Friday 30 September 2016

When Avril and Mairéad fought tooth and nail...


Published 11/12/2012 | 14:10

When Jim O'Brien answered his mobile phone early on Monday, May 31, 2004, he immediately recognised the voice of Phil Hogan, who had a very simple message which brooked no discussion.

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'Get those f**king posters down. And get them down before f**king lunchtime,' Hogan blasted. O'Brien was director of elections for Mairead McGuinness's European Parliament campaign, which ran from March to June 2004. Both the director of elections and the candidate were journalists and fully appreciated that there was no avoiding the 'cat fight' story of McGuinness versus Doyle.

For the five-year term 1999-2004, Avril Doyle had been the Fine Gael MEP for the four-seat constituency of Leinster, which comprised all that province's counties except Dublin. It was bad enough that the newly named East constituency had been reduced to just three seats for the 2004 elections - now, thanks to Enda Kenny and advisors Hogan and Frank Flannery, Doyle had to live with a bigname running mate.

Mairead McGuinness had a very high profile as farming editor of the Irish Independent and presenter of the RTE rural affairs television show, Ear to the Ground. Kenny found that her addition to the European ticket had hugely boosted party morale - she had offers from the Progressive Democrats, who had successfully recruited Irish Farmers' Association leader Tom Parlon to take a Dail seat in May 2002.

Kenny was even more enthused by the 'Avril versus Mairead' stories, which dominated news reports in an otherwise slow campaign. It was a colour writer's dream. Lines such as 'Designer handbags at 100 paces', 'political catfight' and ' horseboxes drawn' overwhelmed more worthy commentaries about trivialising women politicians and avoiding the real European issues.

For Kenny and his back-room team it was simple: friction meant publicity and publicity meant votes. But keeping a lid on a furiously boiling pot was easier said than done.

The geography was perfect. McGuinness was based in the north of the constituency on the Meath-Louth border; Doyle was in the far south, in Wexford. The only thing each side could agree on was that Meath was off limits to Doyle and Wexford was off limits to McGuinness. Well, that was the theory, but there was controversy in April 2004 when Doyle's portable electronic advertisement was placed outside Fairyhouse Racecourse in Co Meath.

McGuinness's supporters covered the electronic hoarding with their candidate's posters. But some were keen to take the matter further. In late May 2004, two weeks from polling day, the McGuinness camp got new posters and her more robust and renegade supporters were keen to display them everywhere - including Wexford. The Doyle camp, many of whom had warned Kenny they would abandon Fine Gael if his strategy lost their woman her seat, were absolutely enraged.

Phil Hogan, national director of elections, had to take swift action. His blunt message to McGuinness's director of elections, Jim O'Brien, was accompanied by a warning that the party's HQ personnel would take down the offending posters in Wexford if necessary. But both O'Brien and Hogan were undoubtedly also pleased with the showing the invading posters got in the newspapers the next day.

Over the following days, opinion polls suggested that the unthinkable was possible and that both Doyle and McGuinness just might win, giving Fine Gael two out of three seats in that East Euro constituency.

Throughout the other three constituencies, the poll findings were also good for Kenny's Fine Gael. It was the very first inkling of a Kenny revival.

In Dublin, Gay Mitchell, a strong vote-getter in elections over the previous two decades, was going very well. The same was true of JimHiggins in Connacht-Ulster, now renamed North West and with Clare taken from the former Munster constituency, and Simon Coveney in Munster, now newly named South. Kenny was very closely associated with all these candidate choices.

Over two years, Kenny's criss-cross tours of the country included meeting after meeting with councillors, local constituency officers and prospective candidates, all focused on the June 2004 local council elections. Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran and party strategist Frank Flannery interviewed every single candidate. Enda Kenny showed an ability to delegate and empower people to get on with the job. His predecessor, John Bruton, was remembered as someone who tended to micromanage and sometimes meddle.

'Kenny would say to you: 'Get on with it. That's your job. But for God's sake don't have it landing back on my desk.' He had an ability to indicate from time to time that he was keeping tabs by asking a key question,' onemember of his Dail front bench revealed.

The Irish Independent headline on Monday, June 14, 2004, read 'Bertie's Blackest Day'. The Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats coalition had suffered a serious reverse, with the combined loss of 20 per cent of their council seats, both city and county. Sinn Fein gained 33 seats, bringing them to 55 councillors in total.

But the big winner of those council elections in 2004 was Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. The party gained 16 council seats and stood at just 11 seats behind Fianna Fail, with a total of 293 councillors across the country. And the really good headline-grabbing news came for Kenny and his party in the European Parliament contest.

They beat Fianna Fail in a nationwide election for the very first time in almost 80 years. Five of the six candidates they fielded were elected; they were finally ahead of Fianna Fail, who had four MEPs.

Avril Doyle was elected to the last of the Republic of Ireland's 13 European Parliament seats just after 1 a.m. on Tuesday, June 15, 2004. She would join her constituency rival, Mairead McGuinness, along with Gay Mitchell, Simon Coveney and Jim Higgins.

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