The roots of the tension between the parties in City Hall

The first meetings of the new Galway City Council have been marked by tension and sniping between Fianna Fáil members and their counterparts in the ruling group of Fine Gael, Labour, and centre-right Independents.

The palpable disharmony that has seen the opposition adopt an obstructionist stance to council business appears to be a result of lingering bitterness over the way negotiations were conducted in relation to the formation of the mayoral pact.

It appears the Fianna Fáil councillors - Michael J Crowe and Ollie Crowe in particular - have assumed the role of the jilted lover; contending that their one-time partners in Fine Gael nefariously left them for Labour.

The Brothers Crowe have now taken to metaphorically flicking their hair and pouting in the Council chamber. Their pride is hurt and it doesn’t help that they have missed out on the mayoral chains and the other spoils of the ruling pact either.

The impact this spat is having on the atmosphere of council meetings which Insider has attended, and the business of the council itself, has its roots in the events leading up to the formation of the mayoral pact and therefore warrants close examination.

Insider will offer a fly-on-the-wall account of the negotiation process which resulted in the unexpected alliance between Fine Gael and Labour, and left Fianna Fáil as ballroom wallflowers.

Making demands

Last May’s local elections saw Fine Gael return with an increased representation of four seats on the Galway City Council. Fianna Fáil retained its three seats, and the ex-PD Independents, who formed part of the outgoing mayoral pact, also held their seats.

There was an expectation that the outgoing pact would again provide the core for a new majority in the chamber; and tentative contact was made between members of its three contingent groups.

The respective representatives, councillors Pádraig Conneely, Michael Crowe, and Declan McDonnell agreed to negotiate with a view to forming a new pact and reverted to their camps to discuss negotiating positions.

To this end, Fine Gael held a meeting of its four members in a smoky backroom of city hotel. There was no objection in principle to reforming the previous mayoral pact with Fianna Fáil and the former-PD Independents, but a number of issues amongst the party’s own members arose. Cllr Pearce Flannery maintained Fianna Fáil should not hold the mayoralty for two years during this council term because it now had fewer members than Fine Gael.

This threatened to complicate negotiations but the real problem for the pact surfaced when one of the councillors - not Cllr Flannery it should be added - addressed the meeting. He had no problem with a continuation of the former pact, he said, but he demanded that he be Fine Gael’s nominee for the mayoralty in a year of his choosing.

In an animated outburst, he insisted that if his demands were not met he would not be participating in any pact. This was met with some surprise.

The meeting disbanded and, when a second meeting was similarly abandoned after the councillor stuck to his guns and made these demands again, it was decided that contact should be made with the newly elected Independent councillor Noel Larkin to discuss the possibility of his replacing the Fine Gael councillor in the pact. This would have resulted in just one Fine Gael mayor during the five-year term – with its second mayoralty going to Cllr Larkin.

Outflanking manoeuvres

Negotiations remained ongoing with Fianna Fáil. The process had gone well and a deal had been agreed in principle. Cllr Michael Crowe had undertaken to get the approval of his colleagues on some minor details before a pact could be officially formed. The Fine Gael councillors awaited his call later that day but night fell and their phones never rang.

A meeting had been arranged with Cllr Larkin over the possibility of his coming on board to replace what Fine Gael considered to be its contrarian councillor.

The proposal was being discussed when Cllr Larkin’s phone lit up and began vibrating on the table. It was Cllr Crowe. Cllr Larkin said: “That’s the third time he’s tried to ring me today.”

He said Cllr Crowe had left a message asking him to call him urgently. The Fine Gael councillors looked at each other curiously. A few minutes passed and the phone lit up again.

After the meeting, Fine Gael scrambled to find out what Cllr Crowe was up to. It emerged that Independent Cllr Mike Cubbard had also been approached by Fianna Fáil, and comments had been made by Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív and Cllr Ollie Crowe suggesting the party would be open to doing business with Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael than became suspicious that Fianna Fáil was involved in parallel negotiations to form an alternative mayoral pact which would exclude Fine Gael and leave Fianna Fáil the senior partner with more favourable terms.

There was nothing Fine Gael could do to stop Fianna Fáil from piecing together an alternative pact, but the Blueshirts decided to outflank the Soldiers of Destiny by playing them at their own game.

Political booty call

Labour, which had been decimated in the election and were left with just two seats, made the political equivalent of a drunken booty call. Without much hope or regard for party pride, it made contact with Fine Gael and asked if there was any chance it could be involved in the mayoral pact.

Fortuitously, there was. In addition, Cllr Larkin had been recruited. Cllr Cubbard was similarly enticed with the offer of a mayoral term; and the former PDs had consented to participate in the new-look grouping without Fianna Fáil.

A majority had been attained. When Fianna Fáil found out, its councillors were furious. Having been outplayed at their own game, there was nothing to do but climb up on the high horse and accuse the council majority of having acted despicably.

The bitterness that has ensued looks set to characterise the council for some time to come.

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