New political ideals ravaged by ... politics

Catherine Murphy, Noel McGrath, John Squires, Ben Gilroy, Raymond Whitehead, and Joe Blake at the opening of the Cork East Office of Direct Democracy Ireland last June. McGrath has since resigned as branch chair.
Catherine Murphy, Noel McGrath, John Squires, Ben Gilroy, Raymond Whitehead, and Joe Blake at the opening of the Cork East Office of Direct Democracy Ireland last June. McGrath has since resigned as branch chair.

A year ago, a new political party was formed, promising grand ideals and a break from old guard. But infighting and a lack of structure has ravaged its intentions, writes Micheal Clifford

ELIZABETH HOURIHANE saw something new here. A political party of the people, by the people, for the people. Direct Democracy Ireland (DDI) was pledging to hand back power to the citizens who had been feeling disenfranchised since the collapse of the economy in 2008.

DDI — its leaders described it as a “service” rather than a party — was based on the premise that major political decisions should be made through referendum. This came after seismic decisions such as the 2008 bank guarantee, and the 2010 troika bailout, taken at the behest of the cabinet.

Hourihane, a native of Passage West, Co Cork, liked what she saw. “I believed then, and I still believe, that the people should have the right to decide on major decisions,” she says. “So when a start-up meeting in Cork was organised I was very interested.”

DDI was launched last November in Dublin. One of its founders, Ray Whitehead, said it wanted to create “realistic, economic choices” based on public debate. The notion caught on. In the Meath East by-election last March, DDI candidate Ben Gilroy beat Labour’s candidate into fourth place. Gilroy polled 1,568 first preferences, representing 6.5% of the vote.

There followed a series of media appearances by Gilroy, signalling that DDI had arrived. Naturally, interest flared across a country disillusioned by the politics-as-usual. The party made a pledge to run over 100 candidates in the 2014 local elections, and at least one in the European elections.

In Cork, a start-up meeting was organised for Saturday, May 18, in the Silver Springs Hotel. Similar meetings were taking place across the country. In Offaly and Waterford, new branches were getting off the ground. Others in Louth and Donegal were also up and running.

Gilroy and Whitehead came down and spoke at the Silver Springs. New members were signed up at €10 a skull. A Cork branch was formed and one of the members, Joe Blake, waselected chairman. Soon after, at short notice, Gilroy and Whitehead appeared in Cork and attended what was billed as the opening of a party office in Cobh, where one of the new members, Noel Maguire, worked.

So far, so exciting. Then questions began to pop up. Members wondered what the structures were, how were they to go forward, how exactly did the party function.

“We asked for a copy of the constitution,” Hourihane says. “But we kept being put off. We were ringing and texting and it kept being deflected.”

The concern manifested itself in a change of leadership locally. At a meeting in Grove’s pub in Blackpool in the city, Blake was voted out as chairman and Noel Maguire voted in.

Despite this, the members still had no luck in finding out how exactly they were supposed to be governed. Contact was made with members in Waterford who had similar concerns. The members say there was a general lack of information from head office.

“I never even saw a list of members in Cork,” Maguire says. “And I was the chairman of the Cork branch.”

Conor Delgarno, DDI director of elections, operating out of head office in Trim, Co Meath, remembers it differently. He says he tried to locate a copy of the constitution when he was asked for it.

“We’re a new party,” he said. “Nobody here is paid and funding is non-existent. I tried to get my hands on it straight away but I couldn’t.”

Eventually, a national meeting was called for Aug 24 in the Red Cow Inn in Dublin. There, Hourihane and Maguire and others met people like Ken Smollen from Offaly. Smollen, who served in An Garda Síochána for 30 years, was enthusiastic about DDI’s aims, but had concerns. His main issue was around Gilroy’s involvement with the People for Economic Justice group, which was opposing repossessions of houses and properties. The group had been critical of the gardaí and the courts.

“There was absolutely no policy or organisation that I could see,” Smollen says. “Nobody knew what the structures were.”

In any event, a truce of sorts was agreed. Everybody went back to their constituencies and concentrated on pushing for a no vote in the referendum on the future of the Seanad.

In Offaly and Cork, members went door-to-door, leafleting about the referendum off their own bats.

“We had 10,000 leaflets printed up,” Hourihane says. “Head office sent down a few posters, but that was two days before the vote.”

