WHEN John McNulty was added to the ticket to contest a seat on Donegal County Council a few weeks out from polling day, Fine Gael’s secretary general, Tom Curran, described him to local media as an “excellent” candidate.
The 37-year-old ran a local Mace store in the small town of Stranorlar in the east of the county and managed the Kilcar senior and U21 football teams.
The following Saturday night, McNulty — then unknown to politics — launched his campaign in a local sports complex, complete with an impressive video presentation of his vision for the county.
Two sitting Fine Gael TDs — John O’Mahony and then junior minister Dinny McGinley — addressed the crowd of hundreds, which included members of McNulty’s GAA teams.
Senior party sources who met him for the first time that night said he was “hugely impressive” and pinpointed him as a future talent for the party.
However, in the elections held at the end of May, McNulty secured just 800 votes and ranked 10th in the six-seater electoral area.
Now, following his brief stint of local fame and electoral failure, his name is at the centre of a row about political cronyism that has followed the Taoiseach all the way to the US and has become a sore point between the coalition partners.
The first that many Fine Gael TDs heard of McNulty was one week ago yesterday, when an email went out saying he had been chosen as the party’s candidate for the Seanad by-election to fill the seat left vacant by Deirdre Clune following her election to the European Parliament.
His nomination caused some surprise in the party.
It was “widely expected” that the position would go to either Stephanie Regan or Samantha Long, one party source said last night, but there was a “last-minute switch” to nominate McNulty.
The suspicion was that he was chosen because the party needed a replacement for McGinley, a Donegal TD who announced in July that he would retire at the next general election.
A mischievous rumour was put out around Leinster House yesterday that Labour did not want Regan — a potential election candidate in Dublin Bay North — or Long in Dublin South East in case they posed an electoral threat.
“Labour didn’t want any of them running. And we are depending on their votes so we obliged them,” a Fine Gael source said.
This was dismissed as a “creative” rumour and “completely off the wall” by Labour sources.
Fine Gael backbenchers said that McNulty was chosen by the Taoiseach because of the need to keep McGinley’s seat.
McNulty’s nomination only became the centre of controversy when it emerged that — six days before the papers were handed in — he was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma).
This immediately roused suspicions that he was appointed to the position on the country’s foremost modern art gallery in an effort to boost his credentials as a worthy potential senator.
The position left vacant by Deirdre Clune is on the Cultural and Education Panel of the Seanad. A set of rules laid down in the 1940s state that various interest groups — from farmers to unions to the arts — are represented in the Upper Chamber.
The Seanad Act of 1947 sets out that the Education and Cultural Panel include “names of persons having knowledge and practical experience of the following interests and services, namely, the national language and culture, literature, art, education, and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel”.
In the case of John McNulty, he has included “national language and culture” and “art” as his credentials on his nomination papers.
This prompted Fianna Fáil senator Thomas Byrne to claim that the appointment was “part of an electoral ploy” and that the gallery was being used “to railroad through a candidate for the Seanad election”.
Reform Alliance senator Fidelma Healy Eames said it was “a good scam” by her former party, Fine Gael.
“He is a sure thing to be elected. That is the unfortunate undemocratic facet of elections like this one,” she said. “Within two to three weeks of his appointment, he will have to stand down. This surely creates the greatest cynical stroke of politics in recent times.”
But the appointment of Fine Gael’s next senator to an important State board is about so much more than the old-fashioned, cynical political stroke that it is being portrayed as.
It is symptomatic of a number of broken promises made by the Coalition since coming into office, and makes a mockery of Enda Kenny’s grand promise to “radically overhaul the way Irish politics works”.
It highlights three things.
Firstly the failure to deliver on any reform of the Seanad promised in the wake of a referendum defeat of the Government’s proposal to abolish it.
Following that referendum result, the Taoiseach promised to hold all-party talks on how best to reform the Seanad. “I’ll initiate meaningful, comprehensive, thorough, fulsome discussions with everybody as soon as I can,” he told the Dáil.
But Fianna Fáil said this week that its leader, Micheál Martin, has met with Kenny just once on the issue.
Anyone who needs an indication of the Government’s attitude to the Seanad only needs to look at the performance of the arts minister, Heather Humphreys, who was called in to explain McNulty’s appointment to the Seanad on Tuesday night.
She responded to questions from senators about the appointment of on the issue by rereading the script of her introductory remarks.
Secondly, the controversy highlights the broken promises made by the Coalition on the process of appointments to State boards.
After entering office in March 2011, Kenny said vacancies on the boards of State-funded bodies would be advertised to help attract new talent and end cronyism.
It followed a controversy surrounding a range of appointments made by the Fianna Fáil-led government in its final days in office.
But an analysis by the Irish Examiner in July — based on information provided to Fianna Fáil’s Seán Fleming via parliamentary questions — showed that most ministers are overlooking the rules. Of around 1,300 positions in the past three years, 28% were filled through the publicly advertised process.
Thirdly, the controversy surrounding McNulty’s appointment to Imma and nomination to the Seanad shows the disregard that Fine Gael has for its own stated policy of the further advancement of women in politics.
Just 22% of the party’s local election candidates were women — falling far short of its own 25% gender-quota target. Kenny came under strong criticism for his failure to promote any women to the junior ministerial ranks in his July reshuffle.
A ballot for the vacant Seanad seat begins tomorrow and TDs and senators have until October 10 to cast their ballot. McNulty is all but certain to be elected given that the Government has the required majority of votes.
But the journey to his Seanad seat carries a stark reminder that the old way of doing politics in Ireland will never die out.
It was claimed in the Seanad that the instruction came from higher up the ranks of the Fine Gael party. “For the minister to take instructions on an important role such as this would be a gross breach of her responsibility as a member of the Cabinet,” said Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne.
“I want to know whether the minister or her officials met with the board or the chairman in examining what skill sets might be required to enhance and support the growing reputation of IMMA” Independent senator and director of The Abbey Theatre, Fiach MacConghail said.
“If she was aware then why appoint someone who would have to stand down once elected?” asked Reform Alliance senator, Fidelma Healy Eeames. She said the unfortunate undemocratic facet of elections “like this one” is that he is certain to be elected to the Seanad because Fine Gael has the majority of TDs and senators who make up the 226 votes.