Daniel McConnell: Where did it all go wrong for Fianna Fáil's golden boy Jim O'Callaghan?

Daniel McConnell: Where did it all go wrong for Fianna Fáil's golden boy Jim O'Callaghan?
Fianna Fáil TD Jim O'Callaghan in the RDS after being re-elected in Dublin Bay South after the general election earlier this year. It was a disastrous election for the party, as it lost six seats to return just 38. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

In April 2016, then Fine Gael health Minister Leo Varadkar arrived at the South Dublin home of Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan.

The two were not friends.

This was a secret political meeting aimed at seeing could they reach an agreement as to how a second general election could be avoided.

The election had thrown up an inconclusive result; Fine Gael and Labour had both haemorrhaged seats and were not able to return to power together.

This covert meeting in O’Callaghan’s home also involved then acting taoiseach Enda Kenny’s trusted policy adviser Andrew McDowell and Micheál Martin’s chief adviser, Deirdre Gillane.

The meeting, which would ultimately lead to the confidence-and-supply deal, ran for over an hour.

The quartet didn’t dwell on any policy detail or any red lines, rather with practicalities and modalities, it was reported at the time.

Both sides quickly accepted that partnership or grand coalition was off the table.

“We all acknowledged that a minority government was the only show in town,” said a person familiar with the meeting.

The choice of O’Callaghan as the conduit was telling.

He was a newly elected TD and for him to be chosen over many more experienced colleagues spoke volumes as to the level of trust and belief his leader had in him then.

Fast-forward to 2020 and contrast that central role for O’Callaghan to the isolated position he now has in relation to his party leader. It is therefore reasonable to ask, where did it all go wrong for the golden boy?

O’Callaghan’s foray into national politics was certainly not an overnight affair.

The €3,000-an-hour senior counsel had soldiered on Dublin City Council since 2009 having unsuccessfully tried for the Dáil two years earlier.

After Martin took over the leadership of the party in 2011, he appointed the then councillor O’Callaghan as legal adviser to the front bench and the party.

So, by the time Varadkar and McDowell knocked on his door in April 2016, O’Callaghan’s star was very much on the rise.

His presence in the party’s formal negotiating team in the confidence-and-supply talks confirmed his enhanced standing within the party or at least in the eyes of the leader.

His subsequent appointment as the party’s justice spokesman, at the expense of Niall Collins, was seen as a visible signal of how much Martin had come to rely upon his bit of posh.

O’Callaghan is a former Ireland U21 rugby international. He is erudite and Cambridge-educated. The fact he is a Dublin-based TD also added to his stock as the party had been wiped out in the capital in 2011.

O’Callaghan distinguished himself in the justice role by making life difficult for ministers Frances Fitzgerald and, later, Charlie Flanagan.

O’Callaghan was central to the political crisis in late 2017 which threatened to collapse the government that was now led by Varadkar.

He went on RTÉ’s Six One news to confirm that his party would not be voting confidence in Fitzgerald, the justice minister, amid the latest saga relating to the treatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Regina Doherty revealed that she was present when Fianna Fáil politicians were heard cheering in the Dáil bar on Thursday night in response to O’Callaghan’s comments.

The resignation of Fitzgerald spared the country a Christmas election but O’Callaghan and Martin had their scalp.

It was after this point that the relationship between O’Callaghan and Martin soured — or at least underwent a change.

Most of the Fianna Fáil members who were in the 2016 negotiating team for the confidence-and-supply deal were also present when talks about an extension of such a deal got under way in late 2018.

O’Callaghan was not.

He was said to be surprised but not alarmed at his omission and carried on with his duties as a senior party spokesman.

Some have suggested that a media report in the Irish Times,  which indicated he, along with Collins and Billy Kelleher, were opposed to the extension, may have been the cause of his omission.

He was certainly not party to the decision Martin took when he entered the Dáil and unilaterally announced his party would give the government another 12 months because of the threat posed by Brexit.

During 2019, there were increased mutterings around the party about O’Callaghan’s energy and enthusiasm for helping to grow its standing in Dublin.

He was the subject of a damning enough piece in the Phoenix magazine which indicated he had fallen out of favour with the leader’s office (ie Gillane and fellow adviser Pat McPartland).

Roll on to February’s disastrous election campaign and result for Fianna Fáil which saw it return with just 38 seats, a loss of six.

Speaking at his local count centre at Nemo Rangers, Martin said he and his party had to listen to the will of the people and be prepared to talk to anyone, including Sinn Féin.

Immediately, O’Callaghan and Michael McGrath took issue, insisting that opening the door to Sinn Féin would be disastrous and cause a major split within the Fianna Fáil ranks.

A weakened Martin panicked and shut the door again on the Sinn Féin idea, doubling down on it to make it impossible for any dialogue to take place.

Now O’Callaghan’s stance softened and even this week stated that it was a mistake for his party to be so definitive on the Sinn Féin question before polling day. He also says it was a mistake to rule out Fine Gael so definitively too.

Clearly on the outs, O’Callaghan’s name was not included in the team announced by Martin to enter talks with Fine Gael and, later, with the Greens for the programme for government.

Again, this was surprising given how heavily he was relied upon in 2016 when a brand-new TD.

Despite his omission, most informed and ill-informed speculation and talk about ministerial appointments had O’Callaghan in contention for Cabinet.

Suggestions he was about to be named attorney general were slapped down by Martin’s camp, illustrating further he was not in favour.

Then it emerged that he may not be in line for promotion; with the party taking the housing portfolio, Darragh O’Brien, as the other Dublin-based contender would win out, it transpired.

The nature of O’Callaghan’s decision not to take up a junior ministerial position has not gone down well with some in the party, who see it a way of ensuring he can keep up his legal career in tandem with his political career.

Insisting he will play a role in rejuvenating the party, O’Callaghan’s snub has been seen as the opening salvo in the race to succeed Martin as leader.

Free of the complications of ministerial office, O’Callaghan has an opportunity to canvass the members unfettered.

With the snub to Dara Calleary also seen as a way of frustrating another potential threat to his position, Martin has certainly not made life easy for those most likely to challenge for the leadership.

Rightly or wrongly, every move Calleary, O’Callaghan, and McGrath make will be viewed as through the prism of that leadership contest, whenever it occurs.

It is interesting that of all three, McGrath has escaped any sort of punishment from Martin for his repeated bouts of rebellion, whether on abortion or on Sinn Féin.

More of that anon, but for now, O’Callaghan’s fall from favour among Martin and his acolytes is remarkable and his exclusion could well play a role in the Taoiseach’s eventual departure from national politics.

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