In Offaly, Smollen and his colleagues were equally busy. “We had about 15 volunteers calling door-to-door in various towns throughout Offaly to distribute leaflets leading up to the referendum and felt that we had a major impact in Offaly as there was a 53.9% no vote here,” he recounted.

“Many of these volunteers and a lot of other people throughout Ireland have shown great interest in DDI but, unfortunately, the Ben Gilroy issue also needed clarification before these people would join us.”

There was still no sign of the constitution. Another meeting was called for Tullamore on Oct 13. Smollen organised it and Gilroy didn’t show, but Delgarno and Whitehead from the ruling council did.

The meeting was reportedly heated. Towards the end of it, Delgarno informed the attendees that a proper, constituency organisation for the party would require a minimum of 50 members.

“This was a bolt from the blue,” Maguire says. “We’d never heard this before and we hadn’t even seen the rules of the party.”

By the following week, the members had been sent a copy of the constitution by email. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t accessible. According to Smollen: “On 17 Oct I received an email with the constitution attached. However, this attachment was encrypted and could not be opened. On Friday 19th we contacted Leinster House and requested a copy of the DDI constitution. We were asked whether we wished to receive the one they had on file or if we wanted to wait on the amended one which they were expecting from DDI HQ. At our last national meeting on 24th August, or any other meeting that members were aware of, there was no discussion about any proposed amendments to the DDI constitution.”

The document made for interesting reading. The structures set out include a “general assembly”, a “council”, and an “executive committee”. The council is the real power, and this, according to the party constitution, is a permanent body consisting of five, named individuals, including Whitehead and Gilroy.

Article 14 states: “The council shall decide on admission to the council by simple majority.” Also, “the council is the official representative of the political party in all external matters.” And “members of the council may receive appropriate remuneration for their work, however no legal entitlement to such remuneration exists — unless the general assembly has approved such in a vote.”

Conor Delgarno was elected onto the council when one of the existing permanent members resigned. Apparently, none of this was known to the wider membership of the party.

Attached to the constitution document is a sheet entitled “AGM sign-in sheet”. There are 28 signatories attached, including the members of the permanent council.

The date this AGM took place is not recorded, but is believed to have been over a year ago, certainly before the launch of the political party.

Delgarno says it took place in the Central Hotel in Dublin, but he hasn’t a specific date. There has been no AGM of the party since.

The general membership has been given no opportunity to vote for national officers since the inaugural AGM, whenever it took place. In any event, members are excluded from voting for membership of the council.

Ray Whitehead, one of the founders and a council member, defends the leadership. “There was a walk-out by seven people over the constitution, but we can’t change that because it was voted on at an AGM. I can’t tell you when the AGM was but it was just over a year ago.”

He says the members from Cork and Offaly have been disruptive. “There were attempts to have this party hijacked,” he says, adding that neither county had a constituency organisation. “We have just two official branches, in Louth and Donegal, and lots of aspiring branches.”

Whitehead says the constitution couldn’t have been made available earlier because the party was caught up with the Seanad referendum, and he admitted the structures outlined in the constitution are not up and running.

“There isn’t a general assembly yet,” he says. “We are a new political party, none of us are career politicians, we’re fighting on a number of fronts. They’re comparing us to other political parties.”

He did accept it was “almost a contradiction in terms” that the governing body of DDI was appointed from within, rather than elected by the membership.

Equally, Ben Gilroy defends the workings of DDI. He says the constitution was drawn up as to ensure that opponents wouldn’t be able to infiltrate and destroy DDI.

“We cannot be totally democratic or we’d be dead in the water,” he says.

“The only reason they’re bitching is they’re trying to destroy the party. The Cork branch hadn’t been set up properly. The Offaly branch wasn’t set up properly either.”

He accepts that his dual rules in DDI and People for Economic Justice may have caused concerns, and he intends to concentrate more of his energies on DDI from now on.

Those who were disaffected have a different view. At the meeting in the Red Cow last weekend, where details of the constitution were discussed, seven of them walked out. All say they fully endorse the principles of direct democracy. They just have a problem with the way the party is being run.

Noel Maguire resigned as chair of the Cork branch. “When I saw the constitution, it was the polar opposite of democracy. This is a dictatorship.”

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