Long-running tensions between Fine Gael members in County Kildare are about to create difficulties for Kildare County Council and Fine Gael following the suspension of righteous Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy from Fine Gael for making well-founded allegations about the leader of Fianna Fáil on the Council, allegations met with a deaf ear by of cials and other councillors.
This energetic councillor’s refusal to submit or be silenced raises questions about cronyism, and of a traditional old boys’ club mentality. It suggests ‘new politics’ is coming only very slowly to rural Ireland.
Up to 2011 Fine Gael had passed two electoral terms without a TD in Kildare South. However, following 16 months of difficult campaigning and his eclipse of two strong rivals, 32-year-old golden-boy local farmer Martin Heydon brought the party a landslide victory in that years General Election. He collected a remarkable 33% of rst preference votes.
Deputy Heydon built a likeable persona for himself within Fine Gael, regarded by members as a politician who, in the best Fine Gael tradition, would not rock the boat. He was also believed to have found favour with the grandees in the party.
Although Enda Kenny has chastised party members for the poor optics that result from favours and jobs for family, Heydon hired his sister, Rosemary, as a parliamentary assistant and co-opted distant cousin Ivan Keatley, the best man at his wedding, to take his former council seat, all without rebuke. However, there was one aspect of Martin Heydon’s career that the Taoiseach took issue with: his association with the Dáil’s ‘five-a-side’ gang, a group of about ten right-wing male TDs who met to vent their various grievances in political life with bright-eyed South Dublin toff Eoghan Murphy TD as ringleader. Once, however, Kenny’s understandable dislike of secret groups and meetings was made clear to Heydon, he parted ways with his footie pals and the group dissolved in 2014.
As another General Election loomed on the horizon, Heydon was making plans. With his impressive result from 2011 in play, the party planned on running two candidates in the Kildare South constituency. The forward-looking TD already had a partner in mind, a local solicitor who had campaigned on Heydon’s behalf in the run up to the 2011 vote. The TD was ready, and appeared well positioned, to repay the loyalty. However, the Taoiseach had other plans.
Having brought in gender quotas while in government, Fine Gael was in danger of damaging itself by outing them. Reeling from a collapse in support but seeing female candidates as providing an edge over their backwoods rivals Fianna Fáil, Kenny and party strategists drew up a secret list of more than a dozen women – and a few men – to fill roles across the country. Party organisers, alongside Terry Prone’s PR firm The Communications Clinic, ran a six-week course to train eager new candidates in preparation for the election, all monitored by Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran. Speaking at the time, Mr Curran said he didn’t expect the move would cause trouble within the party.
Kenny’s secret weapon for Kildare South was a relatively new politician, Fiona McLoughlin Healy, a trained nurse who had volunteered in a Romanian orphanage before returning to NUIG where she topped her class every year in both Law and Politics, and then to Ulster University where she again obtained a distinction. A councillor in the Newbridge area since 2014, who runs a property-sales website, she was seen as bouncy if somewhat politically naive. She announced at the earliest opportunity that she believed in transparent operations and the party’s commitment to gender quotas. Her appetite for ‘new politics’, a more socially liberal Fine Gael party and willingness to break ranks, irritated old-timers and made her the target of cynical ridicule in local political circles, McLoughlin Healy addressed some of the criticism, established a formidable presence on social media and seemed to be moving towards election. Yet she faced a difficult campaign.
A few older male Fine Gael members in the area took issue with the very notion of gender quotas and often were quite vocal in their opposition to a female candidate, yearning for a return to past, admittedly unrewarded, selection processes. McLoughlin Healy did little to assuage their fears, pushing herself forward on national television about sexism and her belief in gender quotas. A source working in the Council told Village that it was not just the grassroots members who felt uncomfortable over the quota issue, but that the councillor’s own colleagues expressed annoyance at the special training Fine Gael had provided her.
With Martin Heydon’s running mate plans scuppered by his party leader, there was animosity towards his new female colleague. He notably showed no interest in engaging over a vote-management and boundary strategy. Heydon was also proving implausibly popular with many local Fianna Fáil supporters, which only gave traction to ongoing rumours that people from the Heydon camp were mischievously stirring confusion for voters between Ms McLoughlin Healy and the similarly named, though quite different, Fianna Fáil candidate Fiona O’Loughlin who is currently a TD and leader of Fianna Fáil on Kildare County Council. This coupled with claims that Mr Heydon’s supporters had brazenly told voters to pass on their second preference to the Fianna Fáil candidate, a claim he denied to Fine Gael insiders and called a “a dreadful slur”, stoked tensions.
As polling day drew near, the pair appeared on a special election edition of ‘The People’s Debate’ with a lively Vincent Browne, with rather poor results. Ms McLoughlin Healy’s energy and eagerness were striking but she was attacked from the crowd by members of her own party over gender quotas. Luckily for her, Mr Heydon’s performance drew most of the attention, as he struggled with questions and appeared unfortunately quick-tempered when challenged. It had become apparent that this election had become more difficult than previously predicted. As McLoughlin Healy gained support outside the party base on her pro-Repeal stance on abortion, adoption of modern technology and engagement with voters, Fine Gael Ministers Simon Coveney and Michael Noonan visited the constituency, spending time with Deputy Heydon but appearing to shun his running mate. Whether an act of desperation or a rash gamble on being trendy, Martin Heydon took part in a “Back to the Future” parody election video beside Councillor Darren Scully, best known for his resignation as Naas mayor over a racism row. The move seemed for some reason to pay off as the video went viral online.
