With the possible exception of Simon Harris, it’s difficult to think of anybody who has personified the domestic agenda of Fine Gael over the past several years more than Kate O’Connell. When, in 2016, she unseated ex-Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton, it seemed to encapsulate a shift in Fine Gael’s values, and more significantly, in wider Irish society. Where Creighton was a pro-European, centre right conservative best known for resigning her ministerial position on a matter of principle due to her opposition to abortion, O’Connell was a brash and abrasive liberal, who declared herself dedicated to the repeal of the 8th amendment long before election day. The result of that contest presaged the referendum that would follow two years later.
O’Connell’s rise had been rapid, aided and abetted by a party eager to retain the seat Creighton had taken with her when she walked out the door. Following her election to Dublin City Council in 2014, she was assiduously cultivated by Fine Gael HQ to target Creighton’s Dáil seat. She was proposed at a selection convention by Kevin O’Higgins, the party’s solicitor, and her campaign was heavily funded by the party, which also arranged regular prominent media coverage, particularly by the Independent group of newspapers
In the immediate run-up to the 2016 General Election, a conveniently timed complaint was made to SIPO about a donation received by Lucinda Creighton, which was given extensive coverage by The Irish Independent during the election campaign. The complaint was ultimately found to have no basis, but the damage to Creighton’s campaign had been done, with Ms O’Connell being the fortunate beneficiary.
O’Connell’s image could hardly have contrasted more with Creighton’s. Feminist, ferocious, and fearless, she was presented to the country as that party’s answer to the question “what does modern Ireland look like?”. Splashed across the front page of the Sunday Independent with almost relentless regularity was a woman whose personal circumstances and political message aligned almost perfectly with the emerging new Fine Gael party, and the emerging liberal consensus in the country. But that was a double-edged sword, and her personal circumstances and background also embodied the party’s weaknesses.
Following her election, her first entry in the register of members interests revealed that unlike Creighton, who she replaced, O’Connell was herself a landlord, with no less than five investment properties scattered across the land. Unlike Creighton, who was often the outsider, O’Connell’s establishment and media ties were sealed by marriage – her sister, Theresa Newman, (Newman being O’Connell’s maiden name) was quickly installed as parliamentary assistant, and was in a relationship with, and would later marry, Hugh O’Connell, (no blood relation), a prominent journalist.
On policy, the Newman sisters (as they came to be known inside Fine Gael) started making waves. Feminist and ultra-liberal, and not shy about it, O’Connell started driving Fine Gael’s policy, in as much as she could, away from bread and butter issues and into areas where the party had never traditionally strayed.
Reporting on her, in one of a thousand flattering media profiles, the left-wing website Joe.ie noted:
The outspoken nature of O’Connell’s political personality is one which has propelled her into a spotlight that few other TDs occupy….In the past year, O’Connell has called for the removal of tax on condoms, for free contraception to be made available to women, for repeal of the Eighth Amendment, for the legalisation of cannabis, for the decriminalisation of all drugs and for a crack-down on alternative medical practitioners profiting from vulnerable patients.
Nobody thought to ask, it seems, whether somebody who owned three busy pharmacies being in favour of the regulation of more addictive drugs, or the removal of tax on condoms, or the state subsidisation of hormonal contraceptives, was a conflict of interest. Her priorities aligned with those of the most outspoken liberal campaigners in the media, and that was all that mattered, apparently.
Inside the party, the sisters gained a fearsome reputation which was initially cultivated through a series of high-profile and personalised attacks on key lieutenants of Leo Varadkar.
In May 2017, during the leadership election which eventually elevated Mr Varadkar to the Taoiseach’s office, O’Connell launched an offensive in the media describing Varadkar and his campaign manager, Eoghan Murphy, among others, as “choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys singing for their supper”.
Just days later, Theresa Newman tweeted a picture of Cabinet Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor holding a placard in support of Mr Varadkar during a campaign debate, writing “There’s MMOC working to keep her job in the Ministry of Jobs, fair play to her. #CoveneyforLeader”
Together, these comments led to formal contact being made with Ms O’Connell by party officials, warning her about the language being used. A source told The Irish Independent at the time
“Word was passed back to her and the camp that the comments were outrageous. They were very close to the line”.
After the conclusion of the leadership contest, disciplinary action was considered against Ms O’Connell and Ms Newman, but in view of the febrile nature of the contest it was decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
In November 2017, the sisters orchestrated a very public character assassination of Barry Walsh, then Vice Chair of the Fine Gael National Executive and a vocal supporter of Mr Varadkar, for twelve tweets he had written, spread over four years, which criticised female opposition politicians.
