Members of Fianna Fáil in Clare faced a dilemma before they even set foot inside the party’s general election convention in Hotel Woodstock after party HQ decided that the best way to manage their vote next time was to divide the constituency into east and west.
John Hillery and Rita McInerney contested the West Clare nomination after Malty McDonagh withdrew from the contest. Hillery won by 154 votes to McInerney’s 123.
Party Vice-President Timmy Dooley was listed to contest East Clare with Cllr Cathal Crowe. Facing an impossible situation, Crowe withdrew from the race in protest against a national strategy first aired early last year when Michael Martin urged his senior TDs to bring in a running mate at the next election if the party is to return to Government.
In 2016, Fianna Fáil in Clare polled 2,881 more first preference votes than its closest rival but was left with one Dáil seat compared Fine Gael’s two, something that has galled party supporters since.
Fianna Fáil, nationally and locally, is aware that the vote needs careful management if it is to win back that elusive second seat last held in 2007 when Timmy Dooley and Tony Killeen were elected.
Dooley has been their best vote-getter since, holding his seat in 2011 when Fine Gael became the largest party in Clare for the first time following the economic collapse.
Although he polled in excess of 10,000 votes, this falls just short of the quota. Despite this, Timmy Dooley is up for the challenge and wants his supporters in West and North Clare to vote John Hillery next time out.
“It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do”, Timmy Dooley admitted, “but it’s the right thing to do if we’re to have a chance of winning two seats.
With Dooley and Hillery as flagbearers, Fianna Fáil faces into the next election with one proven candidate. In 2011, Hillery finished seventh, behind Tony Mulcahy of Fine Gael, with 6,015 first preferences.
Delivering his convention speech in a flat monotone, that seemed lacking in conviction, John Hillery recalled the events of 2011 saying it was “arguably the most difficult election campaigns this party has ever faced.”
He told the party faithful that they “won’t win two seats at the next general election by focusing on our opponents, we need to focus on our strengths” and then proceeded with a personal attack on the other three sitting Clare TDs.
Hillery’s speech concluded by name-checking past Fianna Fail representatives in Clare: “People like de Valera, Barrett, Daly, O’Kelly, Loughnane, Killeen and indeed my own father.
“Clare,” he said, “is my home, it’s my county and with the grace of God and a united effort it will be Fianna Fáil’s county again after the next election.”
In stark contrast, Cllr Cathal Crowe delivered an impassioned speech laced with anger and hinting at dark forces out to do him damage.
Describing the decision by the National Constituencies Committee to split Clare into an East and West divide as, “unfair, undemocratic and entirely unprecedented”, Crowe commented, “If Fianna Fáil’s fortunes nationally are to improve then Clare is absolutely key. Fianna Fáil should be aggressively targeting a seat gain here.
He added, “the minimalist approach behind this Clare strategy is advantageous to some in the room tonight and disadvantageous to others. We need to look beyond protecting one seat. Every sinew of effort needs to be employed to deliver the second seat. In my opinion, Fianna Fáil HQ’s strategy will not deliver that.”
Crowe recalled that he had announced his intention to stand in the next general election last August to an open-air rally at the republican monument he helped erect at Brennan’s Cross, Meelick. For some, this was seen as premature given that candidates could only be ratified at a convention.
Following this, he alleged that attempts had been made to establish a second Fianna Fáil cumann in his home village of Meelick with the aim of undermining him.
Cathal Crowe is certainly not lacking in confidence and assured the convention, “I believe that I would be the best candidate to win the second seat for Fianna Fáil in this county.”
Despite withdrawing from the contest he assured supporters that he is now seeking a meeting with senior party figures to discuss the next steps.
He added, “I want to conclude by pledging that I will get behind the selected candidates… put splits and divisions behind us and unite so that we achieve a maximum vote for our party in the next general election and win, not one, but two seats.”
As to the future, it remains to be seen whether Cathal Crowe will remain in Timmy Dooley’s shadow. He concluded; “Though my personal political dreams for higher office are regrettably stalled, for now, I have absolutely no intention of going away,” before adding cryptically, “things change fast in politics.”
