Tuesday 22 May 2018

The day Garret got off his battle bus to buy rashers

In this election campaign, leaders blitz towns and villages, hardly able to draw breath. Our Parliamentary Correspondent remembers a different time

On the road: John Downing (far right, sitting) on Garrett's battle bus.
On the road: John Downing (far right, sitting) on Garrett's battle bus.
John Downing

John Downing

When Garret FitzGerald's election battle bus stopped opposite the Royal Hotel in Killarney, I wrongly assumed that I was the only one who had opted to stay on board.

The outgoing Taoiseach was going into a butcher's shop opposite the hotel to buy rashers, all to oblige the local photographers. As it turned out, the frequently impractical Garret made very heavy weather of the transaction, and needed his minders' help to negotiate questions about green, smoked, streaky or back?

But the Taoiseach got through it and, crucially, the photographers got their election trail snap.

The butcher's shop was run by one of his Kerry South Dáil candidates who actually sold his would-be boss the rashers - and hence the point of the photograph.

I was sitting towards the back of the bus, struggling in vain to write a report of Garret's earlier comments about changes to the VAT regime, which were contested by the business community, but then, as now, a deep mystery to almost everyone else. It was at this point that I heard the disgusted tut-tutting and realised I was not the only one still on the bus.

In fact, the sitting Fine Gael TD for Kerry South, the late Michael Begley of Dingle, had opted to sit this one out, too. Now he was looking out at Garret's rasher-buying charade with a sardonic grin.

"Sure, I suppose he'll sell a few extra pounds a meat anyway... if nothing else," Deputy Begley loudly opined - not caring for a second whether his comment would be reported or otherwise.

It was the February 1987 election and this writer's first lesson from the election battle bus. It definitively confirmed the old maxim about political rivals being in different parties - but political enemies being in the same party.

The butcher, Denis Sheahan, was on the Fine Gael ticket as "sweeper" in the south of the constituency to bring the party vote out, and ensure Deputy Begley's election. But there was always the suspicion in these situations that the "sweeper" could morph into the front-runner.

Garret appeared to like the battle bus - or at very least his handlers felt a benefit in espousing public transport. In an earlier election he had made a great show of trying to travel the country by train, a challenge in itself.

He spared a lot of time to philosophise publicly for journalists and attempt, with some success, to charm the junior reporters assigned to travel the highways and byways with him. Garret's didactic side came out on these occasions, with long impromptu explanations about technical points of statistics and economics.

His bus sojourns revealed many of his foibles to a public who generally accepted them as part of his cuddly, vague, professor-like persona. At one stage, many citizens, especially across other counties, even forgave him not knowing the Cork county GAA colours, something which emerged when he blithely asked why there were so many red-and-white flags along the roadside.

But the battle bus also involved endless hours of tedium. In fact, "rasher-gate" was the highlight of very long journeying around Kerry that particular day.

The downside for a reporter was that the principal politician, anchoring the bus, often disappeared into a limousine, or even a helicopter, to cram in more and more meetings, making the joins in a schedule which would have challenged Padre Pio's powers of bi-location. While the political "stars" could duck and dive, the car-less journalist was a prisoner on the bus often just looking out at the rain.

In those days, Charlie Haughey wouldn't be seen dead on a bus. His favoured mode of transport was a high-powered car, followed by a posse of photographers in another high-powered car. Charlie kept a keen backward eye on the snappers, who often signalled a quick stop for an opportune photograph.

The battle bus was really more about presidential campaigns rather than general elections. And Fianna Fáil's Erskine Childers made famous good use of his bus way back in 1973. Between big-town visits, he used the time to hone and practise his many speeches.

Then, as they drove through small villages, his driver would call out: "To your right, Mr Childers," or "To your left, Mr Childers". And the future president would raise his arm like an automaton to wave, without taking his eye off his written work for a split second.

If you are curious about the epilogue to "rasher-gate": Garret lost to his nemesis Haughey in February 1987. Michael Begley, who served as TD from 1969 to 1989, held the third seat with 15pc of the vote, while his party rival Sheahan got just 3pc, and returned to his butcher business.

John Downing is Parliamentary Correspondent

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