Credit: Houses of the Oireachtas

The great Fine Gael TD exodus

Fine Gael holds 33 seats in the present Dáil. If the Irish Examiner is correct, almost a quarter of those politicians may not seek re-election in just under two years, which would represent a barely precedented crisis for a party of Government:

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is facing an electoral crisis with up to nine Fine Gael TDs now expected to stand down ahead of the next general election.

In a massive blow to the party, Kerry TD Brendan Griffin and Cork East representative David Stanton are now “certain” not to run.

It is understood that Fine Gael general secretary John Carroll visited Mr Griffin in his home over the Christmas break in a bid to convince him to stand in the next general election. However, sources close to Mr Griffin say he has made up his mind on the matter.

TDs – those that quit without losing their seats at an election – usually leave politics for one of four reasons: That they have completed a long and successful career and wish to play golf; That they fear losing their seats at the next election and wish to get a jump on the job market; That they simply realise that they do not like politics; or, most rarely, that they are involved in some form of scandal so major that they feel there is no choice but to resign.

In this instance, Fine Gael seems to be suffering from a combination of the first three reasons. Some TDs are old and looking forward to eh, going out to stud. Many of them, given the polls, will see re-election as anything but a certainty, and will be looking for an early jump on the post-election job market – consultancy roles with public affairs companies, perhaps. Or executive positions in nice, state funded NGOs.

And some of them will just be sick of it.

That latter reason, though it will not be spoken aloud, is very often spoken by Government TDs these days in private. On my podcast with David Quinn, before Christmas, Senator Sharon Keoghan, one of the few outspoken politicians against the consensus in Leinster House, spoke of a stifling and oppressive atmosphere in the halls of power, where the expression of contrary and dissenting opinions is occasionally met with the silent treatment, exclusion from social groups, and so on and so forth. She may have said this publicly, but there are many others – including some on the list of retiring or potentially retiring FG TDs – who will say it privately.

Put this another way: If Fine Gael was a private company, and fully one quarter of the employees were expressing a desire to leave at the first available opportunity, wouldn’t that be a sign that there was something deeply wrong with the culture in the organisation?

Speak to people who work for the party in Leinster House, or who are close to it, and you’ll get the same story back, time and again: That morale is low. That the party has no real idea what it is for. That the politicians know that the country has so many problems that they do not know where to begin – from crime, to health, to housing, to energy, to immigration. That many members of the party feel that the Government is on the wrong track, but feel powerless to affect change. That often, being in this Government means accepting blame for the consequences of things you fundamentally oppose.

It is also, surely, the case that were this the staff turnover rate in a private company, serious questions would be asked about the CEO. This is not, clearly, a motivated team of people enjoying their work. Some readers may have missed it, but last week Maria Bailey, defenestrated over a controversial personal injury lawsuit, had this to say about the support she received from the Taoiseach:

Bailey contacted this newspaper after reading comments by an unnamed associate of Varadkar’s in a profile article of the newly reinstalled Taoiseach published in this newspaper last month, saying that the Fine Gael leader showed sympathy towards Bailey during the episode.

The former Dún Laoghaire TD insists that this was at odds with her recollection of how she was treated during the controversy that marked the end of her 16-year career in politics…..

….. Bailey believes she was pressured by Varadkar into co-operating with the Kennedy review. She initially resisted participating when she met Varadkar in late May as it was a private matter. She told him she was at breaking point and not mentally or physically able, particularly with her father’s illness. Varadkar told her if she didn’t participate, she would “forever have a cloud over her head” and he threatened to remove the party whip. She reluctantly agreed to co-operate.

Bailey said she also told Varadkar that she needed help and that she was not mentally in a good place, and that he replied that he couldn’t help her.

Whatever one thinks of Ms Bailey personally, there are (thankfully) relatively few people who know just how excruciating it can be to be the centre of a public controversy, even one that is deserved. The accusation in bold above (my emphasis) is denied by the Taoiseach, but clearly, Ms Bailey does not recall feeling even personally supported by her leader. That kind of thing gets noticed by others.

Fine Gael, clearly, is not a happy political party. And the blame for that starts at the very top.

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