Ambitious Avril versus Mighty Mairead
A lacklustre campaign for the áras has livened up as two FG women prepare to slug it out, writes Lise Hand
There's one person who must have experienced a frisson of déjÃ vu at this week's announcement by former MEP Avril Doyle that she was flinging her bonnet into the presidential ring.
Once more Mairead McGuinness finds herself on a collision course with her formidable party colleague as they both chase the Fine Gael nomination, along with Gay Mitchell and Pat Cox.
Irish political parties don't do royal families, but if they did, Avril Doyle would be the queen of Fine Gael. Her lineage is pure Blueshirt blood and she would be regarded as the doyenne of the well-heeled horsey set.
By contrast, Mairead McGuinness is the Joanna-Come-Lately as far as the party grandees are concerned, albeit a dynamic and able member.
These two have history. In 2004, a rather humdrum European election was massively enlivened when the well-known broadcaster Mairead was unexpectedly selected to run for the East constituency alongside sitting MEP Avril, who was most displeased to find herself handed a high-profile rival, rather than a tame running mate.
Given the widespread belief in Fine Gael that the party could only win one seat in the constituency, a robust contest (delightedly dubbed a "cat fight" by the red tops) ensued between the two women and their supporters.
However, the headline-hogging actually worked in their favour. Against the odds, both were elected, with underdog Mairead topping the poll.
Afterwards, Mairead wrote in the Irish Independent: "Personally, the cat-fight term saddened me. The bitter battle between Fianna Fáil male politicians in the south and west also attracted media interest throughout the campaign but those reports were never written up in the manner in which the so-called battle between Avril and me was highlighted.
"The battle, such as it was, was between the two campaign teams. Politics is a very passionate business."
But this demure description of the Euro-rumble belies the extremely feisty and outspoken personalities of the two protagonists. However, despite their shared experiences as Fine Gael MEPs, the women are markedly different characters.
Born in Dublin and raised in Wexford, Avril Doyle comes from a background steeped in politics (her grandfather was a TD and her father a senator) and she herself had yo-yo'd between the Dáil and Seanad for almost 20 years before putting in 10 years as an MEP, retiring in 2009.
Avril's formidable personality made itself known very early on in her political career. When she was first elected to the Dáil in 1982, the new Wexford TD entered the dusty world of Leinster House when custom dictated that male members of the Oireachtas wore suits and women wore dresses and skirts.
However, the rookie deputy broke with tradition and turned up in Leinster House sporting a pair of slacks, whereupon she was summoned to the office of the Ceann Comhairle and ordered to adhere to the dress code.
An unfazed Avril merely had one question: "Shall I take them off now, a Cheann Comhairle?"
Needless to say, that was the last that was heard of the matter.
Louth woman Mairead McGuinness was an established journalist and broadcaster on RTé's Ear To The Ground show when Enda Kenny acted on his vow to "electrify" the moribund Fine Gael party by riskily but successfully parachuting her into the Ireland East constituency in 2004. She was re-elected in 2009, but failed to bring in her running mate John Paul Phelan and so did not retain the retiring Avril's seat for Fine Gael.
Mairead is warm and accessible with that all-important common touch. However, behind the smiles and designer glasses is an extremely effective campaigner and a focused and ambitious woman.
"On one hand, she'd be seen as the farmer's choice, the rural girl with a feel for the farming life. But on the other hand, she won't hesitate to lift you out of it if you don't come up to scratch," said a former campaign worker.
She's a tireless campaigner, too. "Mairead's been camped in the Members' Bar in Leinster House all this week, shaking hands and chatting to everyone who comes in and out," said one TD on Thursday.
"The only place she won't go is out to the smoking area -- she's too clean-cut for that," he added.
There are shades of Maggie Thatcher in Avril's patrician steeliness and in her ability to wield a verbal handbag to great effect. In the 2009 elections the retiring MEP took a parting shot at Labour candidate Nessa Childers, dismissing her as "a Foxrock girl" and accusing the daughter of Fianna Fáil Irish President Erskine Childers of "political naivety".
Mairead, who was running against Nessa, didn't wade into the fight.
"Avril didn't consult me about it beforehand," she said at the time. "My motto is rise above it; name-calling doesn't work. And I understand what the wrath of Avril Doyle feels like," she added.
Indeed, the 2009 European elections re-sharpened the needle between the two women. Proposing Senator Phelan as the party's new candidate, Avril pointed to the youthful and handsome looks of Mairead's new kid on the block.
"I'm old enough to be his mother ... and so are you, by the way, Mairead," she sniped to great amusement at the selection convention in Newbridge.
But both candidates have experienced political disappointments. In 2007, Mairead ran for the Dáil in the Louth constituency (again, there was no love lost between herself and her running mate Fergus O'Dowd) but was shocked when she was eliminated on the first count.
In 1997, Avril Doyle was narrowly defeated by Mary Banotti for the Fine Gael nomination for the Presidency. And so the stage is set for another robust contest between these two extremely ambitious women. On Tuesday, no sooner had Avril formally announced her candidacy to Sean O'Rourke on RTé's News At One, declaring she has "experience, an analytical mind and strength of character", than Mairead whacked out a press release on her vision for the Presidency.
"The next holder of the office will have to work even harder for Ireland than any of his or her predecessors," she stated.
However, there are signs that low-level sniping between the two camps hasn't entirely gone away. Sources close to Mairead pointed out that both Avril and Gay Mitchell were in the margin of error in this week's Irish Independent poll.
"A lot of people in the party are now saying that Gay is unelectable," the source said. "A lot of people are reflecting that now the euphoria around Gay declaring has subsided.
"And the reason Mairead was brought in in 2004 was because they didn't think Avril would hold the seat. Mairead is a proven vote-getter. She pushed the Fine Gael vote share up to 42pc in that election and held it there in 2009."
But party insiders are adamant that there'll be no blood on the floor of the convention hall on July 9, when almost 700 Fine Gael members will choose a presidential candidate.
One Fine Gael TD explained that the party has no stomach for another in-house dogfight after the trauma of last summer's heave.
"Of course, there'll be tons of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but nothing we can't all put back together again immediately afterwards. This will be a doddle after what happened last summer," he said.
And he believes that Avril's late entry into the fray is motivated solely by her desire to get to the áras -- and not merely to scupper anyone else's chances.
"This isn't a response to Mairead -- Avril did contest a convention before in 1997," he added. "It's going to be a tough contest to call between all four of the candidates -- and there's two weeks left. And we know a lot can happen in a fortnight."