Elaine Loughlin: Bullying claims no shock to Fine Gael members

The resignation of Cork councillor Karen Coakley amid accusations of bullying and 'skullduggery' did not come as a shock to many within Fine Gael
Elaine Loughlin: Bullying claims no shock to Fine Gael members

If Fine Gael is to address sliding public support, it would do well to get its own house in order first by truly welcoming women and young people in.

The resignation of Cork councillor Karen Coakley amid accusations of bullying and "skullduggery" did not come as a shock to many within Fine Gael.

"There isn't a woman in our party that isn't surprised by what's happened, because there isn't a woman in our party, with the exception of a very small, small few who haven't experienced exactly what Karen and Katie have gone through already. None of us," one senior member said, referring the fellow Cork councillor Katie Murphy, who left just six months ago.

Ms Coakley, who ran for Fine Gael in Cork South-West constituency in the 2020 general election, last week announced she would be leaving the party with immediate effect and claimed reports of "bullying", "character assassination" and "intimation" had not been acted upon.

One grassroots member said her resignation was "unsurprising" given the "way things have gone in recent years".

"Definitely a pattern has emerged of women with any sort of opinions being pushed out," he said.

Stressing her experience was part of a wider issue in the party, Ms Coakley said: "The negativity in Cork South-West, created by a few, is spreading like a toxic virus and it has damaged the party beyond repair.

Karen Coakley
Karen Coakley

"I am beyond disillusioned by Fine Gael, I believe they are not listening to the people, the party is out of touch with the electorate and not interested in change," she told the constituency AGM.

Some party members have pointed out that there had been considerable engagement with Ms Coakley, but no formal written bullying complaint had been received.

However, others say this attitude is actually the problem, and by failing to recognise issues just because formal procedures have not been utilised, Fine Gael is effectively saying it is doesn't care when people are forced out.

Senator Regina Doherty, who raised significant concerns about the latest resignation at the Fine Gael parliamentary party last week, has now requested that a review be carried out into every resignation over the past five years to dig into the reasons as to why councillors and area reps are leaving.

"It's not a small problem, we've also lost a significant number of councillors under the age of 30. So not only are we losing women we are losing young people," she said.

If Fine Gael is to attract a new, fresh generation of politicians, then it must become an attractive and relevant proposition, starting with the Young Fine Gael (YFG) organisation.

A recently completed internal report into the party's youth wing stressed the need for greater gender equality and recommended that Fine Gael should run at least one candidate under 30 in every local authority area in the next local elections.

This could become a tall order if those who do show an interest are forced out before they get a proper chance.

"There's a lot of work being done by the party around the country to identify and encourage more female candidates. But yes, I think there are difficulties in recruiting women in Fine Gael," said councillor Eileen Lynch, who stressed this was not a problem unique to Leo Varadkar's party.

The review, headed up by Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, found YFG as a brand was "tarnished", a description that could equally be applied to the main party.

Mr Harris also concluded the organisation has been "excessively internally focused" and concerned with "niche issues of interest to few young people" adding YFG has become "ideologically obsessed with a conservative/liberal discourse" which does not reflect the wider Irish public.

Among the recommendations put forward by Mr Harris and his Youth Commission is that all future Fine Gael recruitment campaigns have a specific focus to attract female and diverse members for under 25s.

But as one member said: 

We're trying to find out why young people don't like us. Well, you know what, start with the obvious problems that we have as to why we're losing the ones that we've already got."

Another recommendation, which appeared almost as a footnote in the report seen by the Irish Examiner, is that the YFG National Forum on Facebook be discontinued immediately.

The private Facebook page has been described as a "cesspit" by some members who have access to it, with disputes over policy positions often becoming heated and nasty.

"I've seen this stuff, some of it is toxic," said one female YFG member. She said the youth wing had a number of "conservative males" who "shout the loudest" on social media, but who do not reflect the silent majority.

Asked about this recommendation, one person who contributed to the work of the Youth Forum said: "I think people were kind of feeling as though these type of forums just weren't helpful.

"It's probably not a great place to be a woman on those kinds of those forums," the source said before adding that "there's definitely a big gender issue" within the party in general.