In a wide-ranging speech, Timmy Dooley said he has served as a Fianna Fáil TD for the last 11 years during which time the party has experienced success and failure in Government and in opposition.
Noting that the party narrowly missed out on a second seat in Clare last time, he urged delegates to redouble their efforts, “to right that wrong”.
Recalling that the 2016 election result posed an unprecedented challenge, Dooley said Fianna Fáil stood firm on its commitment not to enter a coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Fein and tried to elect Micheal Martin as Taoiseach on three separate occasions.
The party decided to support a Confidence and Supply Agreement with Fine Gael to avoid an unwanted election and to ensure that the country had a Government.
Dooley said Fianna Fáil has proven its detractors wrong by sticking to that agreement and proving to the Irish people that it can be trusted to take tough decisions in the country’s best interest.
In Clare, the party has been rebuilding with increased membership and fundraising. “We are all on our way to being the biggest party once more,” said Timmy Dooley, adding, “In my view, we are ready to handle the responsibility of Government again. We learned some hard lessons in the last couple of years and they were lessons we needed to learn.”
A recurring theme throughout the convention was the plight of rural communities. According to Timmy Dooley, the cities and large towns are recovering but rural villages are falling further behind. “The Government,” he said, “remains indifferent to their plight and to those of the rural communities they serve.”
He then proceeded created a stir in the audience when he announced that managers of 14 rural post offices in Clare had received letters offering a voluntary severance package if they get out now.
Homelessness is another defining issue for Timmy Dooley. At the last election, there were almost 4,000 people homeless, 2,000 of them children. Today the numbers have doubled. Almost 5,000 children are living in emergency accommodation and nearly 10,000 people in total.
“That to me is one of the most damning indictments of this Government because whatever mistake an adult might make along the way, those little children have made no mistakes,” he said.
Describing this as an enormous crisis, Timmy Dooley said Fianna Fáil has a proud record of building social and affordable houses and did so when there was an awful lot less money to hand.
He added, “It’s a matter of priority, and unfortunately the priority for Fine Gael is the well off. There is more interest in cutting their taxes than addressing the housing crisis.”
On the health crisis, he condemned the continuing high number of patients on trolleys at University Hospital Limerick. “The Government,” he said, “has known for over 5 years that with an increasing population and people living longer, more beds are needed at the Midwest hospital.”
He also wants further investment at Ennis Hospital to increase day-surgery activity and take pressure off Limerick. Ennis also needs more beds to cater to the demands of a growing population. “That needs to be done, we don’t need a report to tell us,” he said.
According to Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fáil is offering sustainable solutions to protect the most vulnerable in society. “This,” he said, “is in stark contrast to the empty-headed, catch-all rhetoric of Sinn Fein and the band of merry warriors on the independent benches.”
Noting that the Government party can’t blame Fianna Fáil come the next election, Dooley said Fine Gael has been almost seven years in power and neither the health service not homelessness in Clare have improved but have progressively deteriorated.
Accusing the Government of turning its back on regional development in Ireland he said, “the abolition of Shannon Development, hidden in the announcement of independence for Shannon Airport was proof that they have lost their way in that regard.
“It is only now starting to dawn on many people that the independence plan for Shannon was a white elephant and we have lost much more than we have gained.”
Finally, he acknowledged that the decision taken by party headquarters to divide the Clare constituency had upset some people, while others see it as a good strategy to try to win two seats.
Urging party members to accept the situation and move on, Dooley said he has willingly committed to the strategy and therefore will confine his canvassing activity to the east of the county.
“I’m hopeful that we can go out this door as a united team with one objective, to return the two seats, not just for County Clare but for Ireland; not just for Fianna Fáil, but for the people of Ireland who need our approach to address the issues.
“We have to convince the people of Clare that their lives will be better served under a Fianna Fáil Government. It’s no small task at all, but we can win two seats and we can send a message to the current Government that turning your back on rural Ireland, turning your back on regional and county towns and villages, and reneging on election promises, isn’t acceptable and shouldn’t go unpunished,” said Dooley.