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Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin Sasko Lazarov
Referendum Fallout

Apathy, confusion and 'woke gallery' warnings: Fianna Fáilers split on what next for party

The Journal caught up with a number of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators to get a sense of the mood within the party after the referendums.

IN THE DAYS since Saturday’s resounding No No in the Family and Care Referendums, Fianna Fáil has arguably been the party most public in its soul searching.

In recent days, a number of the party’s TDs have come out and said (after the result) that they did not vote in line with their party’s Yes Yes campaign.

Leader of the Seanad, Senator Lisa Chambers was one such party member, who said she voted No No despite canvassing for a Yes Yes. 

Her comments, and those of fellow party member and former Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea in particular have caused frustration among some Fianna Fáil politicians. 

O’Dea also revealed after the fact that he voted No No, however he did not campaign for a Yes vote in either the Care or Family Referendum. 

2151 Willie O Dea_90548687 Veteran Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Earlier this week, the veteran TD took to X/formerly Twitter telling his colleagues to “stop playing to the woke gallery”.

He wrote: “Fianna Fáil needs to get back to basics & abandon the Hate Speech Bill etc. Focus on Housing, Health and Law & Order and stop playing to the woke gallery. Start listening to the people, stop talking down to them and stop listening to the out of touch Greens & NGOs”.

The Journal spoke to a number of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators in an effort to get a sense of how widespread this sentiment might be within the party.

Many were happy to share frank views, but only off the record. 

Although not quite as direct as O’Dea, a lot agreed that the party needs to focus on “core issues”.

However, some did push back on this narrative and one cautioned against being “dragged over to far-right sentiment” just for political survival.

This was put to O’Dea by The Journal, who said in response that he “stands over every single word” he said. He added that there’s nobody in Fianna Fáil who is far-right.

The resulting picture is one of a party that isn’t quite cohesive in its messaging.

Just one parliamentary party member would comment publicly on O’Dea’s remarks, although from what others did say there appears to be a split in the camp in terms of what direction Fianna Fáil should be taking.

It’s also worth noting that there was noticeable apathy within the party in relation to these referendums more generally.

As one backbencher said of the outcome: “I couldn’t care less one way or the other to be honest with you”.

O’Dea’s comments and Chambers’ flip-flop appear to have caused discomfort and anger among some parliamentary party members.

One Fianna Fáil backbencher, who wished to remain unnamed, told The Journal that it was “highly disingenuous” to have a change of view after the referendum results were in.

The backbencher said those who had an issue should have made their opinion known before voters went to the polls and if they were perhaps too afraid of the whip to do this, then they should have just voted with their conscience and then “shut their mouth about it”.

The individual added that they do not recall any members raising any issues or concerns about the referendum and the party’s Yes Yes campaign in any parliamentary meetings in the run-up to the vote. 

This backbencher fumed that O’Dea’s remarks were “grossly offensive” and a “slap in the face” to people with disabilities.

They also noted: “He seems to think the whole Government was focused on this and they quite clearly weren’t.

Some would argue the Government was so focused on the big issues it didn’t put any effort into this referendum.

Support for Hate Speech legislation within Fianna Fáil 

On O’Dea’s call to scrap the hate speech legislation, the opinion of some within Fianna Fáil is that it is Fine Gael driving the legislation and they are happy to take a back seat on it. 

The Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, which has received significant backlash, passed through the Dáil last April and is due to go before the Seanad, although the timeline remains unclear.

In a nutshell, the bill seeks to strengthen the legal recognition of hatred in the criminal justice system.

If enacted into law, the legislation will introduce more up-to-date protections than those contained in existing legislation, such as gender identity and disability. 

O’Dea told The Journal that he voted in favour of the bill when it passed through the Dáil because he was bound by the party whip, but that he has serious issues with it – similar to those raised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL).

He added that there are existing laws dealing with inciting hatred and that these are not adequately enforced.

When asked about O’Dea’s tweet, Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Seán Fleming told The Journal that the number one priority needs to be more gardaí on the streets.

He said however that “one does not exclude the other” and that legislation relating to hate speech is also needed. 

In the Seanad, Lisa Chambers has been vocal in raising concerns about the legislation. 

She previously said the “vagueness” around some aspects of the legislation and the lack of definition of hate is problematic to some people and creates a “level of subjectivity which makes people nervous”. 

Speaking to The Journal, Fianna Fáil Senator Timmy Dooley agreed this week that the legislation needs to be relooked at. 

He said he is “very strongly of the belief” that we do need hate speech legislation but that the Government has a significant job of work to do in explaining it to the public.

“The level of intolerant language that has found its way into public discourse, particularly through social media, is very dangerous and divisive,” Dooley said.

He said if an open debate is allowed in the Seanad and the Government is prepared to take amendments then he would be in favour of it proceeding, but he cautioned that it would be unwise for it to be simply “pushed through”.

One backbencher, who preferred to remain unnamed, said they were in favour of proceeding with the legislation because of what they described as a noticeable increase in hatred in the last six months. 

We have to be careful not to be dragged over to far-right sentiment just because it seems to be playing out as popular in some quarters. 

“We’ve seen how independents in particular have courted that type of messaging and benefited from it in terms of popularity.

“But that’s not the way to go just for political survival,” they said.

Kildare North TD James Lawless, who chairs the Oireachtas Justice committee, took a somewhat different view.

Lawless told The Journal that he believes the Government needs to get back to basics on law and order and prioritise criminal justice, sentencing and supporting the gardaí.

Lawless has previously been outspoken about his view that the hate speech bill needs “tweaking”. 

He told the Business Post in 2022, that the legislation must be practical to ensure it will result in convictions. 

Speaking to The Journal, Lawless said he stands over the report he wrote on the proposed legislation two years ago as chair of the Justice committee.

“We weren’t particularly against it. But here’s the problem – we need to get on top of the basic issues. That’s health, housing and law and order. And education – I think education is going reasonably well but that might be the exception. 

“If we’re on top of the basics then we can start moving to the secondary issues. But really over the next year of the Government’s life time it’s probably best to adopt a back-to-basics position and just focus on the big things,” Lawless said. 

When asked if this is a widely held view in Fianna Fáil, Lawless said he thinks that was the view “long before” these referendums ever took place. 

When asked if the referendums have revealed cracks in the coalition, Lawless said “That’s a fair observation”.

‘There’s a lot of TDs and Senators who just want to deliver for people on the issues that matter to them on a day-to-day basis – that is health, housing, law and order. 

“Perhaps Government used a lot of bandwidth on issues that are important, but maybe not as important as those other key issues,” Lawless said. 

Unsurprisingly, the referendum results are also making some within the party question what until now has been a pretty sturdy coalition with Fine Gael and the Green Party. 

“There’s definitely a dislike of the Greens among some within the party, that’s clear from Willie’s tweet,” another backbencher said.

“I wouldn’t say a majority, but there’s certainly a number that believe being in Government with the Green Party is having a negative impact on Fianna Fáil,” they added.

Does this negative sentiment drift at all towards party leader Micheál Martin? 

“Not really, no. He’s the only hope we have.”

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