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8 things you need to know about Fine Gael's Seanad shambles... and why it matters

A little-known losing local election candidate is at the centre of a controversy that is causing huge problems for Fine Gael.

John McNulty is perhaps the most well-known losing local election candidate in Ireland right now
John McNulty is perhaps the most well-known losing local election candidate in Ireland right now
Image: Fine Gael via Flickr

IT’S BEEN AN awful week for Fine Gael as the party grapples with the significant fallout caused by the botched handling of its attempt to fill a vacancy in the Seanad.

Just over a week ago few outside of Leinster House would have been even aware that there was a vacant seat in the upper house – much less the process that was being undertaken to fill it.

But after it was confirmed that Donegal-based shop manager John McNulty would be the party’s nominee for the Seanad seat vacated by Deirdre Clune, events took a dramatic turn when details of a questionable appointment to a state board emerged.

Here’s how the story has unfolded, what you need to know about it and why it’s important…

1. “A guy called McNulty…” 

It was just after 9pm on Wednesday, 17 September when TheJournal.ie got a text from a reliable Fine Gael source telling us “a guy called McNulty from Donegal” was the party’s nominee for the Seanad by-election caused by Deirdre Clune’s election to the European Parliament. That ‘guy’ was John McNulty, a losing local election candidate in Donegal in last May’s local elections.

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With the by-election electorate limited to TDs and Senators, the coalition’s majority meant that McNulty was assured of victory – and a seat in the upper house. His selection was a surprise given Fine Gael had been expected to pick a female candidate based in Dublin.

Indeed the party’s national executive had shortlisted two names, Samantha Long and Stephanie Regan – both failed local election candidates in Dublin – as suitable people for the vacant seat on the Seanad’s Cultural and Educational Panel. There were reports that Dublin city councillor Kate O’Connell was also shortlisted, but we understand she was not on the final shortlist given to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

In any case Kenny opted for McNulty in what was was seen as a snub to women in Fine Gael. One TD was deeply unhappy with the selection, telling us: “I think women have to work ten times harder to get to the same place as men [within the party].”

2. ‘IMMA’ in trouble 

Though there was some unease about women in the party being overlooked again, the McNulty selection caused few ripples in political circles.

That was until Today FM political correspondent Gavan Reilly (formerly of this parish) reported last Monday, 22 September that McNulty was appointed to a state board days before his nomination for the Seanad by-election.

McNulty was made an unpaid director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) on Friday, 12 September – just days before his nomination was confirmed. This was also the final day of the Fine Gael think-in at Fota Island in Cork where party members, including the likes of general secretary Tom Curran, gathered with the Taoiseach, senior ministers, including Heather Humphreys, and backbenchers to discuss strategy for the months ahead.

Courtyard_of_Irish_Museum_of_Modern_Art The courtyard of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, south Dublin Source: Wikimedia Commons via Wikipedia

The Department of Arts defended McNulty’s appointment to the IMMA board, arguing that the position is unpaid and that he has ”a track record in promoting culture, heritage, the GAA and the Irish language”.

Despite being on the board for mere days, McNulty cited his IMMA affiliation as grounds to qualify for the Seanad’s Cultural and Educational Panel in his nomination papers even though he would have to resign his board membership once elected to the upper house.

3. A political stroke? 

The opposition parties and particularly Fianna Fáil immediately sensed that there was hay to be made from what appeared to be a ‘political stroke’.

Their contention was essentially that McNulty was identified as the candidate but Fine Gael was advised that he didn’t meet the criteria to quality for Cultural and Educational Panel.

So the party sought to beef up his credentials by getting him added to a state board. This was despite McNulty not being likely to have any involvement with IMMA in the three weeks before he was elected to the Seanad.

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Complicit in this, they argued, was the Arts Minister Heather Humphreys who made the McNulty appointment. Underlining the problems the government has in the upper house, the opposition managed to win a vote calling on Humphreys to explain why she appoointed McNulty.

The Minister, a surprise appointment to her role in July, came into the house at 6pm on Tuesday, 23 September to explain that she appointed McNulty to the IMMA board to ensure “better regional representation”.

What she didn’t say, despite being asked, was:

  1. Whether she knew if McNulty was the party’s pick for the Seanad when she made the appointment.
  2. Whether McNulty had even applied for the position on the IMMA board.
  3. If he hadn’t, then who had recommended him as a suitable candidate for the board?

With those key questions ignored and unanswered Humphreys’s first appearance in the upper house was widely criticised.

