From Fianna Fail exile to securing top job at Limerick City and County Council

Nick Rabbitts


Nick Rabbitts

History maker: Askeaton councillor Kevin Sheahan was elected as the first Cathaoirleach of Limerick City and County Council in June. But there was a lot of drama on the way to his elevation to the office, as he recalled this week [Picture: Mike Cowhey]
THE full story of the split which destabilised the new Fianna Fail grouping on council has been recalled – by one of its lead protagonists.

THE full story of the split which destabilised the new Fianna Fail grouping on council has been recalled – by one of its lead protagonists.

Despite resigning from the party’s council group in protest at the allocation of leadership roles in the party, Cllr Kevin Sheahan of Askeaton seven days later emerged with the cathaoirleach’s chain of office around his neck, as he was elected the first leader of the newly merged local authority.

But his passage to power came after hours of meetings, disagreements, the intervention of national party secretary Sean Dorgan and an 11th-hour solution from newly elected councillor Shane Clifford.

Following Fianna Fail’s election success – becoming the biggest party on the new local authority – it was quickly agreed that they would go into coalition with Fine Gael.

But after early meetings between the new Fianna Fail group of 13, Cllr Sheahan said he felt the appointments to the positions had already been “done and dusted without everybody having a say”.

This came after he made a claim for the job as cathaoirleach – the most senior role in the new local authority - which was rejected.

Cllr Sheahan voted for Cllr Kieran O’Hanlon as deputy party leader – they are old friends from the Rhebogue member’s days working in Wyeth – and for Galbally councillor Eddie Ryan as leader.

When it became clear Cllrs Michael and James Collins were going to take the group leadership positions, Cllrs Sheahan, O’Hanlon, Ryan and Joe Crowley walked away.

“I met Eddie Ryan that lunchtime, and he asked me what I made of it. I told him that I voted for him. I couldn’t vote for the other man [Michael Collins] as he ousted me the last time [as leader in 2009]. Think about that. Eddie said: ‘That made it worse than I thought, as I had you down for voting against me. This means someone close to me obviously voted against me’,” the cathaoirleach recalled. The four councillors met at the Maldron Hotel, and agreed to go forward as an ‘Independent Fianna Fail’ group.

The party then sent Mr Dorgan to negotiate. Just as Cllr Sheahan was heading away for the June Bank Holiday weekend with wife Caroline, he received a call, and agreed to meet Mr Dorgan late on that Friday night in the Maldron Hotel, while the remaining Fianna Fail members met at the South Court, Raheen.

“That did away with my departure – and my wife’s departure more importantly. We were going down to Sneem, and this is a three-and-a-half-hour drive. But it was worth it to do something,” he recalled. He insists he was not looking for any position, if the groups were to come back together. “I just want 52 cards face up on the table, I said, with no joker in the pack. I want nothing. I wasn’t making an issue of why we had split. A position for Kevin was not the reason I walked. I want to make that quite clear,” he said.

Without making reference to any member, Cllr Sheahan said: “I want no more backroom meetings, and I am sick and tired of lies. I can’t tolerate flipping lies. I am no saint, I wouldn’t want to be a saint. I have told lies in the past, but in recent years I can’t remember them properly. I have given up lies,” he said.

Following this, the parties then agreed to come back together.

Upon the return to negotiations, Cllr Sheahan – jokingly at first , he says – again expressed a wish to be nominated for the job.

But after being rebuffed by party members, who pointed out that he had already served two terms in the old County Council, he said his “back had stiffened. I wasn’t wearing that. No-one has ever had it before. It is a new position under new legislation. This gave me more resolve to stay in the fight.”

His obstinance, he said, angered otherss: “One councillor said, ‘We are sick and tired of you holding us to ransom about this chair’. I said I can say what I like – we are living in a democracy.’”

Evening meetings carried on through the week with no solution. But then at 11pm on Thursday, June 5 – the night before the election – up stepped Cllr Clifford with a plan which the cathaoirleach described as “the most fair system I have seen in 29 years of politics”.

With Fianna Fail guaranteed three of the leader’s positions – including year one – the six electoral district names were put in a hat, with the councillors from each area to decide among themselves who would take the position.

Cllr Sheahan advised against new councillors taking on the role, and his running mate in Adare-Rathkeale, Richard O’Donoghue, took him to one side, and pledged to step aside if their area came up.

With that, Cllr Sheahan jumped in his car and went home. On the way back, he received a call from Cllr Francis Foley saying the job was his: “I have met people since, and they have complimented me for pulling the wool over people’s eyes, pulling a stroke, or being the old dog for the long road. But it is not true. Everybody had an equal chance, and I was lucky that it was me. But I am delighted I was lucky and it was me.”