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Thursday 22 March 2018

Martin to challenge Kenny over spin doctor 'Ursula assault' claim

MEDIA STORM: Enda Kenny with Fergal Purcell
MEDIA STORM: Enda Kenny with Fergal Purcell

John Drennan and Maeve Sheehan

OPPOSITION leader Micheal Martin will challenge Enda Kenny in the Dail this week to outline the full circumstances behind the embarrassing furore over a complaint made by the Taoiseach's staff about TV3's political editor.

The so-called "flowergate" controversy erupted at a chaotic press conference last week where the Taoiseach almost fell over a flower pot while trying to evade questions by the station's respected journalist Ursula Halligan.

Afterwards, TV3 was contacted with claims that Ms Halligan was guilty of ''leading a charge'' on Mr Kenny that was ''tantamount to assault''.

It is understood that relations between the Government's press handlers and Ms Halligan soured in the wake of a light-hearted and benign report she broadcast at a function where the Taoiseach appeared to briefly rest his eyes.

The Fianna Fail leader, Mr Martin, has ratcheted up the controversy by slamming the treatment of the award- winning journalist and by promising to prioritise the issue in the Dail next week.

Mr Martin told the Sunday Independent that what happened to Ms Halligan, who had been ''legitimately pursuing the Taoiseach over his views on gay marriage'', was ''shocking''. He said it was ''crystal clear a serious wrong was done to her'' and warned that he would be pursuing Mr Kenny on the issue in the Dail next week.

Mr Martin said he intends to ask Mr Kenny to clarify whether he instructed his advisers to write a letter of complaint to TV3. He said such an action would ''flow into a pattern where this Government's prime objective is to control the news agenda''.

Mr Martin, who was a government minister for 14 years, said that ''it is obvious that relationships can be difficult between politicians and the media". He noted that last week represented ''a new and unhealthy development'' where the Government had ''gone behind Ms Halligan's back'' and left her in ''real danger of facing public opprobrium'' with a claim of assaulting the Taoiseach.

Mr Martin added that the events of the week were ''part of a wider strategy to control the media, it is an outworking of a consistent refusal to do interviews''.

Mr Martin's determination to ''bring clarity to this situation on the floor of the Dail next week'' is unlikely to please Mr Kenny.

As rumours swirled of a ''major domestic tiff'' between Mr Kenny and his advisers on the matter, the Taoiseach was in distinctly subdued form at a press conference last Friday to announce a major investment from the EIB into Irish infrastructures.

Though Mr Kenny did not answer questions on the matter last week, the Government's embarrassment over the affair was clearly displayed by sympathetic comments from Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin to Ms Halligan at a subsequent press conference.

Outside of Mr Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, the ministers are the two most powerful in the Government.

Other top-level sources noted that "Ursula simply isn't the sort of person to behave in that manner".

Another senior Fine Gael figure said it was a case of ''over-reaction on a mad scale'' and added that ''Ursula Halligan hardly looks like a threat to the physical integrity of the Taoiseach''.

Witnesses claimed that the main aggressor in the chaotic melee was Mr Kenny's chief adviser, Mark Kennelly.

One source said "after the Taoiseach fell over the flower pot and an accompanying camera tripod'' Mr Kennelly came ''racing out of nowhere shouting 'step back, step back, step back' and started effectively shouldering her (Ms Halligan)".

They said ''the whole thing lasted two minutes and Kennelly was doing the I'll shoulder you out of the way, I'll make it hard for you thing. He seemed to think he was Michael Caine in Zulu holding off the hordes but there was no need''.

Such was the vigour with which Mr Kennelly defended his leader that he made physical contact with two other journalists, one of whom also had to tell the enraged spin-doctor to ''back off''.

Other witnesses also described how the adviser, who earns €168,000 a year, had acted ''like a rugby player about to tackle someone".

In contrast, the source added, the Government press secretary, Fergal Purcell, merely asked: ''Folks, can we have a bit of decorum here, please.''

Nonetheless, Mr Purcell sent a formal letter of complaint to the political correspondents slamming their ''unacceptable behaviour".

Mr Purcell, said that ''as the Taoiseach's representative I am informing you there is no excuse for this unnecessarily aggressive approach".

He added: ''Put simply, the collective behaviour of the journalists'' who had forced Mr Kenny ''to take several steps backwards to avoid being pushed'' was ''disgraceful''.

It is expected Mr Purcell will get a tart response. One senior figure noted that ''if this is an attempt to have Ms Halligan fixed or soften her cough it won't work''.

Mr Purcell this weekend told the Sunday Independent: "A formal complaint has been lodged with a representative of the press correspondent groups in relation to a doorstep held outside the National Library last Wednesday. A response to that complaint is expected in due course."

He said rejected claims of a hostile relationship with journalists. "There has been and as far as I am determined will continue to be open, transparent and positive relationship between the media and the Government."

However the episode is also likely to increase the unhappiness within all echelons of the Fine Gael party over what is seen as Mr Kenny's excessive dependence on a small coterie of advisers.

Mr Kennelly, a former adviser to Michael Lowry, is regarded as being particularly influential.

"When it comes to the court of Enda he is the gate-keeper, anyone who wants to see Enda has to get past him first," said a Fine Gael figure.

Another figure claimed: ''Kennelly isn't gifted but he makes Kenny feel safe, he's the rottweiler that protects the Taoiseach from the outside world."

A Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research phone poll showed 66 per cent of respondents believed the media scrum showed Mr Kenny's media handlers had become "over protective" of him.

Sunday Independent

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