The sisters collated these tweets into a “dossier” which was circulated to the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and to political correspondents in Leinster House. In another instance of convenient timing, this was done just four days after Ms O’Connell had publicly clashed with Mr Walsh on a policy issue during a debate at a Fine Gael National Conference in Cavan.
Under the cover of the media furore she whipped up about these tweets, Ms O’Connell submitted a separate written complaint to Fine Gael HQ which made allegations – later found to be false – that Mr Walsh had bullied a male Fine Gael TD and another male Fine Gael Senator.
A source familiar with the investigation into the matter has told Gript that during the hearings which followed her complaint, Ms O’Connell provided no evidence of any kind to support the allegations and refused to attend the hearings which were held into the matter by a committee of party officials. The male TD who was the alleged victim of bullying expressed surprise when asked about Ms O’Connell’s complaint, and the male Senator told Fine Gael HQ that he had enjoyed “15 years of friendship” with Mr Walsh and that they had “never exchanged a cross word”.
In its final determination on her complaint, a copy of which has been seen by Gript, the party’s General Secretary Tom Curran found that
“No evidence of bullying was considered by the Committee. The Committee was not dealing with these allegations made by Ms O’Connell as no evidence had been offered. Therefore those allegations were unsustainable.”
It was further determined that Mr Walsh was “regarded as a member in good standing” within Fine Gael.
A Minister told Gript this week that “The whole thing was crazy. After a row during an Ard Fheis debate, Kate more or less decided to arrange a media “hit” on the guy, accusing him of all sorts in the hope that some of the mud would stick”
While Mr Walsh was ultimately vindicated and cleared of the allegations by Fine Gael, he bowed to media pressure during the initial controversy and resigned his position on the Executive Council.
It is said that Mr Varadkar has never forgotten this coordinated series of attacks on his allies.
Indeed, while constituency rivalries in Irish politics between members of the same party are very common, O’Connell’s attitude to her colleague the Minister for Housing consistently raised eyebrows. In a quote perfectly calibrated to be leaked to newspapers, as it duly was, O’Connell announced to a Fine Gael meeting last year that the party needed to have a “social conscience” on housing, taking aim at the Minister in her own constituency. She also rather shamelessly opposed her own Government’s Metrolink proposal, supported by Murphy, in her own constituency – an action that was widely regarded by local activists as opportunistic and disloyal, while remarking darkly about Murphy that she “knew his form”.
Most astounding to those that knew both women, though was O’Connell’s treatment of her erstwhile friend and fellow TD Maria Bailey. When the latter was embroiled in a public scandal arising from her personal injury claim against a South Dublin hotel, O’Connell made no public comment – but she immediately removed from her social media platforms all photographs of the two women together, in what was widely perceived as a wordless condemnation of her closest friend in politics. Within a few hours, the story was adorning The Irish Independent. Looking back at it, a member of O’Connell’s constituency party told this writer at the weekend, “it is still the coldest, most callous, most disloyal act I’ve ever seen in politics. The message was clear – when the chips are down, I’m out of here, friend or no friend”.
But while all of these internal squabbles were raising eyebrows on the inside of Fine Gael, on the outside, O’Connell was making herself the face of the party’s ascendant progressive wing and winning rave reviews and legions of fans. She had a gift for social media “moments” – such as when, during the debate on the abortion legislation, she snarled across the chamber at Mattie McGrath that “ye lost…. It must be hurting, get over it”. The clip won rave reviews from liberal and progressive activists, but it caused deep wounds to people on the other side of the debate – including in her own party. “It was astonishing”, a senior FG member from Kilkenny recalled. “Plenty of people in her own party had just lost as well. While Varadkar and Coveney were trying to be conciliatory, there was Kate, sticking the knife in as usual. It was vicious and it cost her the respect of a lot of people”.
But the straight-talking-Kate act was proving a hit with the media. “One of the stand out performers of the last Dáil”, swooned the Irish Times’ veteran colour writer Miriam Lord, as recently as last weekend. “A colourful addition to the political landscape here”, was the breathless verdict of the Irish Independent, in a profile that again highlighted her criticism of Eoghan Murphy, and included O’Connell’s declaration that she was “a bit young to be Taoiseach yet”, but neglected to mention her family connection to the newspaper it appeared in.
