Voters know Mitchell very well -- after a quick Google search
Published 08/10/2011 | 05:00
Gay Mitchell knows Ballina. The question was whether Ballina would want to know Gay Mitchell.
As the opinion polls make clear, the Fine Gael candidate's campaign is going up in flames, and there is rising fear among the party hierarchy that the damage caused by the conflagration could spread -- incinerating anyone who comes in contact with it.
Mitchell himself remains outwardly calm, apparently confident that he can mount a fightback, salvaging his own dignity and that of his party.
However, there is no denying he has a serious identity problem. Since he snatched his party's nomination against the odds and the wishes of the leadership, he has criss-crossed the nation with the express intention of allowing voters get to know him.
The strategy has backfired badly. People who knew little about Mitchell six months ago now evidently believe they have sufficient information to discount his claims to the presidency.
His only remaining hope is to galvanise some of Fine Gael's core vote. Hence the importance placed on yesterday's visit to Mayo West. This is Enda Kenny country, a constituency where Fine Gael has the unique distinction of holding four out of five seats. If Mitchell can't make a decent impression here, he can't do it anywhere.
So how did he do? Well, so-so. In Ballina, Mitchell is both a bona fide superstar and a fully-fledged nobody, a politician who turns heads yet also incites a widespread shrugging of shoulders. Among Fine Gael loyalists, he is treated like royalty.
Outside the fold, however, reaction is much cooler. Many of the regular civilians Mitchell encountered did not know who he is. And some of those who did recognise him weren't entirely sure why. "Are you a Mitchell brother?" he was asked more than once.
The first port of call was The Broken Jug, a busy pub and restaurant. Mitchell expertly worked the lunchtime crowd before repairing to a function room where a sizeable group of Fine Gael councillors and party activists gathered for tea, sandwiches and a pep talk. Among the throng was a less than dynamic group of Young Fine Gaelers in yellow T-shirts.
Michelle Mulherin, the local TD who hosted the Ballina visit, attempted to rally the troops but there was an oddly apologetic quality to her speech. "Forget the hype," she said, turning to Mitchell, "we're very proud of you."
Mitchell opened his address by asserting his close links to Ballina: he has holidayed in the area, he explained, and attended a wedding at a local hotel. Then, he cut to the chase. "Just. Turn. Out. The. Fine. Gael. Vote," he declared, with vehement emphasis. "Focus on that, nothing else."
Mitchell became extremely animated, almost emotional, when talking about Ireland's economic troubles, and the need for a president who understands those challenges.
He pointed to the Young Fine Gaelers. "One of them is my son," he said. "He was in Australia last year and I don't want him going back to Australia. I don't want our kids leaving the country." The son is Eoin, a 24-year-old. Further information was not forthcoming, however, as Eoin grew coy when approached by the Irish Independent. "I can't talk because. . . I can't," he explained.
On the streets, Mitchell Snr's decades of canvassing experience became obvious as he darted through Ballina at a dizzying pelt, leaving the local councillors and activists in his wake.
At one point, he broke away so he could schmooze a line of drivers at a taxi rank.
As Mitchell and his team boarded their campaign bus and left town, I asked one of the taxi-men what he'd made of his chat with Mitchell.
"He looks great for a man pushing 60," said the driver. "He obviously hasn't abused himself -- even with all those years as an MEP."
And all this was gleaned from a quick meet-and-greet? "Not at all -- I had no idea who he was," said the taxi-man. "I googled him after I shook his hand."