Election day and return to Council
Anecdotes of unforgiveable requests for Fianna Fáil vote transfers along with a wave of vandalism specifically targeting McLoughlin Healy’s banners and billboards raised eyebrows up until voting day 2016. The General Election saw Martin Heydon elected in Kildare South, this time with a significant drop in support of almost 35%, alongside Seán Ó Fearghaíl and the almost homonymic Fiona O’Loughlin, both of Fianna Fáil. Fiona McLoughlin Healy nished in sixth place.
As the dust settled after a difficult campaign and an even more difficult time forming a government, Councillor McLoughlin Healy returned to her position banging on about the issues she had become attached to during her quest to become a TD. She continued to voice support for campaigners attempting to solve the schoolplace crisis in the county, inevitably attracting further conflict with her own party but boosting her popularity as the public praised her and criticised other politicians’ inaction.
At a public meeting outside McLoughlin Healy’s district attended by Councillor Darren Scully and Councillor Ivan Keatley, the school places issue was raised, as was support from Councillor McLoughlin Healy. The men told the audience that support from councillors was practically meaningless as the issue was outside of a councillor’s scope of influence. An audience member complained that a nearby town in Councillor McLoughlin Healy’s area had better services, to which another meanly shouted: “And they have better councillors too”. An education services campaigner later said she believed Fine Gael members were ignoring the issue because of their tensions with Councillor McLoughlin Healy and her support for the cause. While her detractors accused her of latching onto issues she had little involvement in, for political gain, her maverick appearance to the non-political aligned public undoubtedly made an impression.
Pre-election squabbles and disciplinary action
Some months before the election, Councillor McLoughlin Healy believed she had unearthed a conflict of interest regarding the allocation of Decade of Commemoration funds to the Bluebells and Buskers festival in Rathangan, which Fianna Fáil Councillor Fiona O’Loughlin presided over. The festival had been founded by O’Loughlin and her family in memory of her father, a former Councillor, some years previously. She also scandalously claimed that the festival had connections, the confounded O’Loughlin’s family. Councillor McLoughlin Healy demanded a debate on the issue and tabled a motion seeking a breakdown of the grants paid out by the Decade of Commemorations committee, only to gain no support.
Notes from the discussion of her motion show a fierce exchange, as the councillor fought with figures on all sides. Her conflict with Councillor Weld over time-allocation was particularly heated, while the CEO of Kildare County Council Peter Carey went so far as to describe the motion and subsequent discussion as “regrettable” and “embarrassing”. Director of Services, Peter Minnock, issued a statement in which he said he found the manner in which it had been raised “disappointing” and that he had “no concerns regarding the impartiality, integrity and manner in which the work has been performed by all ersons engaged in this process”. This statement came before the Fianna Fáil councillor admitting on local radio that she had not declared the conflict of interest in dealing with the grant application made in her brother’s name. Local commentators following the story overwhelmingly found little substance to the conflict, as did politicians publicly discussing it on social media, as all proceeds went into the redevelopment of a local community centre. Despite this, some integrity-zealots continued to express unease with the lack of transparency.
Speaking to Village about the incident, Fiona O’Loughlin, who is now a TD and therefore has resigned her seat on the Council, said the following:
“The ‘allegations’ were completely unfounded and addressed by both the officials of KCC and the now chair, Councillor Padraig McEvoy. I was not part of the adjudication of the awards. A grant was not paid to myself or my brother. A grant of €600 (one of many around the county) was paid to the bank account of Rathangan Community Association in order to part pay for a publication about William A Byrne, a Rathangan poet who took Thomas McDonagh’s place in UCD after McDonagh’s execution. A local cultural community group called ‘Bluebells and Buskers’ which organises Community events and fundraises for the local Community Centre made the application. My brother, a locally civic and community-minded volunteer, happens to chair the group”.
McLoughlin Healy, however, still maintains that O’Loughlin and her committee had had sign-off on the grant which was for an event intimately linked to her family.
On the back foot with the lack of support for her motion and diminished warmth in the Council, McLoughlin Healy believed that Mayor Weld was holding secret meetings regarding her motion and had sought cross-party agreements not to support any further motions she put forward in the future. Local Fine Gael members clearly denied this, saying no meetings took place. Councillor McLoughlin Healy believed otherwise, pointing to the voting record which showed the vast majority of her motions were seconded by her colleagues before this, with none being supported afterwards. Attempting to discuss the issue with the mayor a number of times, she found him unresponsive, which led her to decide to table a motion of no confidence in him. Independent Councillor Paddy Kennedy said it “was not a nice meeting” and there was “lots of shouting”. He described the scene as unprecedented and said the public gallery had to be cleared before the vote took place.
