With the national media marking the 20th anniversary of the national media’s obsession with Saipan all week (in fairness, everyone got pretty worked up about Keane v McCarthy) – here in People Political Towers, we’re going down memory lane for our own political ‘Saipan Special’. So, inspired by Mick and Roy’s falling out all those years ago, here are eight big, memorable Irish political rivalries/spats…
Michael McDowell v John Gormley
During the 2007 General Election campaign, there was ‘Campaign Gold’ when Progressive Democrats leader McDowell and Green Party Chairman Gormley squared off on the street in Ranelagh while canvassing in the very competitive Dublin South-East constituency.
McDowell was putting up a poster with the slogan ‘Left-Wing Government? – No Thanks’ when he was confronted by an irate Gormley, who demanded that ‘SuperMc’ withdraw campaign claims against the Greens. Flanked by their teams of canvassers, the sitting TDs faced off for several minutes. Happily for us (and the candidates) the TV cameras were present.
Unusually angry and animated, the normally placid Gormley showed all the signs of a candidate under pressure as he launched a strong verbal attack. Beyond chuckling and saying “calm down”, McDowell barely got a word in (maybe just as well for viewers).
Gormley had the last laugh, retaining his seat while McDowell lost out. McDowell then resigned as party leader at the count, meaning one of Gormley’s best quotes in the ‘Rumble in Ranelagh’ had proven prophetic: “Bye bye to the PDs…you (McDowell) are history”.
Mary Lou McDonald v Leo Varadkar
The mutual dislike that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have for one another is perfectly mirrored in the very cool relationship between the party’s leaders.
There seems to be genuine acrimony between Varadkar and McDonald (as opposed to the posturing one associates with some political ‘rivalries’). True, they have different political philosophies, but in all probability the reason for the constant tension is because the respective leaders see the other party as a major political threat.
Whether it’s Varadkar comparing Mary Lou to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, or McDonald calling on the Tánaiste to resign, any exchange between the two is almost always guaranteed to be sparky.
Charles Haughey v Des O’Malley
They could never have been best buddies…they were too different. Haughey was charismatic, rogueish and cavalier. O’Malley was publicly dour, cautious, and of course deeply suspicious of Haughey, stretching back to the Arms Trial period. (At school, O’Malley might be the boy who stayed in class studying during break-time, with Haughey smoking a fag in the yard while plotting to overthrow the school management).
Tensions came to a head in 1984 when Haughey oversaw the removal of the whip from O’Malley, a disciplinary measure that led to the latter setting up the Progressive Democrats.
In the simplistic ‘Good v Evil’ narrative that often passed for commentary on Haughey/O’Malley, it is often overlooked that O’Malley wanted to be FF leader and gave his blessing to a botched unsuccessful leadership challenge in 1982.
Despite massive mutual distrust, the duo – remarkably – put their differences aside and worked very well together in the FF/PD Coalition of 1989-’92. Whisper it, but there was mutual respect under the surface.
Charles Haughey v Garret Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald and Haughey polarised political opinion in Ireland for decades, their rivalry defining an era in Irish politics.
The fact that they led the two big political beasts in Ireland – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil respectively – meant they were in permanent public conflict with one another (they were actually quite good friends away from the political battlefield). It was easy for many in the media to depict the rivalry as ‘Good’ (Garret) v ‘Not Quite So Good’ (or maybe ‘Not quite so trustworthy’) Charlie.
Many Fianna Fáil supporters never forgave Fitzgerald for what was considered an ungracious address in the Dáil when Haughey became Taoiseach, i.e. the famous ‘flawed pedigree’ denunciation.
Their TV debates – Brian Farrell in chair, eyebrows arched – was the sort of stuff that got us very excited in the 1980s!
Dick Spring v Albert Reynolds
The political marriage that cast doubt on the theory that opposites attract! Spring had a sizeable ego and was a stickler for…being a stickler. As far as Dick was concerned, gravitas and self-importance mattered! Reynolds was more down to earth, gregarious, and spontaneous in his political outlook. Had they not been thrown together by fate (and number crunching) in a Fianna Fáil-Labour Coalition, it’s likely they wouldn’t have willingly spent a single afternoon together.
Egos ruled, the duo never really gelling. When Reynolds claimed a pre-emptive vindication via the Beef Tribunal Report, Spring – allegedly locked out of Government Buildings – went ballistic.
Mary O’Rourke v Albert Reynolds
On becoming Taoiseach in 1992, Reynolds sacked O’Rourke as part of his ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ removal of 17 ministers.
No doubt it was ruthless, but should it have been such a surprise? The constituency ‘colleagues’ had been in fierce competition for many years. The famous ‘Battle for Tang Church’ refers to an acrimonious stand-off in 1987 between the Reynolds and O’Rourke camps on the border of counties Longford and Westmeath.
The fact that O’Rourke had the audacity to put her name into the ring for the leadership after Charlie Haughey resigned will also have rankled with Reynolds (who won the leadership election). Although he bowed to some public pressure and ended up giving Mary a junior ministry, Albert had made his true feelings known during the Valentine’s Day Massacre. No love lost.
(For the record, it should be said that O’Rourke was quite gracious about Reynolds in her autobiography).
Charles Haughey v Sean Doherty
Haughey attracted Doherty to Fianna Fáil, Doherty helped Haughey become leader, Haughey moved Doherty up the ranks…then it all turned sour.
A political thriller with many twists and turns, the Haughey-Doherty relationship fell apart at the altar of desire for power.
For many years the duo were very close, Doherty fiercely loyal to his boss, Haughey rewarding the Boyle man by appointing him Minister for Justice. That was before the series of unfortunate events now commonly referred to by the GUBU acronym. When Doherty lost the whip over the phone-tapping controversy, a decade in the wilderness followed.
Feeling let down by Haughey, Doherty held a press conference in which he made the dramatic claim that then then-Taoiseach had known all along about the tapping of journalists’ phones a decade earlier. It led directly to Haughey’s resignation. Haughey and Doherty never spoke again.
Enda Kenny v Denis Naughten
Enda Kenny and Roscommon TD Denis Naughten were fairly close political allies. However, by 2010 cracks had begun to appear in their relationship. Then, with Kenny and Fine Gael at sea in national opinion polls, Naughten very publicly supported a coup against his party leader. Against initial expectations, Kenny survived the leadership challenge, and went on to become Taoiseach in 2011.
Next came Hospital-gate, with Kenny and James Reilly reneging on pre-election commitments to keep Roscommon A&E open. Naughten voted against the downgrading and was immediately expelled from Fine Gael. He has been an Independent TD ever since. Kenny and Naughten didn’t speak for years. But while their relationship never fully recovered, there was a twist after the 2016 General Election. With the support of Independents, Kenny formed a Fine Gael-led minority government, and, in a classic example of realpolitik, he appointed Naughten to Cabinet.