For these local elections Fianna Fáil launched a new system of selection designed to ensure transparency, fairness, and an end to sitting councillors selecting below par running mates.
The new system consisted of a nomination process, followed by an interview carried out by three independent members all answering to a non partisan committee chaired by Tánaiste Mary Coughlan but strictly monitored by general secretary Sean Dorgan on behalf of the National Executive.
Galway city and county, where Fianna Fáil lost nine seats during the last locals was a prime target for this flawless system. However the selection debacles in Connemara and Galway city, where a combination of paranoia, cosy HQ relationships, and unholy alliances, have resulted in a series of decisions which make a mockery of democracy.
Rather than electing quickly and efficiently the best possible team for Fianna Fáil, the system has made sure that at least one seat will be lost in Connemara and no gain is possible in the city.
Martin Quinn in the last local elections was within a vote of keeping his seat, while Val Hanley was a long way from keeping his. Hanley is now selected in an area that clearly rejected him on the last occasion despite the array of young, fit, and impressive talent available in the new Galway City West ward.
Noel Thomas has a broad appeal among the general public in Connemara, and his name is known from An Cheathrú Rua to Bearna and is widely respected in his native Moycullen. His opposition Louise O’Connor is only known among the dwindling Fianna Fáil membership and her popularity within FF is not that high. Yet O’Connor has been selected and Thomas may well be forced to emerge as Labour’s candidate for Connemara.
It has been widely commented that to get selected you must hire a public relations expert - preferably one who has a relationship with Fianna Fail HQ. Cllr Connie Ní Fhátharta is alleged to have hired help in the last local elections and so also allegedly did Val Hanley.
Pressure from a sitting Minister, a powerful HQ staff member, a well connected PR consultant, and sitting councillors, to ensure that either Martin Quinn or Noel Thomas would get selected is said to have been unprecedented.
On a day when the Fianna Fail vote could well slip below 25 per cent in Galway you would imagine the Soldiers of Destiny would pick the best squad. If the new independent selection system was operating we would be looking at the cream of candidates getting picked and the chaff left swinging in the wind.
However the vested interests that have always controlled the party showed that lobbying is more effective than grassroots democracy. The key to why this occurred lies in the profiles of those not selected.
Noel Thomas’ father played hurling for An Spidéal and drove the bus from Galway city to Leitir Mór. This route cuts right through Cllr Ní Fhátharta’s core area and threatens two of her main incomes as a serving Údaras member and county councillor.
She is also a member of the National Roads Authority, a quango which pays out significant expenses. Cllr Ní Fhátharta has very few friends in Connemara Fianna Fáil but has significant clout with FF HQ. She is believed to have been worried sick at the prospect of having Noel Thomas on the ticket with her.
The other candidate who does well on this patch is Cllr Séan Ó Tuairisg. He should be safe as houses but he, like all others, is paranoid about the depth of anti-Government feeling. He is the local area boss in Connemara for Éamon Ó Cuív and his nickname on Galway County Council is ‘Ask Éamon’.
Noel Thomas has family connections in Clonbur, the heartland of the Ó Cuív empire. Minister Ó Cuív is alleged to have intervened at the highest possible levels to block the wishes of the interview panel to select Thomas.
It is also believed that Dep Frank Fahey, for whom Thomas canvassed night and day during the last general election, did not attempt to assist Thomas. In fact many believe Dep Fahey was willing to see O’Connor selected in the hope it might help save the struggling Cllr Josie Connelly of Clifden.
Three councillors and two sitting TDs against you is normally enough to get rid of you at most conventions but in the land of interviews these approaches were supposed to have been eradicated.
Martin Quinn, who came within one vote of staying in the race at the last election but ultimately lost out, should feel the most cheated. Since losing his seat he has been a loyal servant to the party. He should have been automatically guaranteed a second tilt at the title following his loss in 2004.
However it is believed that he was shafted by those closest to him. Quinn single handedly ran the very successful HQ fundraiser at the time of the change of leadership in Fianna Fáil. However his loyalty was not repaid due to HQ’s desire to expand the Crowe political franchise into all three city wards.
Insider believes a number of the city and county candidates have hired the services of a Galway based PR expert with close associations to Fianna Fáil headquarters and that this expert has opened significant doors for those seeking selection. Quinn was unwilling to pay for these services but instead devoted his energies to fundraising for the party through traditional avenues. For his unswerving loyalty and dedication to the party he has paid a very dear price.
The prediction at this stage is that in Connemara Cllr Connelly is definitely gone and will lose out to Eileen Mannion of Clifden who along with Sean Kyne in Moycullen will win two seats for Fine Gael. Furthermore Cllr Ní Fhátharta and Cllr Thomas Welby may well steal enough votes from Cllr Seamus Walsh to put his seat under pressure.
Don’t rule out Tom Curran winning a seat here, purely on the gap left by the non selection of a strong FF candidate in the Moycullen/Bearna region, if that happens it will be at the expense of Cllr Walsh
In Galway city the three sitting councillors will be re-elected with Val Hanley splitting the vote and denying a promising Peter Keane his chance to bring some fresh thinking into a staid old ward.