4. Ministers on the defence, backbenchers on the attack

Just after 8.30am on Wednesday, 24 September, Labour TD Dominic Hannigan tweeted his unhappiness about the McNulty issue:

This set the tone for a day when ministers were forced on the defensive. On the Fine Gael side Leo Varadkar insisted there was no problem. While speaking for Labour, the Tánaiste Joan Burton didn’t sound particularly pleased but wasn’t raising hell, indicating that junior coalition party would support the McNulty candidacy.

Meanwhile, McNulty himself was silenced by the Fine Gael press office and told not to make any public comment. Several media organisations also attempted to speak to the women who were viewed as having been overlooked for the seat – Samantha Long, Stephanie Regan and Kate O’Connell – but all were told by the FG media managers to stay off the airwaves.

That evening, stormy Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary meetings heard from disgruntled backbenchers with phrases like ‘stroke politics’ and ‘Fianna Fáil lite’ doing the rounds.

5. Unanswered questions and resignations 

On Wednesday night in the US, Enda Kenny faced his first questions on the issue. He insisted it was “the right of the leader of the day to decide who should be nominated” while dismissing criticism over gender balance, noting the party’s two by-election candidates are female.

But the controversy rolled into Thursday, 25 September as one of the overlooked Seanad hopefuls, Samantha Long, resigned from the party and expressed her disappointment that females had been overlooked.

screenshot.1411742094.98068 Source: www.thejournal.ie

Then at an “extremely awkward” doorstep interview at the National Museum, Humphreys was again unable to answer questions about whether McNulty applied for the IMMA board role and whether she knew he was being nominated for the Seanad.

She also claimed she wasn’t even aware that Long had resigned from the party despite the story leading several online publications and being widely discussed on the airwaves.

Then just before 3pm on Thursday, McNulty, making his first public comment since the controversy arose, issued a statement through the Fine Gael press office. He said he was stepping down from the IMMA board because, it transpired, that the museum’s own internal rules stated he could not contest an election while being a board member. Which begged the question:

6. It’s not just about McNulty any more 

By the time McNulty had resigned from IMMA the story had become almost secondary to the full-scale attack on the Fine Gael leadership being launched by one of its own backbenchers.

Waterford TD John Deasy told RTÉ’s News at One that people within the party were becoming “disgusted” with the way it was being run and said, amongst many other things

“The Taoiseach, who likes to give his mobile phone number out to the world, doesn’t really engage or entertain criticism.”

Speaking privately several backbench Fine Gael TDs told this website that evening that they agreed with Deasy’s views but were not prepared to go public. Then yesterday morning, Cavan-Monaghan deputy Seán Conlan echoed much of what Deasy said in an interview with RTÉ radio.

He articulated a view, which he said was shared by many within the party, that dissent was essentially silenced and only those who kept their mouths shut were rewarded by the party hierarchy.

7. What happens now 

It appears despite the opposition’s best efforts, John McNulty will be a candidate for the Seanad by-election and will win with the support of Fine Gael and Labour deputies.

Other candidates in the running are the independent (but Fianna Fáil endorsed) Gerard Craughwell, a former TUI president, and the Sinn Féin councillor Catherine Seeley.

The ballots for the by-election of 223 TDs and Senators have gone out and the result is expected on Friday, 10 October.

Speaking in Roscommon yesterday, Kenny sought to draw line under the matter.

8. Finally, three reasons why this goes outside the political bubble 

Action Plans for Jobs Reports Enda Kenny is under fire over the controversy this week Source: Photocall Ireland

Firstly, the move does little to bolster Fine Gael’s gender balance credentials – a seat vacated by a female is going to a male. With gender quotas coming in at the next election how encouraged will women be to put their name forward if it appears that the largest party in the State is ignoring them for key positions?

Secondly, it again raises questions about how the government handles state board appointments. There was a pledge of transparency in this regard when the coalition came to office three years ago. But this controversy has all the hallmarks of a political stroke where an appointment has been made not on merit but out of political necessity.

Third and perhaps most importantly, the story has opened up to the public the depth of anger within some quarters of Fine Gael as to how the party leadership operates.

Why does this matter to voters? We’ll let one TD, who declined to be named, sum it up succinctly: “This has to be discussed and this has to be sorted out because we can’t keep going on like this. There is no point in recovery in the economy if people can’t trust us.”

State of the Nation: This McNulty scandal is really building up a head of steam…

Analysis: Here’s how Fine Gael landed itself in an unnecessary Seanad shambles

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Hugh O'Connell

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