Brendan Griffin hit the headlines by calling for Enda Kenny to go. The Fine Gael TD for Kerry tells Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe about his work for the party since childhood
Firebrand TD Brendan Griffin has made a name for himself openly calling for Enda Kenny to go by the end of the summer.
While some Fine Gael politicians privately see the Kerry TD as attempting to wage a personal war against the Taoiseach after not being promoted to the ministerial ranks, Mr Griffin says his criticisms are aimed at trying to save the party from an election meltdown and to reach out to disillusioned voters.
An amicable politician exuding humour, the former councillor came into the Dáil alongside a wave of new young Fine Gael faces in 2011 when the party took power.
The 34-year-old has had his fair share of election disappointments too, having worked his way up the ranks from a young age where he campaigned, learnt from political figures and took a circular route to the Dáil.
Sitting over a full pot of tea in Buswells Hotel last month, across the road from the gates of Leinster House, he sets out why he became interested in politics and how his Dingle roots have kept him in the loop, so to speak.
“I was brought up in a house where the newspaper was left on the dining room table or the kitchen table, where the news was always on even though it was only RTÉ, in two-channel land… it was a regular rural Kerry house.”
Griffin became involved in political activities when in school and college and got involved in Fine Gael from a young age, thanks to his older brother Mike.
One of his earliest memories was the 1992 general election and getting up early in the morning to help his father, who was a party activist.
“I was 10 years old but my father brought me to hold the torch while he was hammering the posters onto the polls,” he tells me.
Later, his older brother had a strong influence on him.
“He brought me into the fold. As in dropping leaflets in 1997 for the general election when I was 15 years old when I should have been studying for my Leaving Cert.
“The following year, my first weekend away from home was actually for Simon Coveney’s by-election in Cork.
“It was the one and only time I wore a Cork t-shirt, waving the banner for Simon and 20 young people all there. It was all new to me, there was great energy,” quips the TD as the tea keeps pouring while we chat.
The campaign was an eye-opener for the then-teenager, seeing election tricks in action.
So when the Fine Gael local election selection convention came up for Dingle in 2003, the former arts student threw his hat in the ring.
“I was thinking it would be great to have someone ourselves, this is an opportunity I should go for and I did.”
But he lost the selection as three incumbents were running again and ultimately ended up coming fifth out of seven candidates in the June 2004 election itself.
While later sub-teaching, he got a call from then-TD Jimmy Deenihan to be his parliamentary assistant, which he accepted.
“That was a turning point for me. It was a brilliant opportunity. I don’t think I would have been elected to public office [without doing this],” explains Mr Griffin.
He later went forward for selection in 2006 for the general election the following year, to “lay down a marker for the future”, as he says himself, but missed out on selection again.
This was a personal setback for the young politician, who instead decided to lease a local bar with his wife and take a break from politics. The networking, respect he got from locals and opportunity to run his own business helped get him elected where he went on to top the poll locally.
“That was as good as any college degree, running a bar. I wouldn’t have got elected to the council in 2009 without having taken the bar. I knew a lot of people but they got to know me, instead of just being a fella in a suit on a poster, they saw the guy that was moping out jacks at three in the morning, cleaning up all the vomit.
“And hearing concerns day in and out about what resonated with people. It was a brilliant learning experience.”
But a key piece of advice the young politician got then may shed some light on who the TD might back when and if a Fine Gael leadership contest emerges.
Weighing up whether to run for the council, he sent then-TD Leo Varadkar a five-line email in 2008, seeking advice about how he himself had turned his political career around.
“The question I asked him was ‘what did you do between 1999 and 2004 that changed you from not being elected in 1999’ to when he had over two [election] quotas in 2004.
“The following day I got an email back from Leo, it must have been three or four pages long. First thing I remember him saying is that they can’t vote for you unless they know your name, emphasising the importance of leaflet drops, getting your name out there, a big long list of tips.”
This helped the aspiring Kerryman set out his political path that eventually saw him win that council seat.
Brendan Griffin’s fortunes grew in 2011, after then-Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue resigned and Kerry reverted to being a three-seater. He topped the poll in Kerry South.
“It’s funny the way things turn out, so I’ve John O’Donoghue to thank for being elected to the Dáil,” jokes the TD.
Since Fine Gael’s shaky start to a second term this year, Griffin has openly questioned the direction the party is going and rebutted internal criticism from colleagues.
He tells me that some ministers, when leadership change comes, “will try to hang on until the bitter end”.
Singling out the party’s poor performance in the general election, he points to where problems arose and what needs to change going forward. His observations are apt, given the fact that Fine Gael is sitting on two internal reports about its bruising election campaign, dossiers which are set to be discussed soon.
The young TD singles out a Fine Gael strategy early on in the election campaign which advised party election candidates not to appear on the live audience People’s Debates in constituencies on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne.
“How any communications strategy would come up with an idea of not engaging with a process in each constituency that was watched by people. That was some of the elementary stuff that Fine Gael has got wrong in recent times.”
What went wrong for Fine Gael, its communication strategy and its leadership are set to come under scrutiny this week when that report is debated by the party at its pre-Dáil think in. You can be guaranteed that Brendan Griffin is unlikely to shirk from expressing his views on the issue.
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