Alison O'Connor: Is Fine Gael standing by its candidate or just standing by?

The Taoiseach canvassing alongside a woman who has made the remarks Verona Murphy has gives a certain imprimatur to her, writes Alison O'Connor

Fine Gael’s Wexford by-election candidate, Verona Murphy
Fine Gael’s Wexford by-election candidate, Verona Murphy

IT KEPT the conversation away from the health and housing crises was the verdict of one national politician after Fine Gael’s Wexford by-election candidate, Verona Murphy, went rogue.

It was foolish to think Ireland might escape the xenophobic excesses of other countries. Perhaps, though, we might have been better prepared. Regardless, a pin has been pulled out of a grenade. We’re waiting to see if it will explode in the next general election campaign or not.

The problem, within politics, is that this is a really difficult issue to know how to handle. Listening to politicians, you constantly question their motivations and wonder where parties stand.

Were the Fine Gael hierarchy privately despairing at Verona Murphy and feeling that the end of the campaign couldn’t come fast enough?

Or, as that national politician suggested, was the controversy around Murphy’s shtick a welcome reprieve from having to answer questions on the carnage in hospital A&Es and the snail’s pace delivery of new housing.

Just to give a brief reprise of it all, Murphy, with her newly erected “Local and Vocal” posters, said Islamic State was a big part of the immigrant population, that children as young as three or four may have been manipulated by the terror group, and that some asylum seekers might need to be “reprogrammed”.

Yes, she did apologise. She also then inflicted herself on some of the people she had said should be deprogrammed by visiting an asylum seeker reception centre. Balm to their souls, I’m sure, to be able to assist the candidate in her journey of redemption, and, of course, her political campaign.

It was interesting to hear even Fianna Fáil people say, privately, that there was no way that you could, even if you wanted to, abandon a candidate mid-race. The time had passed, legally, for the name of the Fine Gael candidate to be changed and Murphy’s was the name people would be seeing with the Fine Gael logo on the ballot paper when they went to vote. There was simply no choice; things had gone too far to turn back, was the reasoning. Hmm.

Following on from last year’s presidential election and the controversies involving candidate Peter Casey’s comments on Travellers, the idea of playing the race card to assist in getting elected has been much discussed. It makes it all the more baffling that FG did not think to have a discussion behind the scenes with Murphy. This is especially true when you consider that she was president of the Irish Road Haulage Association and would have been aware of the issue of people being smuggled in the backs of trucks.

Is it naïve to believe, or to want to believe, that the party would not knowingly pick a candidate with such views? I know others who think more suspiciously about it. But let’s take the less pernicious view.

Let’s believe Verona kept her thoughts to herself and her uttering them was as much a surprise to Fine Gael as to everyone else. But now those comments are out there. What’s to be done?

This is a candidate bringing damage to the larger body politic, pushing the racist boundaries while campaigning. This must all also be put in the context of an upcoming general election campaign: Her remarks may just set a very dangerous tone.

Why not abandon her as a candidate? The signal otherwise, from our ruling party, is ambiguous. She has remained in the embrace of the party, despite some distancing. If rejecting it outright means the potential loss of a Dáil seat, or even the loss of political face, we’ll temper our response.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, went to Wexford to canvas with the party candidate on Monday — an action again filed under unavoidable by the political pragmatists. Was it, really? The man who holds the top political post in the country canvassing alongside a woman who has made the kind of remarks that Verona Murphy has gives a certain imprimatur to that candidate and her views.

What if she happens to be elected to the Dáil? The cloak of respectability that Fine Gael has continued to shroud her in will hardly be removed then.

The Taoiseach has already said she is not “the type of person to toe the party line”. Just how much would be too much, in terms of a then Deputy Murphy’s views?

Independent Galway TD Noel Grealish
Independent Galway TD Noel Grealish

We heard, during the week, that Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe wrote to the Independent Galway TD Noel Grealish and criticised him for singling out Nigerians for sending money out of the country. This followed his question in the Dáil on the amount of money remitted to Nigeria.

“I am disappointed with the apparent ethnic basis of your statements and would welcome any steps that you would be willing to take to clarify on this aspect,” Mr Donohoe wrote in the letter.

“It is inappropriate to single out one country in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing.”

It’s great to see Minister Donohoe taking this action. I’ve no doubt his words are sincere. He has also disagreed with Verona Murphy’s comments in relation to migration; he said he had very different views. But he, too, made clear that his party would be standing by her.

What Noel Grealish did in the Dáil that day was disgustingly racist. But he must have allowed himself a wry smile when be received Minister Donohoe’s letter, after observing what has been going on in Wexford.

If Verona makes it to Leinster House, Grealish may possibly consider asking her to swap notes on a campaigning strategy.

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