Currangate: HQ get their man, but will FF get a seat?

Could bizarre episode boost Murphy?
The man who walked away

“What in God’s name was Ivan Connaughton thinking?”

That – sometimes with God invoked, sometimes just Micheál Martin – is a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times in the past couple of years. Fianna Fáil’s chaotic search for a candidate or candidates to contest the 2016 General Election in Roscommon/Galway can be traced back to Connaughton’s explosive interview in the Roscommon People over Christmas 2014.

In that bombshell interview, Connaughton called for his party leader Micheál Martin to resign, slammed FF HQ, and was critical of the party organisation in Roscommon. Most surprisingly of all, he flatly ruled out contesting a General Election ever again as long as Micheál Martin remains leader. Some milk was spilt over breakfast in grassroot Fianna Fáil households that morning… It was quite an outburst by Connaughton.

It’s not for me to say what his precise motivation was in saying all he did and when he did – I was merely the messenger. I was happy to be the messenger too, and one thing I will say is that Ivan Connaughton did not need any persuading on the day.

He wasn’t just happy to talk remarkably openly and critically about his disdain for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil HQ – he wanted to get that stuff off his chest. He had clearly thought through what he wanted to say in that interview. He wasn’t going to hold back, and there would be no turning back.

Over a year on, and with his party having gone through a controversial and divisive election candidate selection process, you’d think that Connaughton, now an FF councillor, might regret talking himself out of contention.

But he doesn’t have any regrets. Instead he is content with the stance he took. And, he remains a young man who is not in a hurry.

‘She stepped out and I stepped in again’

Connaughton had contested both the 2011 General Election and the 2014 By-election for Fianna Fáil. Now, in the post-Michael Finneran era, and with Connaughton out of the picture, Fianna Fáil turned its attention to seeking out a new candidate. Approaches were made to Dr. Martin Daly (he decided against entering the political fray), and there was much speculation about Dr. Keith Swanick (currently running for the Seanad, and a likely Dail contender in the future) and about various councillors.

A number of councillors were nominated over the past year or so. One by one, most opted out. They pulled out for a variety of mainly unspoken reasons. I suspect that some of these reasons were as follows: ‘I wouldn’t win’ ‘Not this time, I’ll wait for a better opportunity’ ‘I want nothing to do with that farce’ It was becoming a bit of a farce.

Cllr. Eugene Murphy, a wily operator and veteran Convention contender, decided to hang in there. A relative unknown, Sean Og Higgins, emerged too. Although there were at least two people willing to turn up and dance, FF HQ wouldn’t pick a date, a venue or a band. Fianna Fáil lost critical time and played into the hands of their opponents.

It was obvious that the party was desperately scrambling around for a candidate other than Mr. Murphy or Mr. Higgins. Few people took the speculation about Conor Lenihan seriously. Ultimately it only added to the sense of a chaotic ‘process.’ As Christmas 2015 neared, it was (long overdue) time to bring everything to a head.

Fianna Fáil grassroots in Roscommon wanted and expected a Selection Convention. The two remaining candidates were waiting. But Fianna Fáil HQ didn’t want Cllr. Eugene Murphy. It wasn’t personal, as such – they just didn’t see him as a seat-winner. Issues around loyalty (to Murphy) wouldn’t arise. Issues around ruthlessness would.

Issues around democracy, HQ could take or leave, as we would see… Fianna Fáil General Secretary Sean Dorgan travelled to a hotel in Co. Roscommon towards the end of the year. He met Cllr. Eugene Murphy and conveyed the concerns of HQ. Cllr. Murphy was told that internal party polling suggested he wouldn’t win a seat. Murphy defended himself and, under pressure from HQ, dismissed out of hand any notion of stepping aside.

Tails briefly between their legs, HQ gave the green light for a convention. Many within the party locally believe that FF HQ threw its weight in behind Higgins, in the hope that he would cause a convention upset.

The speculation is that had Higgins (who is entitled to feel aggrieved at recent events) won the convention, he would subsequently have been cast as a running mate for a new, high profile candidate. As it turned out, Murphy won the convention fairly comfortably.

The Cake rises…

January was a long month. The speculation about former Roscommon GAA star Shane Curran being added to the Fianna Fáil ticket had been around in December and had peaked in early January.

The Murphy camp led resistance to any Curran candidacy, with supporters of the Strokestown councillor contacting FF HQ to make their feelings known. They were formally supported by the Fianna Fail Comhairle Dail Ceantair. The speculation ebbed away.

Behind the scenes however, the contacts between HQ and Curran continued. Murphy was out canvassing last Thursday when, metaphorically speaking, the thunder began to roll again. Text messages and tweets began to circulate. Fianna Fáil were about to bag their man. Curran travelled to Dublin to complete the formalities.

By about 10.30 pm on Thursday night, Shane Curran was officially a Fianna Fáil candidate in Roscommon/Galway. Murphy got the phone call he had feared. A big personality, with contacts in Castlerea and South Roscommon – and of course recognisable throughout the constituency – the bookies now have Curran at 11/8 to take a Dail seat.

But the bookies, and most punters, don’t see Fianna Fail winning a seat. Murphy came out fighting on Friday in an interview with Mary Claire Grealy. The Murphy and Curran camps are now on solo runs.

And now…they’re off! What now?

The interesting thing is that, after all the chaos, Fianna Fáil could possibly have actually enhanced its prospects of winning a seat. Fianna Fáil are still playing catch-up on other candidates – there’s no doubt about that – but the dual-candidate strategy, as ham-fisted as its creation was, may yet get one of their runners over the line.

The high profile Shane Curran is seen by the bookies as the frontrunner of the Fianna Fáil duo. However I certainly would not discount a Murphy surge. Here’s a possible scenario: Murphy’s perceived plight could have the effect of mobilising grassroots/attracting a ‘sympathy’ vote.

If this happens, he will be very much in contention. Whatever the majority of grassroots think, the fact is that Fianna Fáil now suddenly find themselves with both ends of the constituency covered. Now I know that formal vote management between Curran and Murphy is about as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas, but a two-candidate approach might just keep one of the party’s candidates in the hunt for a seat. For that to happen, either Murphy or Curran will need to be very close to Cllr. Maura Hopkins on first preferences.

Which Fianna Fáil candidate attracts the highest first preference vote remains to be seen. Just now, it’s all to play for. We don’t know yet which member of Fianna Fáil’s ‘arranged marriage’ will garner the most momentum.

So, Fianna Fáil will either (a) scrape a seat after the most bizarre build-up – or (b) pay the ultimate price for prevarication after the most bizarre build-up. If it’s the latter, expect the mother of all inquests.