a fait accompli.

Some deputies believe O'Dowd was given the nod because Leo Varadkar has been "rewarding" people who went out and defended his government over the airwaves. The Drogheda-based TD certainly put in a lot of late hours on Virgin Media with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates over the last couple of years, but Durkan was no stranger to the studio either.

It seems some TDs went to the boss independently to plead Durkan’s case in the run-up to Wednesday’s agm.

"He's put in the time batting for the party and he stands in a lot as acting chair in the chamber. He only missed out on leas-cheann comhairle by one vote the last time. There's a fair few of us annoyed about this," said a colleague before Thursday's Dáil vote in which O'Dowd, the coalition-backed nominee, was expected to easily defeat Catherine Connolly, the highly regarded Independent TD for Galway West.

Connolly said she was “in shock” after she won the secret ballot. Speculation immediately began over which FG/FF/Green TDs embarrassed their betters by voting against party orders. Disgruntled Fianna Fáil TDs have been cast as the prime suspects, but it seems members of Fine Gael had clear motive too.

In the outside world, nobody really gives a flying fiddlers about who is or who isn’t the leas-cheann comhairle, but the job isn’t just about winning honour and recognition from your peers. It also comes with a tasty €38,787 on top of a basic TD’s salary of €96,189.

That’s as good as being made a super junior minister.