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Sunday 23 July 2017

Gay Byrne Aras 'No' fuels crisis for Fianna Fail leader Martin

Will Norris reconsider as FF leader still favours a 'popular' independent?

Gay Byrne yesterday announced his intention not to contest the presidential election. Photo: Collins

Jody Corcoran and Liam Collins

Taken aback by the intensity of a media campaign against him, Gay Byrne yesterday announced his intention not to contest the presidential election -- and immediately plunged Micheal Martin into the first crisis of his own making as leader of Fianna Fail.

"The turmoil has been considerable," Mr Byrne told the Sunday Independent yesterday, shortly after he had informed Mr Martin of his decision.

While he was reluctant for now to elaborate on the reasons behind his withdrawal -- saying: "Maybe I will in another time or another place" -- it is clear that the broadcaster has come to regret his flirtation with the notion of the presidency. "I just wish that the whole thing would go away," he said.

Mr Byrne's unexpected announcement -- he had said he would make known his decision on Wednesday -- leaves just four declared candidates in the contest, with Labour's Michael D Higgins now the favourite.

However, at least one and maybe two further candidates are expected to announce their intention to seek a nomination to contest the election, which is to be held on October 27.

In a statement last night, Fianna Fail said: "Gay Byrne has many fine qualities and would have made an excellent candidate. However, we respect his personal decision not to stand in the presidential election."

This weekend, however, there is a sharp difference of opinion within Fianna Fail as to what to do next -- nominate a candidate of the party or seek to endorse another 'celebrity' candidate.

Notwithstanding Mr Martin's preference to support an independent candidate -- Fianna Fail had also sounded out the RTE broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan -- some party sources were yesterday anticipating that Ireland South MEP Brian Crowley would emerge as its candidate.

However, Limerick city TD and the former Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea, last night told the Sunday Independent: "I remain strongly of the view that we should not run a candidate ourselves, but should support an outside candidate.

"It is still my opinion that Fianna Fail should concentrate all of its efforts, and resources, on mounting a formidable campaign in the next local elections, which are not that far away."

In its statement, Fianna Fail sought to portray the position of Mr Martin as that of allowing a candidate with strong public support to contest the presidential election.

It said: "In June, Fianna Fail made it very clear that we believed that potential candidates for the presidency with substantial public support should not be prevented from standing because of the very restrictive nomination process."

However, the official Fianna Fail position does not sit easily with its decision not to facilitate the nomination of independent senator David Norris, who still commands strong public support.

A week to the day after he had been contacted by Mr Martin to be assured of the support of Fianna Fail, should he decide to enter the race, Mr Byrne yesterday announced his decision not to seek a nomination.

"I am relieved it is over. The turmoil has been considerable. This thing was forced on me. I didn't ask for it. I never had any ambition to be President of Ireland," he told the Sunday Independent.

While the possibility of his candidacy had been welcomed by the public -- following the withdrawal of Mr Norris, a nationwide opinion poll showed him favourite to win -- it is clear Mr Byrne was not prepared for the subsequent media onslaught.

Initially he was presented as a "People's President", and was widely accepted as somebody who would be a good President, but also as a candidate not prepared to engage in, or not cut out for, the rough and tumble of a no-holds-barred campaign.

Mr Byrne, 77, who was anxious to be seen as an independent, not a Fianna Fail potential candidate, immediately expressed an opinion that he would not be inclined to travel the length and breadth of the country to canvass support for a nomination.

He had described himself as "absolutely non-political" and said he had never disclosed any political feelings, adding, some felt presumptuously, "and that is why people love me".

His potential candidacy did indeed find favour with the public, but perhaps not quite to the extent that Mr Byrne, and Fianna Fail, would have anticipated.

A Red C poll, for Paddy Power bookmakers, showed Mr Byrne on 28 per cent and Michael D Higgins on 21 per cent.

They were followed by a group of three candidates, Brian Crowley (Fianna Fail), Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael) and the independent Sean Gallagher on 12 to 13 per cent.

Irrespective of the controversy that forced his withdrawal from the nomination process, another significant finding was that 40 per cent of those polled said they would still vote for Mr Norris.

Mr Norris could not be contacted last night to comment on mounting speculation that, in light of the Fianna Fail statement and the latest poll results, he might be tempted to reverse the decision to end his campaign.

Mr Byrne, meanwhile, seemed to revel in the media attention last week and, to all intents and purposes, came across as though he were all but officially in the field.

He was at the opening night of Grease The Musical at the Grand Canal Theatre on Wednesday night, where he was accompanied by businessman Harry Crosbie, a property developer who used the opportunity to announce his intention to hold a fundraising event for the prospective candidate.

It was at this event, however, that Mr Byrne, when asked, also expressed a view that Ireland was being "run by mad people in Brussels".

Within Fianna Fail, the reaction was negative among those who had opposed the policy of the leadership to endorse an independent rather than a Fianna Fail candidate such as Mr Crowley, or former ministers Eamon O Cuiv or Mary Hanafin.

Mr Byrne's apparently "euro-sceptic" views, even though they may chime with a large proportion of the public, served also to further heighten media attention on him as a candidate.

Questions were then raised as to the financial and tax affairs of the broadcaster, who has twice lost considerable sums in investments, most recently when the property crash led to the collapse of the banking system.

Mr Byrne was one of several relatively high-net-worth individuals who were heavily involved with the financier Derek Quinlan at the height of the boom.

The scrutiny reached a climax in the Irish Times on Friday, when columnist Fintan O'Toole described him as "the mere mortal who votes Fianna Fail, hates taxes, thinks Brussels is full of mad people and can get irritated by uppity women".

This weekend, several media outlets were known to be preparing articles for publication on Mr Byrne's life and times, with particular focus on his financial and tax affairs.

The focus of attention had become too much for the broadcaster by Friday night and yesterday morning, as a courtesy, he rang the Fianna Fail leader to announce his decision not to seek a nomination. After he revealed his decision, My Byrne spoke to the Sunday Independent.

"I am not going to be quizzed about this," he said. "I am talking to you because I want to say thank you to the countless people from all over the country who so affected me by their loyalty to me in terms of offering support, money -- everything.

"It was just incredible and quite overwhelming and I will never get a chance to thank them personally."

He added that he made his decision "in consultation with the missus and daughters". He said: "The presidency is not for me at this time. I don't think I am what people are seeking at the moment.

"There are already candidates who want to be President, and there may be more, and for them it is a worthy ambition and I wish them well and tell them to go forward with fortitude and valour."

Asked to elaborate on the reasons behind his decision not to run, Mr Byrne replied: "I am not going into the whys and wherefores... maybe I will in another time or another place."

Sunday Independent

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