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Keep your friends close and party rivals closer

Fianna Fáil European Parliament candidates for Ireland South, Billy Kelleher, TD, and Malcolm Byrne, after handing in nomination papers at returning officer Martin A Harvey’s offices, Washington St, Cork. Picture: Tony O’Connell Photography

BILLY “One Seat” Kelleher: that rather disparaging description of the long-standing TD and favourite MEP candidate, by his party colleague Malcolm Byrne over a perceived breach of an agreed boundary has generated much hilarity this week.

Our front-page story on Tuesday detailed the bun fight that ensued when Byrne complained officially to Fianna Fáil bosses over what he described as persistent encroachments by Kelleher in areas designated as off-limits.

The hilarious part had come less than five days earlier, when Byrne and Kelleher had sat side by side at their party’s official European campaign launch, in Dublin, and had insisted all was well, that they were working well together, and that no problem existed.

Emails revealed that Byrne complained to the director of elections, Lisa Chambers, and party general secretary, Sean Dorgan, about Kelleher’s “continued ignoring” of the agreed divide.

“Our campaign wishes to formally complain about the behaviour of my running mate, Billy Kelleher, who is continually breaching the agreed divide of the Ireland South constituency,” Byrne wrote.

“We are disappointed at the lack of ambition on Billy’s part and his inability to stick to a deal. It is essential that this matter is addressed quickly.”

The party is said to be “aware of Byrne’s concerns and they are being looked at... The divide is agreed and in place and we are seeking to maximise the vote.”

In one email, from last Saturday, Byrne said: “Being told that Billy Kelleher has been canvassing the area, and being greeted on the M7 at Moneygall by a Kelleher billboard, shows that the divide continues to be ignored. As I pointed out about my WLR debate this week, I was asked as to why Billy was canvassing in Waterford.” 

In a previous email, Byrne accused Kelleher of being “prepared to spend significant sums in pursuit of his one-seat strategy, with no action taken by the national campaign”.

“We knew there was a risk when, in March, we asked that Billy be added to the ticket quickly after I beat him at convention, but we were always given to understand that it would be as part of the two-seat strategy that we had set out,” he said. 

“We remain very positive and believe I will be fighting for that last seat, but to ensure that it happens, we cannot allow the continued pursuit of the ‘Billy One Seat’ strategy.”

Byrne complained that Kelleher has taken billboard ads in Wicklow, Tipperary, and Kilkenny.

For his part, Kelleher denies any attempt to undermine the pact: “Anybody who knows me, and observed my work, knows I always put the party first. Just look at my record, especially since 2011, and that would have to be acknowledged.”

Byrne, who is spokesman for the Higher Education Authority (HEA), understands the value of a catchy phrase and knows that the perception of Kelleher being greedy, at the expense of all others, could easily stick. Particularly, when he alleged that Kelleher simply refused to share the love and allow a running mate in Cork North-Central, where he got almost 30% of the vote.

Kelleher, on the Tonight Show on Virgin Media Television on Wednesday night, made no apology for his tactics, saying that, like him, Byrne is no doubt pursuing a one-seat strategy and if they both succeed, the party will get the two seats it seeks.

But the spat is just the latest example of how, in politics, your greatest threat is not from other parties, but from your own colleagues.

Such inter-party disputes are commonplace in Irish politics and followed hot on the heels of a similar dispute between former Rose of Tralee and first-time Fine Gael candidate Maria Walsh, and veteran MEP and EU grandee, Mairead McGuinness.

Walsh, speaking to the Sunday Independent’s Philip Ryan, hit out at her running mate, McGuinness, for encroaching on her side of the Midlands North West constituency, in the fight for a seat in the European Parliament.

Walsh said she “will not be pushed over” and insists that she will stand her ground against McGuinness, whom she accused of straying into her designated electoral area.

Walsh said it is “disappointing” that her party colleague is not sticking to her side of the constituency, while canvassing for votes.

“It’s disappointing, from the perspective of a new female candidate, because the inclusivity line is important to focus in on and it is a shame, because we are both trying to win two seats for the party,” she said.

The Defence Forces Reserve member added: “As a 31-year-old woman, I have a crown and sash from the Rose of Tralee in one hand and, in the other hand, my marksmanship is 37 out of 40 shots with a Steyr rifle. I’m not here to be pushed over.”

Now, a cynic may say that these two rows are manufactured in order to get publicity and create a bit of noise around them.

It may be true of both Byrne and Walsh, as the feisty upstarts seeking to win their first seats, that their outrage may be slightly exaggerated somewhat, but my experience of politicians is that they share badly.

Kelleher has made no bones about being ruthless in the pursuit of his seat. McGuinness, too, has met unhappiness from party colleagues, such as Jim Higgins and Averil Doyle, before.

Tensions are renowned between Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his finance spokesman Michael McGrath, who share the Cork South-Central constituency, as were those between former Taoiseach Enda Kenny and current Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring, in Mayo.

Lisa Chambers and Dara Calleary are another pair who share that Mayo constituency uneasily. The same can be said of Brenan Smith and Niamh Smyth in Cavan.

Smyth will only be too delighted if her senior colleague succeeds in his bid to become an MEP.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Kate O’Connell are another pair of uneasy constituency bedfellows, highlighted by the fact that Murphy backed now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the 2017 leadership contest, while O’Connell backed now Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Ahead of the 2016 general election, Fine Gael candidate Stephanie Regan suggested that now Communications Minister Richard Bruton was not a “team player”, after Regan was omitted from a newsletter circulated to thousands of constituents. 

Regan said she was “disappointed” that her running mate didn’t update his literature to include her in a section outlining the local Fine Gael team.

Back in the day, in the old Dublin South constituency, Tom Kitt and Seamus Brennan were notoriously tetchy colleagues, before the latter’s untimely death, in 2008 And the list goes on and on and on. 

Politicians, in the main, may belong to political parties, alliances or groupings, but, in essence, they are sole traders who see the world through a very narrow, insecure prism.

Constantly seeking to get one over on their rivals, they often descend into juvenile behaviour as tensions rise, particularly the closer we get to election day.

In Ireland South, yesterday’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll put Byrne in contention for a seat.

So, in the remaining 13 days of the campaign, those tensions with Kelleher, which surfaced this week, will undoubtedly be repeated and more probably surpassed.

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