Sidelined in the Dáil and itching for a change, Kelleher sees Brussels as a way out from his prison, writes
FIVE years ago, Fine Gael junior finance minister Brian Hayes revealed that he was seeking to leave the Dáil and was going to run for Europe in May 2014.
Hayes was a substantial politician, well-liked and had even been spoken about as a possible future leader. His announcement caught many by surprise.
But he made one fatal mistake.
He opposed Enda Kenny in the botched 2010 heave and his leader never fully forgave him.
With Fine Gael in power since 2011, Taoiseach Kenny made it clear that he did not feel Hayes was going to be in Cabinet after a reshuffle.
Hayes, tired of having to bend the knee to a leader he detested, told his colleagues of his intentions to run to become an MEP. He was known to have said: “I’m not willing to have my future determined by him anymore.”
Hayes was dutifully elected in Dublin and has served one term, but is now set to leave politics to take up a big job with the Irish Banking and Payments Federation.
With the next round of European elections coming in May, aspirant candidates are making their intentions known.
With the decision of MEP Brian Crowley to stand down after a stellar career as a poll-topper, the focus has turned to who will replace him.
Enter Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher.
The 51-year-old Cork North-Central TD has more than 25 years behind him in the Oireachtas as a Senator, TD and minister, but he now wants to seek new pastures.
Kelleher confirmed to this paper in the wake of Crowley’s retirement that he intends going forward for selection.
In a clear sign of some tension with his leader Micheál Martin, Kelleher is standing in open defiance of Martin’s express wishes that no sitting TD go for Europe.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner this weekend, Kelleher is unrepentant: “Micheál said he wanted his strongest people around him for the Dáil elections but as a party, we are very pro-Europe.
“I always said we need to engage with the EU parliament and now that Brian Crowley has announced his retirement, we need to look as to how we replace him. I feel I have the experience and I think it is a good opportunity for me to put forward my name for the Ireland South constituency.”
“I have, since the age of 24, been in national politics. It is also nice to look at other opportunities to represent people in another forum. The European Parliament is a big stage, and these opportunities do not come around too often, so you must seize the moment. Carpe Diem,” he adds.
Kelleher is nervous as to how his colleagues are viewing his decision to run, particularly as he and Martin were seen to be very close.
Since making his announcement, he has been heard repeatedly asking people: “How do you think I am doing?”.
Think back to 2010 — it was Kelleher who went and urged Martin to move against then Taoiseach Brian Cowen in a bid to save the party from a vengeful electorate.
But relations are clearly under strain. Kelleher was known to be most displeased about Martin’s decision to move him out of the Health portfolio last year, especially when he had been so influential on the abortion issue at the Oireachtas committee.
It was Kelleher’s proposal to introduce a 12-week time limit which ultimately became the bedrock of the final legislation.
Kelleher was annoyed that he did not get the chance to see the abortion legislation through the final stages in the Dáil. That annoyance was compounded by the fact Martin moved him to the political graveyard of business and enterprise, especially as the portfolio has been hallowed out by Brexit.
But why seek to go to Europe if Martin wants him so badly, as he claims?
What is clear is that Kelleher realised that even if Fianna Fáil makes it into Government after the next general election, he is unlikely to make it to the Cabinet table.
This is because Fianna Fáil will, at most, have seven or eight Cabinet seats, given it will have to form a coalition with other parties. With Martin and finance spokesperson 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, that is a painful realisation to accept.
In the wake of his announcement, some of his colleagues say his departure to Europe would cause difficulty for the party, with some saying his absence will cost the party the seat in North-Central.
Speaking this weekend, Kelleher dismisses such concerns: “Cork North Central will survive without me if I am elected to the European Parliament.”
As Cllr Seamus McGrath, brother of TD Michael McGrath, is also eyeing up a run, Kelleher knows the biggest test is to get through his selection convention.
It is not yet clear if Martin will seek to block him by backing McGrath or others, but the situation does have the potential to become quite bitter if not properly handled.
Kelleher, McGrath and Gorey councillor Malcolm Byrne, as well as some other candidates, will most likely compete for two places on the Fianna Fáil ticket for Ireland South, but most agree that Kelleher has the best chance of winning Crowley’s seat.
By leaving the Dáil, Kelleher does concede that his ambitions to be the next leader would be ended: “Anyone who serves at a senior level in a political party has the ambition to serve at a higher level.
“I have never discounted my interest in serving. But you make a decision — and if selected and elected as an MEP, then that is no longer on the agenda.”
In the interview, Kelleher also broke ranks with his leader on one other major issue. The key one.
Who would Fianna Fáil be willing to share power with in order to form a Government?
Whereas Martin has repeatedly ruled out any sort of a deal with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael, Kelleher says the party must be open to both, should the situation arise.
“Political parties must strive to be in government,” he says.
“Yes you must not sell your soul to be in government, but equally, you must be in government to implement your policies, that is what it is all about. Putting your stall out, the public endorsing it and you implementing it.”
Asked specifically about Sinn Fein, Kelleher gives a surprising response: “Sinn Féin has a road to travel on this yet. They have travelled somewhat, they have started that journey. They have embraced democratic politics. They need to show that resolve and continue on that path. It is not just coming out of the violence in Northern Ireland, they have some key fundamental policy questions to address first. But certainly if they continue to move their policies to the centre where they would be compatible with a party like mine, then obviously you can enter a discussion process, but it is a matter for the electorate to decide. But parties should strive to be in Government, yes.”
What about the old enemy, Fine Gael? Kelleher again surprises by saying he would have “no difficulty” in sitting down with them if the situation demands it: “Look, confidence and supply means Fianna Fáil is keeping Fine Gael in government — even a short time ago that would have been unheard of. Brexit is there, a lot of international pressure. It does show that we can behave responsibly in the national interest. But in terms of doing business, I have no difficulty in looking at that if it was the only coalition available. Ireland needs a Government and Fianna Fáil at the heart of any Government is best for Ireland,” he says.
Ultimately, Martin must accept that either way he has lost Kelleher. Sidelined in the Dáil at the moment and itching for a change, Kelleher sees Brussels as a way out from his prison.
The question is — will Martin do anything to stop him or will he accept the departure of one of his leading lights?