The no confidence vote was defeated, with a quarter of the Councillors absent and McLoughlin Healy being the only vote in favour. A major setback.
After the catastrophic motion of no confidence, Councillor McLoughlin Healy found herself criticised in the Irish Independent newspaper and told by angry colleagues that she was no longer welcome at Fine Gael members’ meetings. A complaint was raised against her by Councillor Darren Scully and Councillor McLoughlin Healy was brought before the national Fine Gael disciplinary committee in September, under the watchful eye of Tom Curran.
Councillor Scully claimed that the meetings Councillor McLoughlin Healy had questioned were simply about protocol and running the council but that no decisions had been reached, which he said explained why there was no record of it. McLoughlin Healy said that she had contacted Mayor Weld more than six times, only to be ignored and that she was trying to expose an old boys’ club. Weld had also served on the Decade of Commemorations Committee.
Meanwhile Councillor Scully was telling local reporters “that’s crazy stuff. It’s very damaging to politics. It’s very damaging to give the impression to people that politics is like that”. Speaking on local radio, Mr Scully said Mayor Weld, his family and friends had been hurt by the allegations, again saying they were not true. When it was put to him that perhaps Councillor McLoughlin Healy had a lack of support in Fine Gael or that her gender was an issue, he dismissed the notion, saying that she “was given a free pass to run in the general election by Fine Gael”.
The committee sanctioned McLoughlin Healy with the removal of the Whip for six months in early October this year, for causing “serious damage to the integrity of the party”. Reacting to the decision, she said: “it was very disappointing that the former Mayor Brendan Weld did not turn up to the investigation. That and other issues arising on the night of the investigation and since, mean that there is no nal outcome yet”. Councillor Scully welcomed the outcome, maintaining there had been no effort made to block his colleague’s motions.
Then, in a spectacular turn of events, two weeks after the decision was announced, Sinn Féin Councillor Íde Cussen backed up Councillor McLoughlin Healy’s allegations. Responding to comments by Councillor Darren Scully published in the Leinster Leader newspaper, Councillor Cussen said that she was present at the meeting, as was Fiona O’Loughlin as Group Leader for Fianna Fáil. Councillor Cussen said that she felt it was “inappropriate” to discuss the motion of investigating the grants and “ways of managing Fiona McLoughlin Healy” with Ms O’Loughlin present. “…I decided to write to you and state clearly for the record that yes a meeting was called, yes it was to discuss Councillor Fiona McLoughlin – Healy’s motions and yes I was clearly told that we – Sinn Féin – weren’t helping matters by seconding her Motions”.
Reacting to the councillor’s statements, TD Fiona O’Loughlin said that she was present at the meeting mentioned but it was not a meeting about “managing” any particular member of Kildare County Council. Instead she said it was about “protocols and procedures”. “At no point did Councillor Cussen state that she felt it was inappropriate that I was present. When the topic was raised about the said Councillors previous motion and subsequent commentary, I clearly said myself that I would not comment on the particular issue”.
Speaking to Village, Councillor Cussen revealed how Councillor Scully was not even present at the meeting and how she was hesitant to get involved in the matter but was bothered by claims she had misinformed anyone about the subject of the meeting. She underlined how it was not another councillor or party’s job to silence an elected representative and noted that seconding a motion did not mean supporting it, but allowed people to discuss it and vote.
Surprisingly, given how vocal he had been on the topic, Darren Scully remained tight-lipped. When asked if he would be disputing Councillor Cussen’s letter to the Leinster Leader newspaper or retracting his previous comments, he did not respond. Instead, he issued a short statement which read: “Cllr Fiona Mcloughlin Healy has had the whip removed from her by the Fine Gael disciplinary committee. This was in relation to her putting a motion of no con dence down at full council in the then Mayor, Cllr Brendan Weld (FG). As Cllr McLoughlin Healy has now appealed that decision I will be making no further comment on the issue”.
Councillor Scully is a former mayor of Naas, who lost the party whip and was forced to resign as mayor after comments he made about black Africans (and his unwillingness to represent them) in 2011.
He was subsequently accepted back into Fine Gael and was the highest placed Fine Gael candidate in the local elections. Last year he had a letter published in the Sunday Times, suggesting that the family of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who drowned along with his five-year-old brother off the coast of Turkey, were not fleeing for their lives.
In 2008 Scully made headlines for comments about young women, claiming teenagers were looking to get pregnant in order to obtain free housing.
The allegations that he has in effect lied about the nature of meetings about Councillor McLoughlin Healy, will not help with those who doubt his fitness for office.
While some members of the electorate will see this whole saga as confirming their beliefs in shady deals between political elites, crushing dissent and maintaining the status quo, others will see it simply as a crude clash of political personalities scrambling over each other to further their party careers, a comforting return to business as usual.
The law, however, is clear. Former Councillor Fiona O’Loughlin should have declared her interest and withdrawn from the vote which concerned interests of her brother. Councillor McLoughlin Healy awaits a vindication.