The finishing touches to the plan to take down Alan Kelly were applied in the home of Labour Senator Marie Sherlock last Sunday. The party had recorded yet another dismal result in the Business Post/Red C poll, published that morning – 4 per cent.
The party’s Senators and TDs gathered at Sherlock’s Phibsboro home – those who couldn’t make it physically dialled in from elsewhere. Brendan Howlin attended briefly from London, where he was with the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
The purpose of the meeting was to copper-fasten an approach that had been emerging as concerns about the leadership reached a point of no return. The party has plenty of recent experience in decapitating leaders: Eamon Gilmore in 2014 and Joan Burton in 2016, and is still traumatised by the memory of the tortuous end of Gilmore’s tenure, spread over two days.
And so, if they were going to move against another leader, it would have to be quick and straightforward. Kelly would have to be presented with a fait accompli – that he would go, or face a motion of no confidence from all 10 other members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Across the last week, the party has descended into crisis mode – first privately, and then very publicly. The fallout has destabilised the party, confused its membership and damaged its standing. Now, the hope is that a new leader will take the reins and restore the sense of purpose, identity and electoral success that have evaded the party for the guts of a decade.
Before a new leadership could begin, the messy process of ushering Kelly out had to be completed.
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Labour members have stated that the reasons for Kelly’s defenestration lie in the polling numbers, and a fear that he was too strongly associated with the Labour-Fine Gael government of 2011-2016. These concerns permeated discussions at PLP meetings for several weeks. But it’s also the case that another trigger was concerns over filling a backroom position in the party. It’s believed Billie Sparks, the party’s general secretary, last week indicated to members that she was uncomfortable with parts of the process, while Ged Nash, the Louth TD and finance spokesman, was said by colleagues to be particularly annoyed with aspects.
A Labour spokesman said the party had a duty of confidentiality regarding career-sensitive information and would not comment on internal matters. But in a series of conversations with Labour figures in recent days, nobody was denying the suggestion.
An emergency meeting was held last Wednesday among some PLP members, in Kelly’s absence, where all this was discussed. The following day, at a meeting in Leinster House of the full PLP, Kelly was confronted with these concerns, and with more worries about performance, and also culture.
A source present said there were accusations of a damaging culture within the party, with fingers pointed at the leader’s office. “Things were said that were very difficult to hear,” one source said. Kelly defended himself, becoming emotional at one point, but the defence offered was insufficient to convince members – he had lost authority, some present felt.
The events of last week brought to a head concerns that had been forming over time. There was, one said, a general feeling that Kelly had become “semi-detached” and that he “didn’t realise the extent” of the difficulties the party was facing, amid what members fretted was an inexorable slide towards irrelevance, and potentially to extinction. Fingal TD Duncan Smith, Senator Mark Wall and Sherlock all spoke of a fight for survival in interviews on RTÉ on Thursday.
The developments were kept on lockdown – PLP members mixed with councillors and other Labour figures at a protest at the Russian embassy on Saturday, but kept tight-lipped. The backdrop of the Labour Party going to war with itself, while an actual war raged, was not lost on members. Smith said on Wednesday it was “mortifying” to be on the radio talking about Labour in this context. But also, as he said himself, “when you start to say things out loud, to each other, and decisions are made, then things take a momentum of their own”.
That momentum brought the PLP together on Sunday. It was decided that Smith, Wall and Cork East TD Seán Sherlock would go to Kelly. They were chosen because they were close to him – the Tipperary TD could be left in no doubt about the single-mindedness of his party. Wall and Smith have said they presented him on Tuesday with their analysis of polling and that he was tainted, and the reality was he had lost support. He quickly agreed to go.
Labour’s parliamentary team is facing a problem. The wider party, including many councillors, are deeply disillusioned with the decision to jettison Kelly. They don’t understand the logic of it, and while there is a case to be made against Kelly, there is also an equally strong case for the defence. Taking down a leader of a small party based on poor polling, in the middle of an election cycle, before they’ve had a chance to fight a local, general or European election runs contrary to political wisdom – even more so when he has been limited by the pandemic.
“The overwhelming phone calls, texts, tweets, whatsapps I’m getting from members is that they’re annoyed,” says Dermot Lacey, a Dublin city councillor and party stalwart. “It all doesn’t make sense to me. And that’s one of the things people are saying to me. ‘What is this all about?’”
“I’m genuinely very shocked by the whole thing,” said Ciaran Ahern, a former Seanad and general election candidate.
“I’m disappointed that there was a leadership election less than two years ago, and it’s been overturned by the PLP,” said Ben Slimm, a Kerry councillor.
Liam van der Spek, a former general election candidate in Cavan-Monaghan, said Kelly’s two years “in the depths of Covid [was] an insurmountable task for anyone”.
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From early on Wednesday morning, Kelly began to call some supporters telling them he was gone. A helter-skelter day followed as word crept out, with journalists pursuing party members (sometimes at pace) down the corridors of Leinster House, and the party’s plan to announce on Thursday was blown to smithereens. More than once, the whole process has been closer to farce than drama. Whether Labour can restore itself under a new leader remains to be seen.