THE split was almost the first item on the agenda at last Friday's Labour Party General Election convention meeting in Portlaoise.
By Conor Ganly
This was swiftly followed by a dramatic walkout of angry councillors and rank and file members from across Laois and Offaly.
Those who left the behind-closed-doors convention were angered by what they claimed was a "charade" and the "imposition" of journalist and author John Whelan as the sole party candidate by HQ.
But despite the walkout of up to 30 members, (up to 50 attended), Labour ratified Mr Whelan at the Portlaoise Heritage Hotel.
While Mr Whelan and senior Labour officials insisted the party had done things by the book, those who walked out insisted that the selection process broke many party rules. They claimed that four other candidates were not allowed to challenge.
They also insisted that they were not going to let the matter rest and have organised a meeting this week.
Laois-Offaly Labour Chairman, James Corcoran, dismissed the process as "undemocratic" because the majority of members were not allowed to vote on a motion that would allow other nominees.
"After a heated debate we decided to leave the meeting. We regarded the whole thing as a charade. The candidate was imposed," he said.
The nominations of Cllr Sean O'Brien, Cllr Pat Bowe, Jim O'Brien and Liam Dumpleton were ruled out of order. Mr O'Brien said party HQ's decision would not be accepted.
"It's complete as far as party headquarters is concerned but not as far as we are concerned," said the former General Election candidate.
Cllr Sean O'Brien from Tullamore said the "heart and soul" of the local party had been "locked out".
"The members were treated in an absolutely shameful manner in both Laois and Offaly. We were led up the garden path," he said.
Some of those who walked out insisted that they would not back Mr Whelan. One outspoken member challenged the candidate on his past endorsement of Fianna Fil.
Both Mr Whelan and the party's regional organiser were adamant that rules were followed.
Mr Whelan accepted that "some" members were unhappy with the process but most of the dissent was led by "a small group of people who were entitled to see themselves as candidates".
However, Mr Whelan said he had received many "unsolicited offers of support" from other Labour members and non-party people.
"I don't know of any party in Laois Offaly that has a fully united front going into the election," he said.
The candidate said that the party's HQ had ruled out running candidates in both parts of the constituency.
As to whether he was concerned over a split, Brian McDowell, Director of Organisation of Dublin and Ireland East said nobody wanted to see "disunity" but the chosen candidate would begin canvassing immediately.
He said the selection process had been passed by 90 per cent of delegates at a Labour Party Conference. He insisted that the rules were followed "to the letter of the law".
As to the choice, he said Mr Whelan was "well known" and there was "considerable support" for him. However, he confirmed there had been no opinion poll. He said his popularity would be measured "when the votes are counted".
Apart from Labour support, Mr McDowell said Mr Whelan would be looking for "disenchanted" FG and FF votes.