AFTER a selection convention which was on the verge of collapse amid a row over gender quotas, Fine Gael picked a three-candidate team for the Tullamore Electoral Area in the next local elections.
In the wake of a bitter dispute at a packed meeting in Hugh Lynch’s function room, the party selected Deirdre Fox, Noelle O’Donoghue and Neil Feighery to run in the County Council election in May.
Bernard Westman was also seeking a nomination and delegates arrived on Thursday evening aware of a directive from party headquarters that just three candidates should be selected.
But a revolt was sparked when chairman Sean Kelly MEP made the bombshell announcement that two of the three candidates must be female.
That meant that Ms Fox, a former Labour Party member from Marian Place, and Ms O’Donoghue, a Daingean resident who runs the Noelle Interiors business in Tullamore, were automatic nominees.
Party members then faced a straight choice between Mr Feighery, the Blueball man who is parliamentary assistant to Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, and Mr Westman, a Clontarf Road native and recruitment consultant.
As the atmosphere grew tense, there were immediate calls for all four candidates to be allowed run.
Party activists were not swayed by an assurance from Mr Kelly that the Fine Gael national executive council could decide to add a fourth candidate later.
There are seven seats in the Tullamore Electoral Area and Fine Gael won just one at the last local election in 2014 but longserving councillor Tommy McKeigue has decided to retire.
Michael Hickey was first to express his alarm, saying the directive from headquarters had put members in an awful situation, having to choose between “two fine young men”.
A Blueball member, Ann Moran, questioned the directive and said all four should run. “Where is the equality?” Ms Moran asked.
“I think the two lads should be let go through, let them go. And when the day comes for the election let the best man win, and the two women.”
Veteran member Peter Kelly was the first to indicate that no vote at all should be taken on the night if all four candidates were not nominated.
“We have four new faces. Two fine ladies, two fine young gentlemen,” said Mr Kelly.
He said the directive was going to force him to “vote against” one of the men. “How can I stand up and vote against Bernard Westman or Neil Feighery? How can I do that in my heart, I can’t do it and I won’t do it because I want the four to run”.
Mr Kelly launched a personal attack on Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran, author of the directive read out earlier by the convention chairman.
“Tom Curran doesn’t know whether it’s Balbriggan or Beggars Bush. He doesn’t care about down here,” he said.
Tullamore Fine Gael member Ian Lee said he had been a member of the party since 1977 but added: “One of the reasons I haven’t been seen at meetings for years is because of this very kind of conduct and carry-on. It’s little short of a disgrace”.
He called on the meeting to add the fourth candidate on the night instead of picking three and then asking the national executive to consider another.
“In any democratic organisation it’s incumbent on everybody to turn around and let the best horse jump the ditch,” he said.
Brendan McGowan, Clara, proposed that the convention send back a motion to headquarters “rejecting” the directive.
“And a decision be made tonight to nominate the four candidates or else we adjourn this meeting,” he said. There were several seconders for his proposal.
The chairman, Mr Kelly, a Kerry-based MEP and former GAA national president, said he appreciated that people’s views were heartfelt and sincere but stated he was obliged to put the matter to a vote as directed by the executive council.
The mood in the room changed following a strong statement from Offaly Fine Gael TD Ms Corcoran Kennedy who began with a defence of the national executive council.
Responding to the attack on Mr Curran, Deputy Corcoran Kenneduy remarked: “It’s easy to target an individual”, saying he was an employee of Fine Gael but the executive council had been democratically elected by councillors, the parliamentary party and Young Fine Gael.
The executive council had to take voting patterns and the requirement for 30 per cent of candidates to be female into account.
The TD warned delegates to be mindful of the party’s strategy in the Tullamore area. “One thing we’d always be worried about is when there are too many candidates to split the votes and instead of us winning three seats we’d only get one”.
She urged the convention to select three candidates and “send a strong message” back to the executive council to add another one.
Deputy Corcoran Kennedy also said that if the convention broke up “in disarray”, they would be handing Fianna Fail “a stick to beat us with”.
“I can tell you, if this breaks up Fianna Fail are going to have a field day. Let is never forget who our enemies are, they are not in here. We’re all the one family here, we’re all Fine Gael,” said the TD.
“We do not want to be handing a gift to Fianna Fail to walk around the town saying Fine Gael could not even organise their own convention”.
Cllr John Clendennen, the Kinnitty publican who has been selected to run in the next Dail election along with Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, proposed that a deputation from the Tullamore area travel to Dublin to meet with national executive members and press home the call for a fourth candidate.
“I hope we leave no stone unturned that we have four candidates,” said Cllr Clendennen.
The vote then took place by secret ballot and the convention was told that Mr Feighery had been selected.
No figures were disclosed but it is understood Mr Feighery won by a significant margin, perhaps as much as two-to-one.