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Saturday 17 March 2018

From euphoria to dismay, how FG campaign became a slow death march

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

It started at a wedding and ended as a funeral procession.

Gay Mitchell's final day of canvassing on Wednesday was a world away from the euphoria surrounding his initial selection as Fine Gael candidate.

Traipsing around a virtually empty St Stephen's Green shopping centre on Wednesday, Mitchell was accompanied by four senators, three party handlers and a dozen Young Fine Gael members.

Unsuspecting random shoppers were outnumbered by 20:1 as they were confronted by the phalanx of Fine Gael campaigners.

But the absence of any high-profile party figures was notable.

The death march of Fine Gael's greatest chance of winning the presidency was a pathetic affair.

Licking its wounds this long weekend, the party will look back five months to the June bank holiday weekend.

On their own 31st wedding anniversary, Gay and Norma Mitchell were at the wedding in Donegal of Fine Gael's Dublin regional organiser Colm Jordan to Alison Hamilton.

At the reception in the Lough Eske Castle Hotel, the Mitchells were sitting with former minister Nora Owen and her husband; Fine Gael TDs Terence Flanagan and Eoghan Murphy; and the party's executive council chairman, Brian Murphy, a former special adviser to Mitchell who now works with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar.


Sitting at adjoining tables were ministers Frances Fitzgerald, Alan Shatter and Brian Hayes and Dublin councillor Neale Richmond, who previously worked as an assistant to the Dublin MEP in Brussels.

At the church, Murphy was overheard being asked by another guest if Mitchell would run for the presidency. "We asked him before and he said no," he replied.

The presidency was in the background of Fine Gael minds as Mairead McGuinness had thrown her hat in the ring, John Bruton ruled himself out and Pat Cox being set to join Fine Gael to seek the nomination was reported that very day.

Over dinner, one of the group passed a unremarkable aside: "Either you, Nora, or you, Gay, should run for president."

"It was a very short conversation. There was no mention of Cox or anybody. It literally was just as casual as that. My recollection is it was said and left," a guest at the wedding said.

The seed was sown.

Mitchell consulted with colleagues in the following days and was in the race before the week was out.

His success five weeks later at the selection convention in the Regency Hotel in Drumcondra, Dublin, had more to do with internal party divisions than selecting the candidate most suited to appeal to the electorate at large.

The defeat of Cox and McGuinness was influenced by loyalty, the lessons of the leadership heave a year earlier and resentment towards party strategists making local decisions.

Mitchell's cause became a rallying call for those who refused to be told what to do. The party's backbenchers were disparagingly classified as "the turnips" who go along with the dictates of the hierarchy and "the parsnips" who rebelled against authority.

He got the backing of a series of high-ranking figures in the party, including Shatter, Fitzgerald, junior ministers Brian Hayes and Lucinda Creighton, and backbenchers Flanagan, Murphy, Dan Neville, Catherine Byrne, Andrew Doyle, John Deasy, Brian Walsh, Derek Keating and Alan Farrell.

Also among his supporters were Paul Bradford, Billy Timmins and senator John-Paul Phelan.

Cox's imposition on the party was the subject of a passionate grassroots backlash, while McGuinness got caught in the crossfire.

The Ireland East MEP appeared to have the nomination in the bag, but let it slip in the closing stages.

A mildly racy joke during her speech at the convention was the final straw as she visibly lost support in the room.

In the days before the convention, the party hierarchy began quietly circulating the results of polling data showing Mitchell would be the worst of the three candidates to put in the field.

Fine Gael headquarters had research conducted by its US political consultants, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, as well as a well-known Irish polling company.

But the figures were interpreted as an underhand effort to keep Mitchell off the pitch and came too late.

Blinded by loyalty, the bulk of newly elected TDs swung in behind him too and Mitchell won the support of TDs, senators, councillors and national executive members.

"People with sore heads and unsuspecting new deputies who weren't there long enough to understand they got a significant level of centre-ground support in the general election to fix the economy made the decision.

"This is a wake up call for people in the Fine Gael parliamentary party that the hard won gains of February 2011 shouldn't be taken for granted," a senior minister said.

Once Mitchell was selected, there was no second phase to the plan.

A party divided over his candidacy failed to unite behind him and put together any sort of coherent campaign.

Fine Gael lost €700,000 on their worst presidential election ever, reduced to an abject 6pc of the poll.

The blame game will see those who were on the wrong side of the botched heave against Kenny being singled out. Mitchell's original supporters, in turn, blame the party hierarchy for running a poor campaign.

"The rebels can't turn around and blame everybody else. They'll be laughed at," a minister said.

To compound matters yesterday, Fine Gael also recorded a dreadful result in the Dublin West by-election.

Banking on a celebrity candidate, which never emerged, the party dithered in the selection of its name on the ballot paper.

In a shock decision, rather than selecting general election candidate Cllr Kieran Dennison, the local party activists opted for Cllr Eithne Loftus, who lacked the dynamism to challenge a predominantly young list of candidates.

Dennison went into the convention believed to be five votes ahead and yet lost by five votes.

Instead, the party membership made a decision based on geography, which backfired quite badly.

Varadkar, as the Dublin West TD and cabinet minister, had the finger of blame pointed at him. The accusation he will face is he didn't want competition on his patch.

"I presume Leo decided that," a senior colleague said.

"If Leo wanted to win the by-election, we could have won it. He could have ensured the right candidate was on the ticket. There was no one above Leo in the party getting involved in the selection," a party source said.

Rounding off a bad weekend for the party, the prospect of a defeat for the Oireachtas powers referendum will be attributed to arrogant and amateurish political handling.

Irish Independent

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