Last Wednesday, Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher entered the members’ bar in Dáil Éireann and ordered a coffee.
Surrounded and teased by some of his party colleagues about a radio interview he gave that morning, in which he expressed an interest in becoming an MEP, Kelleher took it all in good spirits.
His cappuccino arrived just as his party leader, Micheál Martin came in.
The choice of continental beverage was quickly seized upon and pointed out to the leader. “Just getting ready for life in Brussels,” Martin was informed, to much hilarity.
A short time earlier, Kelleher was standing at the door of the Leinster House annex building, where his deputy leader, Dara Calleary, passed him by with the simple but pointed greeting of “bonjour”.
Martin saw the funny side, but behind the smiles, the reaction to Kelleher’s news was one of fury.
On Wednesday morning, Kelleher appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland to be interviewed by Bryan Dobson on the issue of Brexit.
But Dobson, before the interview ended, turned to the issue of Brian Crowley’s anticipated (at that stage) departure from the political stage and asked Kelleher if he would have an interest in running.
He answered: “Brussels and the European Parliament is going to play a critical role for Ireland’s future in the years ahead, and I think Ireland’s going to play a critical role as well in Europe, so from that perspective, I certainly would like to be central to that. Fianna Fáil hasn’t made any decision in terms of its strategy.
You could almost hear the collective choking on cornflakes by Fianna Fáil TDs and handlers.
The reason many were so surprised was that Martin had made it clear by way of an interview in the Irish Examiner with my colleague Elaine Loughlin last year that he wants all current TDs to stay in the Dáil and forget any ambitions to go to Brussels.
Loughlin specifically asked Martin about Kelleher, and this is what he said at that point: “We want our strong players in Dáil Éireann. I think we will be able to identify candidates who are not members of Dáil Éireann for the European elections. Billy has a very significant role to play in domestic politics and he hasn’t come to me at all about that. He is in enterprise now and i think he has a lot of give to enterprise because he instinctively understands it and he is a significant vote-getter in Cork North-Central.
“The discussions we have had, myself and Billy, is ‘how do we get a second seat in Cork North-Central?’. That is our target and that is our objective. Billy has a very significant contribution to make in national politics.” Pressed on whether he would let Kelleher stand in the European elections if he was asked, Martin said:
That was taken as an effective ban on TDs from considering a run — and up stepped Gorey councillor and spin doctor for the Higher Education
Authority, Malcolm Byrne, who also wants to contest the Ireland South race.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner before Christmas, Byrne made it clear he has Martin’s backing for the race. He is based in the South-East, and it was always likely that the party would look to run someone from the Cork area.
So when on Monday, Crowley announced he was to hold a press conference on Thursday to declare his intentions, Kelleher got to thinking.
He realised that even if Fianna Fáil makes it into government, he is unlikely to get to the Cabinet table, because FF will at most have seven or eight Cabinet seats, given it will have to form a coalition with other parties.
With Martin and Michael McGrath both from Cork and ahead of him in the pecking order, to have three Fianna Fáil ministers from Cork city is unrealistic.
After 26 years in Leinster House, such a realisation is not an easy one, so of course, he would begin to think of new pastures.
Also, he is known to have been most unhappy to have been moved out of the health portfolio, where he had performed admirably.
Kelleher played a pivotal role on the Oireachtas Committee which examined the Eighth Amendment, driving the issue of the 12-week time limit in particular.
Yet, he also had to operate in the shadow of Martin, who as a former health minister weighed into health matters on an ongoing basis, which must have been frustrating.
Kelleher, too, is known to be somewhat bored by his business portfolio, given that the party has siphoned off the Brexit issue to Lisa Chambers and the relevance of the department has lessened significantly due to the strength of the economy.
How are you supposed to be effective when you have full employment and growth of 7% plus? Kelleher is said to have said in complaint to his colleagues.
Not too long ago, Kelleher was even harbouring ambitions to be considered as Martin’s heir apparent when the leader’s position was being speculated upon. But no longer.
Certainly, given the manner in which Dobson’s question was asked on Wednesday, many of those choking Fianna Fáilers immediately smelled a setup. Some said they felt Dobson may have been informed that it was worth his while to press Kelleher on his intentions. Suggestions that Kelleher made his announcement on Wednesday with the blessing of Martin have nbeen rubbished, with several TDs saying “it was not sanctioned”.
“This was out of the blue, not sanctioned at all. Despite what some may say, this was not coordinated or, may I say, this is not wanted,” said one senior TD.
Kelleher is one of a number within Fianna Fáil angered by the party’s neglect of Europe, typified by the fact it has no MEPs at present. He feels there is a job to be done, given the scale of uncertainty around Brexit and the wider European project at present.
But from the party’s perspective, the main reason Martin is not keen on Kelleher resigning is because that presents the party with no end of potential troubles.
Firstly, the Dáil arithmetic is very finely balanced that a by-election caused by a TD going to Europe leaves a high chance of FF’s position being weakened.
Indeed, were Kelleher to win, the party fears his seat would be lost.
“Any TD who wins a seat in the Euros will force a by- election, which in turn presents grave difficulties for the party. For example, were Billy to win an MEP seat, he leaves a gap in Cork North-Central and we would lose any by-election there,” said one senior TD.
If Brexit happens on March 29, Ireland South goes from a four to a five-seat constituency and Kelleher is virtually assured of election. Martin’s fears are well-founded but unless he wants to give Kelleher a more prominent role, he must prepare to lose one of his closest allies from the Dáil.