The piece did, however, provide a fair summation of O’Connell’s politics, noting that her personality “is also reflected in the mixture of social liberalism and parish pump conservatism in her politics. Over recent years she has been a vocal proponent of progressive causes such as the removal of tax on condoms, free contraception for women and, of course, Repeal the Eighth. But, notably, she’s also come out strongly to bat for the predominantly older, predominantly wealthy residents of her Dublin 6 constituency, throwing her weight behind plans to stave off the controversial Metro North rail link, opposing the current BusConnects plans – which would see a widening of roads in areas like Rathmines and shorter commute times for areas like Finglas.
She has also supported the property tax, which disproportionately affects her constituents, being put on the long finger. She insists none of this means the Government is beholden to the wealthy residents of South Dublin, however.
Once again, here was O’Connell showing the two sides of her politics – when it came to the social issues of the day, she was relentlessly, loudly, argumentatively liberal, linking arms with the young activists demanding change. When it came to matters economic, she was wholly on the side of her wealthy, property-owning constituents, with little to offer beyond soundbite criticisms of her own party’s minister.
Last year, she made headlines again, demonstrating, in a rare lapse of judgement when it came to media relations, genuine political cluelessness. Visiting the Children’s hospital in Crumlin, she declared, was like visiting a “South American” facility:
“I happen to have paid a visit to Crumlin A&E myself on Sunday evening with a child,” she said.
“It is shocking . . . the facilities that are there.”
The Fine Gael TD was critical of the conditions in the emergency department. “It’s wholly unacceptable to my mind that a waiting room would have vomiting babies, breastfeeding mothers, head injury children, broken arm children, all in the one mix,” she said…..
Ms O’Connell told her colleagues she had waited for her child to be seen for several hours before leaving, describing staff as “very stressed”. She said she was afraid she would be recognised and “lynched” by other parents there with children.
The reaction to a Fine Gael TD savaging a health service over which her own party had presided for almost a decade came as a shock to her colleagues. An outgoing Fine Gael Oireachtas member, speaking to Gript on condition of anonymity, provided this assessment: “It was unbelievable to me, really. For one thing, Harris was her friend and ally. She might as well have hit him with a hurl in public. For another thing, what did she think would happen? The public were looking at her saying “how out of touch are you?” It did immense damage to the party and cemented this narrative that we didn’t care or notice these things because it didn’t affect us. You’d think to listen to her that she was the only one of us that ever had a bad experience in a hospital.”
At the recent election, as recently as days before polling day, Eoghan Murphy’s team believed that he was dead in the water. “She’s done a number on us”, one of them told this writer at the time. “The tactics are brutal”. What the tactics were, in fairness, was never elaborated on. But it came as a genuine shock to many within the party when it was O’Connell, not Murphy, who was ejected by the voters on polling day.
Assessing the battlefield a few days later, the same pro-Murphy source noted to this writer that “Eoghan’s a nice fella. You might hate his policies, and be angry at him, but he connects with people, and there’s a sense that he’s genuine. And the one thing he had going for him, after all her activities in recent years, is that the party activists were with him, not her”.
This weekend, Kate O’Connell was, it is generally agreed, the victim of a so-called “shafting” by her own party, when she was unceremoniously dumped from the party’s so-called “inside” slate for the Seanad elections. The “inside” candidates are those who FG councillors are expected to vote for in the Seanad election, ensuring their election. O’Connell’s name did not appear, despite, apparently, assurances being provided to her that it would. Others, like Councillors James Geoghegan and Emma Blain, are considered to be firmly in the frame for her spot on the Fine Gael ticket the next time there is a general election.
A source familiar with the thinking of the FG executive council says that there was “not one voice” in her favour when it came to the selection. “There was a sense that it’s time to move on”, they said. “Kate’s brand of politics is what the electorate rejected. This kind of domineering “daddy knows best” liberalism combined with absolute cluelessness about real poverty, and real deprivation, and the real struggles of the younger people out there.
She thought she represented this generation that’s demanding change. But she never did. She was a wealthy businesswoman, and a landlord, trying to win a left-wing vote.
It was all very naïve. But she wasn’t on her own, was she?”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article described Hugh O’Connell as a “prominent Irish Independent journalist”. Although that is true today, at the time of Deputy O’Connell’s election and the appointment of Ms. Newman as her parliamentary assistant, Mr. O’Connell was employed by the Sunday Business Post. He joined the Irish Independent in July 2019.