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Sunday 25 February 2018

Mitchell did not want to be seen with Kenny

Knives out in FG after vote disaster as thousands welcome Higgins home

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

THE knives were being sharpened last night for Fine Gael bloodletting over the Gay Mitchell debacle as President-elect Michael D Higgins made a triumphant homecoming.

Mr Mitchell's unsuitability as a presidential candidate prompted party figures to scapegoat him for the party's electoral disaster. Following FG's worst presidential campaign, the Irish Independent has learned:

• Mr Mitchell didn't want to be seen with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Ploughing Championships for fear of turning off Fianna Fail voters.

• He frequently ignored the advice of his campaign staff.

•The party began to scale back spending as it became evident he would not win.

•The campaign gambled on the run in being a straight choice between Mr Mitchell and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

•Ministers gave few slots in their diaries to help out.

And Mr Mitchell's decision not to show up for the official declaration of Mr Higgins's victory further enraged colleagues, killing off any sense of sympathy for him.

Mr Kenny is now expected to order a post-mortem into the affair. Labour, on the other hand, has been buoyed by Mr Higgins's win. It is regarded as a boost for the party in government as the Coalition girds itself for a tough five weeks of preparing for the Budget.

Aside from those directly linked with Mr Mitchell's nomination, the blame game is widening, sucking in Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald for nominating him at the convention and former Taoiseach John Bruton for appearing to support his candidacy.

Mr Kenny's decision to stay out of candidate selection when the choice was between Mr Mitchell, Pat Cox and Mairead McGuinness, is now widely viewed as a mistake.

"Kenny probably genuinely stayed out of the whole thing and that was mistake. If he had called the turnips [Fine Gael backbenchers] in, he could have influenced it.

"And if the leadership wanted a candidate, you try to bring people with you -- not just impose somebody on them," a party TD said.

Leaving Mr Kenny to concede defeat for him was viewed as embarrassing for the Taoiseach and the party. "He has done himself huge damage to leave it to the leader to show up for him. He could have come along and redeemed himself. People are absolutely reeling with him. Those who voted for him are mad about it," a minister said.

But Mr Mitchell's entire reason for getting into the race is now being questioned.

"Really I don't think Gay had a plan for this at all. Did he ever show a sign he had the hunger for it?" a campaign source asked.

"We never really got going. Gay Mitchell -- if you told him one thing, he'd do the opposite. As a seasoned politician, he showed a remarkable degree of naivety and he had little feel for the people.

"He didn't want to be seen with him (Enda Kenny) because it would alienate Fianna Fail voters. It was Gay moving away from Kenny, rather than Kenny from Gay."

In the end, Fine Gael strategists curbed their spending on his campaign as it was obvious he wouldn't win.

"We saved a bit in the end. If he was at 20, 21, 22pc, we'd have thrown money at it. We pulled back," a senior campaign source said. "Gay was difficult from every perspective. Campaigning is an enjoyable pursuit. I love elections. I hadn't one good day in this entire campaign. There was no craic with Gay. It was the only campaign which didn't have any spark."

After his 30 years in politics, the campaign tried to get some outside endorsements for Mr Mitchell, but found none were forthcoming.

"Nobody came for Gay. Why? Because he said himself politics is my business and it's a political job. Gay was a sitting parliamentarian in political mode from start to finish. Gay felt this was a serious job."

A minister also told the Irish Independent: "There'll definitely be an analysis after this. Lessons must be learned.

"We can't just move on. There will have to be a report or an inquiry of some sort into this."

"You don't spend all that money and forget about it. We can't just walk away from this," another minister said.

"It has been a car crash. There isn't much of a wreckage. It just belongs to the scrapyard," a senior TD said.

Irish Independent

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