ON the brink of General Election 2016 polling day, a former Clare TD has revealed how Fianna Fáil paid a heavy price for a wrong call on fixing a date for the 2011 election.
Fianna Fáil election strategists cost the party up to 30 additional seats over the timing of the 2011 General Election, former Defence Minister Tony Killeen has claimed.
In an interview during a Clare Champion-hosted General Election 2016 discussion, Mr Killeen laid bare for the first time the main factors that led to the dramatic meltdown for Fianna Fáil, which went from 78 to just 20 Dáil seats in the last election.
Mr Killeen, who had been principal at Kilnaboy National School prior to entering politics, also revealed he would be dead if he had contested a snap election in December 2010, instead of February 25, 2011, as he was battling cancer at the time. Mr Killeen announced his retirement from politics on health grounds ahead of the election.
Mr Killeen estimated Fianna Fáil could have salvaged 20 additional seats (on top of the 20 won in February 2011) if it went to the country in December 2010.
He said the decision to deduct the Universal Social Charge (USC) a week before the actual election probably cost the party another 10 seats.
Commenting on the likely outcome of General Election 2016, Mr Killeen believes it is really difficult to see the outgoing Coalition Government winning three seats in Clare.
For Labour’s Michael McNamara to be elected, he says two Fine Gael candidates need to be eliminated.
“For Joe Carey to be elected, he needs a Fine Gael candidate and Michael McNamara to be knocked out. The weakness of that argument is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together only have about 50%. If you put Labour into it that increases to 60%; the rest is very disparate.
“I can’t see the rest bringing in any more than one seat. A few days ago, I thought maybe more, maybe Noeleen Moran or another independent, but they may not bring anyone because it is so disparate.
“A lot of the significant exclusions are in the middle. If you add seven or eight of these candidates, you are on a quota. Up to six of the lower candidates probably have 15,000 votes between them. I know this will be scattered and will go to different parties, probably more to Michael McNamara than Labour would normally get.
“It is a significant disadvantage to be in government before an election,” he said.
Commenting on the meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2011, Mr Killeen said a lot of people attributed it to the fact that senior Fianna Fáil figures left, some of whom, he believes, did the party a disservice because they didn’t explain why they left.
Even though two senior ministers, who he declined to name, had very valid personal reasons as to why they were not seeking re-election, he said they chose not to disclose them.
“In my own case, I had spent just under €6,000 on the election. If it had been held before Christmas, I would have been a candidate and if I was elected, I would be dead now. Christmas came, I had to go for a check-up and I lost the battle [to run for election].
“On the other hand, I should have done what I was told in 2008 and given up work and got better. I would have a lot less trouble now. Some of the others were in similar situations when that tsunami hit.
“Martin Cullen had resigned and we stupidly let Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher go to Europe and we were very tight for numbers,” he recalled.
“On the day the Green Party announced they were pulling out of government and were only staying a certain period, most of us were in Donegal for the by-election in November 2010. I was on my way back to Dublin, as I was doing a few media things that night.
“An Taoiseach Brian Cowen rang me and asked me what did I think. Fianna Fáil ministers met the next morning.
“There were divided views on whether we should go to the country immediately and have the election on December 18 or wait it out and deliver the package from the Troika.
“Ultimately, the decision was if we go now, we will get about 20 seats more because the Troika will not be in the country and none of the measures will have hit.
“A small majority of ministers influenced the Taoiseach to stay, as they felt we were in Government when it happened, we will see it out, we will bring in a plan and go to the country then,” he said.
The former minister declared, “At least 20 of our colleagues will curse us forever because they would have been elected”.
Continuing, Mr Killeen said, “People are very critical of Sinn Féin and independents for what they are saying now. People like Ruairi Quinn and Joan Burton, excluding Michael Noonan, who behaved extraordinarily well over the six to eight-month period, criticised us but broadly agreed with the programme.
“Michael Noonan was hugely supportive personally and politically of Brian Lenihan. Part of the problem with Labour was that Joan Burton and Brian Lenihan hated each other and they were also in the same constituency, which wasn’t a help. They were saying things to rile each other, which wasn’t helpful either.”
A few days after the start of the 2011 General Election, Mr Killeen recalled now Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin rang him and asked him to be the party’s director of elections.
The former Kilnaboy teacher agreed to take on this task, even though he spent most of his time in bed as he was very sick at the time.
He pointed out the two biggest things that adversely hit Fianna Fáil was the deduction of the new USC from people’s wages a week before polling day and losing the country’s financial sovereignty, which Labour’s Ruairí Quinn very effectively hammered home.
He pointed out the only difference was the government was borrowing around the same amount from a different source, which they couldn’t get in the private markets.
“Fianna Fáil made a really bad job of explaining this to the public. There were two other factors. I looked at the Fianna Fáil candidates and found we had two candidates in virtually every constituency where we could win one seat if we had one candidate.
“Fianna Fáil made a mess of East Cork and a whole load of constituencies, such as the two Meaths and Sligo Leitrim. Michael Ahern had stood down and was persuaded to run in the election.
“When you are trying to deal with the big stuff, you miss other things. Can you imagine, you know this election is coming for a year and you ring a fella [Tony Killeen] who is in bed sick and ask him to become director of elections a week into the election.
“That was because you were seen as an acceptable face and hadn’t insulted anyone,” he recalled.