Last night’s TV: The Frontline Presidential Debate
On mature recollection, the ghosts of Fianna Fail haunted Sean Gallagher last night, says Diarmuid Doyle
If it wasn’t for the startling news of Sean Gallagher’s past as a delivery boy for Fianna Fail, for which he once collected a €5000 cheque from a convicted criminal, we might be hearing a lot more about Gay Mitchell this morning.
Mitchell, the feisty no-hoper from Inchicore, finished last night’s Frontline debate on RTE 1 in total meltdown, a question about Denis O’Brien’s suitability to be on the Council of State having finally pushed him over the age.
A few minutes earlier, he had announced his desire to throw excrement over somebody unnamed. While we were all trying to figure who he could possibly be talking about, he started to fire broadsides at Pat Kenny.
The thrust of it was that Kenny’s handling of the debate had been a disgrace. “What is the relevance of asking us a question about a particular individual?” he shouted. “Ask us about the presidency”. Mitchell usually looks like he’s chewing on a bag of scorpions, but this was of a different order of crankiness altogether.
He’d been an irrelevance for most of the debate, and somewhere along the way – perhaps when asked whether he accepted personal responsibility for the huge gap in popularity between him, at less than 10 per cent in the polls, and his party, at close to 40 per cent – he realised that the game was up.
He had neither the charm nor the wit to recover. All that was left was a scream of despair.
Other than Gallagher, Mitchell had the worst night. Martin McGuinness exposed Gallagher’s money collection and pursued the topic doggedly.
The last time we’d seen such determination in a debate was when Miriam O’Callaghan was interrogating McGuinness over his involvement “in the murder of so many people”.
David Norris had been funny (when he wasn’t being annoying). Michael D Higgins greatly enjoyed the occasion and the lack of any difficult questions thrust in his direction.
Mary Davis gave her best performance in the debates while Drama Rosemary Scandal emerged with her dignity intact and avoided any more conspiracy theories – except for the one where she suggested that European bureaucrats were trying to ban All Kinds Of Everything.
Ok, I made that one up. Whether the unnamed source for McGuinness’s claims about Gallagher is making things up may become clear before polling day, but for the moment the Gallagher campaign is dealing with its first real crisis.
It took about five minutes last night for it all to go wrong.
A question about Gallagher’s links with Fianna Fail had produced a few wishy washy answers before McGuinness intervened to say he had spoken to a man earlier in the evening who claimed to have been one of about 35 people who attended a fundraiser for Brian Cowen at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk in 2008. Each person contributed €5,000.
“This particular gentleman told me that not alone did Seán arrange it, Seán arranged for the photographs and brought the photographs to his house and Seán also called around to his house to collect the cheque for €5,000.
“Now that is indisputable. That’s an absolute disgrace and clearly shows the rottenness of the system that went before in terms of the cronyism, the developers, the speculators and those who effectively destroyed the economy of this country and Seán is up to his neck in all of that”.
Gallagher retorted that McGuinness’s source is “a convicted criminal, a fuel smuggler, investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau [who] rented the office out to Gerry Adams, Martin’s colleague, in the last general election”.
“I have no recollection of getting a cheque from this guy”, he continued. “I can tell you, let me explain this very simply. I explained that there were two or three people that I asked. I don’t know the man very well that’s in question.”
Later, after mature recollection, Mr Gallagher agreed that he “may well have delivered the photograph. If he gave me an envelope I . . . if he gave me the cheque it was made out to Fianna Fáil headquarters and it was delivered and that was that. It was nothing to do with me.”
Kenny, who had a very good night at the office, then came up with the perhaps the debate’s most memorable line: “You went to a fuel smuggler’s house and invited him to a Fianna Fail do?”
David Norris got in on the act, too. “The reference to the envelope was unfortunate”, he said.
It didn’t end there for Gallagher, who was under pressure all night, and looked out on his feet – a battered, bloodied heavyweight – by the time it was all over.
He was asked about a loan for more than €80,000 from one of his companies that allegedly breached company law.
There was no such breach, he said. His bookkeeper’s secretary had lodged the money in the wrong account. As soon as he had been alerted to the error by his accountant, the matter was resolved within weeks.
The last occasion many people remember a high profile political figure hang a secretary out to dry in such a manner was when Bertie Ahern allowed his loyal employee Grainne Carruth to give tearful evidence of sterling lodgements to the Mahon Tribunal, testimony that could have been avoided had then Taoiseach been a bit more frank about his finances.
And that was the thing about last night. The ghosts of Fianna Fail – the brown envelopes, the cheques resting in the wrong account, the €5,000-a-plate fundraisers – haunted Gallagher from beginning to end.
His opponents succeeded very well in highlighting all of that. Whether it will have the remotest effect on voters is anybody’s guess. But the election was Gallagher’s to lose this time yesterday, and the suspicion last night was that he had lost it.
In three days we will know for sure.