Friday 22 March 2019

Fury at Lee coup by FG as Cowen faces poll hit

Senan Molony and Jason O'Brien

FINE GAEL yesterday pulled off a major by-election stroke after signing up RTE celebrity George Lee as a candidate -- amid huge acrimony over his departure.

RTE bosses were forced to deny there was any "bias" in his reporting and were left red-faced after repeatedly denying that their economics editor was thinking about running for Enda Kenny's party in Dublin South.

But the coup puts Mr Kenny's party in a strong position to now win both seats in the Dublin by-elections and heaps greater pressure on Taoiseach Brian Cowen's government.

Ironically, Mr Lee's ann-ouncement came on the day when the latest figures from the Department of Finance showed tax receipts down almost a quarter from a year earlier. The latest exchequer returns revealed a deficit of €7.3bn for the first four months of this year.

The prospects of a national recovery plan being agreed also appeared slim, with unions expressing frustration at the lack of response from the Government.

RTE bosses were shocked at yesterday's development as they believed Mr Lee's rebuttals of speculation on his intentions, while Fianna Fail claimed he should not have been allowed to comment on political and economic matters when he had a vested interest.

Mr Lee's unveiling as a candidate in Dublin South came after weeks of speculation. He was immediately installed as a favourite to win the seat.


The station's 46-year-old economics editor was a vocal critic of the Government's economic policies and was particularly scathing in commentary about the taxpayer having to bail out the banks.

Mr Lee's move is highly embarrassing for RTE as the national broadcaster flatly denied he was running last weekend.

"He is not in any shape or form considering standing for Fine Gael," a spokeswoman said on Saturday.

But Mr Lee said yesterday he had left his phone behind last weekend as he went away to mull matters over with his family.

It emerged yesterday that senior RTE management took the decision as a "mammoth shock" and with "a certain degree of anger" because he had consistently rebutted the suggestion of a political interest for the past number of months.

Mr Lee only told his immediate bosses at 12.30pm -- immediately before going on RTE Radio 1's 'News at One' -- where he was tackled by presenter Sean O'Rourke as to whether he had been completely open on the matter.

Mr Lee said he had only seriously been considering a run since the emergency Budget. "Until this week there was nothing to know. I don't need you or anybody else in RTE to tell me what my future is," he said.

Mr Lee challenged his listeners to find any bias in his work over the years, and also revealed:

  • He expects never to return to RTE, despite officially taking leave of absence;
  • He was initially approached up to two months ago;
  • He considered running for FG in 2002, but wasn't asked in 2007;
  • He has done 'no deal' with FG for a frontbench position if he wins the seat.

Fine Gael's hierarchy was confidently predicting for the past month that they had a high-profile candidate from outside the party ready to be announced. But rather than being confronted by RTE about widespread rumours, Mr Lee continued to comment on the Government's economic policies. During this time, Mr Lee analysed the emergency Budget, discussed the setting up of NAMA and presented a programme called 'How we Blew the Boom'.

Fianna Fail sources were angered by RTE management's handling of the situation and for allowing Mr Lee continued airtime instead of so-called "gardening leave".

A Fianna Fail backbencher claimed RTE had been misled over Mr Lee's intentions. Chris Andrews said RTE had issued statements denying Mr Lee was to pursue a political career.

"They should have checked with him. I would expect that they did check with him. Clearly RTE have been misled."

Mr Andrews also questioned Mr Lee's credibility as an "impartial national commentator" in light of his decision to seek a FG nomination.

"Over the past number of months George Lee has consistently attacked the Government on its economic policies," he said.

Mr Lee is now quoted at 10/1 to become finance minister within two years of the next general election.

The first obstacle though, is the Dublin South by-election, where Mr Lee is 1/2 on favourite, followed by Labour's Alex White at 6/4 and Fianna Fail's Shay Brennan at 10/1.

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