"Is it a party for women at the moment? Probably not, but I think that this is the start of a becoming one."

If Fine Gael, which recently plummeted below 20% in one opinion poll, is to regain and rebuild public support, it needs to make extra efforts to put out the welcome mat for women, who up until now have seen the rug pulled from under them when they try to progress up through the party.

This week in years gone by...

1918

May 5: John Dillon and Éamon de Valera addressed a 15,000-strong anti-conscription gathering in Mayo. The Cork Examiner reported that Mr Dillon said it was an atrocious form of oppression to try to compel people to fight for a country not their own. He was "convinced" that this question would destroy the Government.

On the Plinth May 4
On the Plinth May 4

1949

May 3: The British government passed an act guaranteeing that Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom as long as the majority of its citizens want it to be. It was reported that the changes also meant that "Éire thus becomes neither British nor foreign territory, but has a kind of intermediate status of her own".

1973

May 7: Controversy erupted when former Department of Justice secretary general Peter Berry claimed he had been forced to retire six years prior after he "took the rap" and was made a "scapegoat" for his line minister. Jack Lynch denied Mr Berry had been promised money to compensate him for stepping aside early, with the Cork Examiner reporting that: "Mr Berry at the time was an active man and the Government had though it possible that a vacancy might arise on a State body for which he would be suitable. But no such vacancy had arisen."

On the Plinth May 4
On the Plinth May 4

2014

May 8: "After 6 reports, 2 resignations and 1 apology... Shatter finally quits," read the front page headline on a report on a damning 300-page review outlining Department of Justice failures in adequately dealing with allegations of malpractice, corruption and falsification of records within the gardaí, which forced Alan Shatter to step aside. Two years later, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny corrected the Dáil record in relation to the resignation of the former Justice Minister.

What to look out for this week

Tuesday

TDs who usually gather for Leaders' Questions each Tuesday afternoon have taken an extended bank holiday with the Dáil not returning until Wednesday this week. 

However, a number of Oireachtas committees will sit, including the Committee on Environment on Climate Action which is due to get an update on the circular economy from Environment Minister Eamon Ryan. Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman will discuss the Institutional Burials Bill which is currently being scrutinised by the Children's Committee.

Wednesday

The Health Committee kicks off at 9.30am with the much anticipated appearance of both Department of Health secretary-general Robert Watt and Dr Tony Holohan on the now-aborted Trinity College professorship.

With average rents now at €1,415 a month for new tenants, Sinn Féin is bringing forward a motion on rising costs for those searching for a place to live.

Over in the Seanad, a motion supporting the right of Ukraine to exist as a sovereign, independent state that is free to choose its own political and military alliances following its own legal and constitutional provision will be debated.

Did you know?

On top of their salaries, TDs and senators are entitled to a number of allowances.

One of the most talked about allowances over the years has been the Travel and Accommodation Allowance (TAA) which is based on the distance from a politician's normal place of residence to Leinster House by the shortest practicable route.

Oireachtas members, excluding the Ceann Comhairle, are paid a travel allowance ranging from €6,300 a year for Dublin-based politicians to €32,535 per annum for those 360km or more from Leinster House. The Ceann Comhairle may avail of an annual overnight allowance of up to €14,715.

Thursday

Arts Minister Catherine Martin and Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien are in the hot seat as they take Dáil questions in the morning. 

There will be statements on the Government's response on accommodation needs for those fleeing Ukraine in the afternoon. 

And if you thought the turf war had ended after last week's shenanigans around a Sinn Féin vote, think again — the Independent Group is bringing forward another motion on the sale and supply of the humble sod, which is due to kick off after 5pm.

The Public Accounts Committee will hear from Department of Finance officials and will examine the C&AG's report on the Apple escrow fund.

Friday

Congratulations in advance to Irish Examiner Political Correspondent, Paul Hosford, who is due to marry Patrice Sheridan in a Covid-delayed celebration.

  • 'On The Plinth' appears each week in Tuesday's Irish Examiner (in print and online). Make sure you are up to speed on the major political stories by signing up to the On The Plinth politics newsletter HERE.

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