A “deeply disappointed” junior minister Andrew Doyle openly defied his party's instructions not to canvass in Cork and Tipperary amid an escalating feud between Fine Gael's Ireland South candidates.
Mr Doyle and his team have said they have been snubbed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and party bosses in favour of sitting MEP Deirdre Clune, who is in real danger of losing her seat.
Mr Doyle's campaign manager, Carlow-Kilkenny TD Pat Deering said he and the team were “taken aback and very disappointed” to see Mr Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney in Cork yesterday morning canvassing with Ms Clune.
“We had made repeated requests for the Taoiseach to get out with Andrew this week but it did not happen. It is very disappointing but it is completely clear that they are all about protecting the sitting MEPs,” he said.
Mr Doyle had his canvassers and branded cars out and about in Cork city and in Cashel in South Tipperary, despite being told to stay out of both areas.
“As a result, we have had teams out in Tipperary and in Cork today,” Mr Deering said, in defiance of very strict boundary divisions drawn up by Director of Elections Regina Doherty.
It is understood Fine Gael is in full panic mode and is pulling out all the stops to save Ms Clune's seat.
“To have the Taoiseach and Tánaiste out is a real sign of trouble and a sign that things are desperate. Poor Andrew is being squeezed in operation save Deirdre,” said one senior minister.
Mr Doyle's annoyance was compounded by the emergence of a new letter from Mr Coveney and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed to Fine Gael members in Cork, pleading for number 1 votes for Ms Clune.
The letter dated May 20 from the two senior ministers on harp-headed paper was sent to a vast number of Fine Gael members in the Cork area.
“The latest opinion poll in the Sunday Business Post indicates that we are under significant pressure to retain our two MEPs in Ireland South. Sean Kelly MEP is over quota at 17%; Deirdre Clune and Andrew Doyle are on 7% and 6% respectively. This is a very tight situation,” the letter said.
Written in bold, the letter continued: “It is vital that all Cork Fine Gael members, friends and those within their sphere of influence Vote No 1 Deirdre Clune on the 24th of May in line with the party policy.
“Any divergence from this strategy could cost Cork the loss of an MEP and the party our second seat in Ireland South. We are asking you to please make every effort in the final days of this campaign to make sure that Deirdre is elected on Friday 24,” the ministers wrote.
Their letter came after Fine Gael was forced to “revise” its division of the Ireland South constituency in order to bolster Ms Clune's flagging campaign.
Letters issued in parts of the vast constituency by Director of Elections Regina Doherty called on voters in Limerick and Tipperary to give Ms Clune their number 1 votes in order to ensure Fine Gael keeps its two seats in the European Parliament.
Ms Doherty's letter called on voters in the city to vote for Ms Clune ahead of her party colleagues Sean Kelly, who is all but assured of a seat and junior agriculture minister Andrew Doyle, who is seen as a sweeper in Leinster.
Originally, Ms Clune had been given priority campaigning rights in Cork City and County, while Waterford and South Tipperary were to be shared with Mr Kelly.
However, with Mr Kelly looking likely he will exceed the quota on the first count, Ms Doherty decided to hand Limerick over to Ms Clune, but some are fearful the move has come too late.