Brian Crowley’s electoral success is without parallel

The predictable decision by MEP Brian Crowley not to stand again to be an MEP brings down the curtain on one of the most successful politicians this country has ever seen, writes Daniel McConnell.

Brian Crowley’s electoral success is without parallel

The predictable decision by MEP Brian Crowley not to stand again to be an MEP brings down the curtain on one of the most successful politicians this country has ever seen, writes Daniel McConnell.

An electoral phenomenon, Crowley’s remarkable record as a poll-topper in the Ireland South constituency is without parallel.

In 2014, with 180,329 first preference votes and 27.42% share of the vote in the Ireland South Constituency, he exceeded the quota by 48,829 votes to be elected on the first count.

But his inability to take his seat in parliament even once since 2014 has been the source of ongoing controversy amid calls for his resignation, which ultimately made his retirement from politics inevitable.

Steeped in Fianna Fáil, Crowley is the son of former TD Flor and his wife Sally, and is one of six children.

As a lad, weekends were spent touring West Cork and sitting in pubs or hotels in Clonakilty, Dunmanway and Skibbereen while his father held constituency clinics.

In his biography, entitled Against the Odds, it is clear how even as a young man, Crowley was a handful and his mother once broke a wooden spoon over him when trying to rein him in. He kept the broken spoon as a proud memento of his independence.

Such intransigence has stayed with him throughout his political career and led him ultimately to fall out with his beloved Fianna Fáil, with whom he has been estranged since 2014.

Now 54 years old, he has been paralysed from the waist down since the age of 16 after a fall off a roof. He had been playing rugby with his friends, on the flat felt roof, when he tripped over.

So horrific were his injuries, he was to spend many months in hospital in Dublin where senior politicians including former taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, were among his visitors.

His entry into national politics came in 1993 when newly elected taoiseach Albert Reynolds called him up and told him he was keen to nominate him to the Seanad. Reynolds said he would be a “glorious example to the youth of the country” and “secondly to those with a disability”.

Crowley was urged by some, including his father Flor, to cut his well-developed mullet in order to “fit in” but was backed by Reynolds who quipped there were enough bald people in the parliamentary party at the time.

He first stood in the Munster constituency in the 1994 European Elections where he managed to top the poll, taking 84,463 first preference votes.

He proved immensely popular on the campaign trail, both with the public and his own supporters.

“Canvassing with Brian was always a dream. He was exceptionally good with people, very warm and engaging. He is a very charming character,” said Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath.

But not everyone felt the love.

In 2004, Crowley disregarded orders from headquarters to divide the constituency with Gerry Collins, which led to severe tensions.

“It was a bare-knuckle war between them. Brian was certainly not one for dividing the ground up,” said one party member.

“People should vote for candidates in order of preference and that is the only type of democratic electioneering I will participate in,” Crowley said defending his stance.

On that occasion, Collins lost his seat and Mr Crowley became the Fianna Fáil leader in the European Parliament.

Relations with current leader Micheál Martin were severely strained primarily because of Martin’s refusal to allow Crowley contest the 2011 Presidential election.

The public clash with Crowley was an early setback for Martin, who had taken over the ravaged party earlier in the year.

Illness in 2012 and 2013 would prevent Crowley from attending for much of the last two years of that EU parliament, thus ending his previous stellar record.

Debilitating leg sores that resulted in him having to be hospitalised for months at a time, it was stated.

Despite the prolonged absence, he romped home in the 2014 election, promising to fulfil his mandate.

He would sever ties with his party later that year when Crowley, as Fianna Fáil’s only MEP, moved from the party’s chosen group in the European Parliament — the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) which it had joined in 2009 — to the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group.

Deeply religious and conservative in his views, Crowley felt he was no longer willing to live with the change in the grouping.

His health problems have been so severe he was unable to attend a single session of the current European Parliament — earning him the ignominious record of having the lowest attendance of all 750 MEPs.

Even though he failed to attend, he has been entitled to a monthly salary of €8,484 as well as a €4,342 monthly allowance to cover office rent and constituency work.

As his hospitalisation continued throughout 2017, calls emerged from his substitute Kieran Hartley for Crowley to resign, but he did not.

Hartley’s calls were received poorly within the greater Fianna Fáil family who felt Crowley was entitled to sympathy and forbearance.

Martin and Fianna Fáil bosses, who had severed ties with Crowley in 2014, refused to force the issue and Crowley rebuffed media requests to explain his position.

When it emerged this week that he was due to speak to the media about his situation, it was widely expected he would bow out — but he kept everyone guessing, in keeping with his enigmatic persona.

Now he departs the political scene in a bid to be a “private citizen”, although it is hard to imagine this poll-topper slipping into the shadows.

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