DANIEL MCCONNELL: Kelly push has been coming for more than two years

One always suspected a day like yesterday would come.

The day when Alan Kelly had enough of pretending to be happy with his party leader Brendan Howlin.

A day where he would knife his leader.

After several weeks of moaning from more than a dozen of the party’s 50 councillors, Kelly has now joined the chorus seeking a change in the leader.

Kelly was never happy with Howlin as leader or even in the manner in which he became leader.

After Labour’s disastrous general election in 2016, where they managed to survive with just seven TDs, Joan Burton resigned as leader.

What else could she do?

Kelly made no secret of the fact he wanted to be leader. Many councillors felt he was the man to save the party.

The only problem was that none of Kelly’s TD pals wanted him.

They leaned on Howlin, a reluctant candidate, to take over.

What conspired was a disgraceful act of arrogance and chicanery.
As none of the other six TDs would nominate Kelly, he was precluded from forcing a contest and Howlin was elected unopposed.

For supposedly the most democratic party, it was a stroke befitting Fianna Fáil of old.

That decision to exclude Kelly has poisoned the atmosphere and overshadowed Howlin’s tenure from the off.

Kelly’s decision not to attend Howlin’s first press conference was a petulant act but one could understand his annoyance on a human level.

Almost two and a half years into his term of office, the party has stagnated.

Reluctant to leave the party’s time in office behind him, Howlin stands accused by his own party councillors of failing to look to the future, be more aggressive in opposition and to make the party stand out in a crowded political field.

During the summer, a small rump of councillors including Noel Touhy, Mick Duff and Pamela Kearns broke ranks and called for Howlin to go.

Day after day, the numbers

In response, a group of 16 councillors loyal to Howlin wrote a statement saying they “disagree that a leadership change should be the focus of the party at this time”.

“The utterances of the last few days do not have the support of all Labour councillors and while we do support full membership engagement in any leadership election, we do not feel this is the right time for a change,” it says.

The statement was signed by the following Labour councillors:

Cllr Paul Bell; Cllr Ann Breen; Cllr Brendan Carr; Cllr. Bobby Ireton; Cllr Deirdre Kinsgton; Cllr George Lawlor; Cllr Brian McDonagh; Cllr Andrew Montague; Cllr Rebecca Moynihan;
Cllr Peter O’Brien; Cllr Dennis O’Callaghan; Cllr Rob O’Donoghue; Cllr Johnnie Penrose; Cllr Pio Smith; Cllr Grace Tallon; and Cllr Alex White.

But the dissenters were not to be deterred.

As reported by this newspaper, a group of 14 councillors led by Mick Duff sought an urgent meeting with Howlin to discuss their concerns.

He was defiant and refused saying it would be “unreasonable” to get people together before the planned meeting on September 16 in Drogheda.

He later made it known he was happy to meet councillors one to one but not in a group.

All the while, Kelly remained silent but he was subject to speculation as being behind the agitation.

He was away for a period but then penned a pointed piece in the Sunday Independent.

Without mentioning Howlin once, it was a devastating critique of his leader’s failings.

Then came yesterday.

Politicians when they have things to say often make a beeline for their local radio station, in order to speak first to their own people.

Kelly appeared on Tipp Today with Fran Curry where he was pressed hard on the state within his party.

Not for the first time, “AK-47” unloaded on Howlin, who he described as a “friend” and as someone who had represented the party “fantastically” over many years.

But asked directly by Curry if he felt Howlin should go, Kelly responded: “It [the party] does need that significant change, yes”.

“I certainly think we are in a very difficult situation. As a party we need a good shake-up, a radical change. We need to change the direction of the party, we need a new vision, we need far more energy and ensure with that change we bring people with us. And at this moment that is not happening and I am not seeing anything to make it happen,” he said.

Kelly also lashed his leader for refusing to meet their councillor colleagues.

“The councillors who have come out, and have expressed concern more than anything else, and wanting to see something done about it, have done so for the right reasons. I believe Brendan should have met them, he hasn’t,” he said.

“He should have met them as a collective and not individually. Because as leader of the party you have to listen to these concerns. If anyone in here or across the country asked to meet me I would meet them. I don’t think it is acceptable not to meet them,” he added.

Asked what has gone wrong to lead him to call for Howlin’s head, Kelly said the party has not turned its fortunes around, and worse shows no sign of turning them around.

“I was concerned a few weeks ago that Brendan said he would be setting out his vision on the 16th.

"The time to set that out was two and a half years ago. I am not ruling out there could be an election next month. I believe there is a view in government, in Fine Gael, that an election this year would be a good thing,” he said.

“I believe it is possible to engage with the public and win more seats in the next election. I believe we can focus in and win those seats. Sinn Fein is stealing our thunder, we have to call out the populism on the left,” he added.

Kelly insisted he was not behind the calls from the councillors for Howlin to go, but as Kevin Humphreys said yesterday, he did nothing to quell them either.

Humphreys insists that Howlin still has the backing of a majority within the party, but without question, the party’s think-in is now all about the leadership.

I said two weeks ago, that as long as the uprising remained limited to the ranks of the councillors, then Howlin would have no problem in surviving.

Now Kelly has broken ranks within the parliamentary party, Howlin must defeat him or sack him. Otherwise his leadership will be terminally damaged.

The fratricidal fights within the political left often undermine their ability to ever dream of being a lead party in Irish politics.

Labour is a long way from there, but as they hover over the edge of viability, this internal fight is the last thing they need.

But by refusing Kelly the chance to stand in 2016, this outcome was inevitable. Once again, they only have themselves to blame for the mess they find themselves in.


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