Duffy's circus: The power couple with eyes on the prize
With their considerable communications savvy, Dragons' Den star Gavin Duffy and his wife Orlaith Carmody are sure to deliver a slick campaign to dethrone President Michael D Higgins. John Meagher considers their chances
On Monday, shortly after Gavin Duffy appeared on Morning Ireland to talk about his ambitions to be the next President of Ireland, the Oscar-winning director Lenny Abrahamson took to social media to have his say on the matter.
"Apparently Gavin Duffy thinks Michael D talks to people's heads while he wants to talk to their hearts," he tweeted. "I know what part of me this self-promoting reality TV business guy can talk to."
The pithy tweet was 'liked' more than 1,000 times and was one of a multitude to put the boot in to Duffy this week. Some, keen to show their support for President Higgins, who is seeking a second term, used the hashtag #keepthepoet - a reference to his strong associations with arts and culture.
If Duffy - now best known as the longest serving investor on RTÉ's Dragons' Den - was wounded by the online brickbats, he's doing a good job not showing it.
"If you're active on Twitter," he says, speaking to Review on Thursday morning while en route to the Galway Races, "you realise that it's sometimes best not to dignify [the most confrontational tweets] with a response, but that's part of the process I'm in now.
"I really don't take it personally. You have to be in the campaign to realise how resilient you're going to be or not and, over the past few days, myself and my wife, Orlaith, have found that we're resilient."
The pair have had to be resilient. Besides jibes about his role on Dragons' Den, Duffy has had to explain his associations with and defence of hunting as well as clarify allegations that he had offered advice to disgraced ex-Anglo boss Seán FitzPatrick.
"It's been a hectic five days," he says, "and, to be honest, I expected it. I believe every potential candidate should be scrutinised and obviously the same goes for me."
Some feel that those who have sought election have been unfairly pilloried. Duffy's Dragons' Den colleague, businessman Barry O'Sullivan, came to his defence during the week when he tweeted: "Great to have you in the race Gavin. Ignore the haters. We should never make the mistake of thinking that Twitter (especially Irish Twitter) represents the real world."
And ex-politician Lucinda Creighton wrote that Irish public life was being coarsened by the "sneering" towards those who have expressed their intention to contest the presidency.
Duffy himself was drawn into the debate when responding to a tweet - "Lord given me the confidence of a mediocre white man" - from Rebecca Moynihan, a Dublin-based Labour councillor. "Can I just say to anyone considering running for public office," he replied, "confidence will only get you into the race, courage sustains you but conviction is essential."
Duffy is indeed confident that he can secure the support of four county councils needed for formal nomination but acknowledges that the more potential candidates who put themselves forward, the more difficult that is.
Still, he has already done much work to secure those nominations.
He says he and Orlaith "scoped" nine councils nationwide - including Waterford, to which he spoke at length on Tuesday - and he says he believes four of them will endorse him. "It's clear to me," he says, "that the councillors I have spoken to around the country want an election and for democracy to take its place."
Duffy was an intrigued observer during the last presidential campaign in 2011, not least because his then colleague on Dragons' Den, Seán Gallagher, came very close to winning the contest. And he is aware of how nasty such campaigns have got. He says he is prepared for whatever is thrown at him, but insists it's not his style to fling mud.
He has been careful this week not to make a play on President's Higgins's age - Michael D is 77 now - but he believes that the current incumbent in the Áras is not above the sort of questioning that he himself anticipates being subjected to.
Does he mean specific aspects of Higgins' tenure? "It's not for me to direct anybody," he says, after a pause. "There's nothing that stands out specifically to me but when I was making the point, I was referring to the mainstream media and how they're going to handle the debates, etc.
"We know the character of President Higgins but we do have to ask what his plans for his second term, as we'd ask what are my plans for my first term."
Duffy was born in Co Kildare in 1960, but spent his formative years and most of his adulthood in Louth. He established a pirate radio station while in his teens and his broadcasting talents secured him a job in RTÉ. He was just 24 when he became one of the first presenters of Morning Ireland and he also co-hosted the station's first business television programme, Marketplace.
Excited by the emergence of local radio, he left RTÉ in 1989 and was awarded the licence for a new station for counties Louth and Meath, LMFM. He later sold it to UTV for €11m.
He also established a media training consultancy, coaching some of the country's political and business leaders in the task of handling awkward questions.
He met Orlaith through LMFM. She had joined as producer in its infancy and would later work as a reporter for RTÉ.
Orlaith Carmody had been widowed while still in her 20s. Her husband Kieran was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour while she was 25 and he died three years later.
Last year, she told the Sunday Independent that when they married, Gavin suggested she include some of the stones from her old engagement ring into their new wedding ring because "Kieran is coming with us".
She told the same newspaper that he had suggested marriage to her before they had even started dating. "It was very much his personality, larger than life," she said.
"I was shocked; is he joking, is he serious? I was grieving still, it was very new to me. We were working around the clock together and when someone is always there, it's intense. He began to rely on me. I was edging my way into his life without meaning to."
After they were married they had four children - three boys and a girl - within five years. Three of them are in college now but the oldest, Lorcan, will be helping with the campaign.
Duffy says Orlaith is fundamental to his bid to be president. "I want to be very active in this campaign," she tells Review. "When people talked to Gavin about going for it, I saw myself as part of that something seeking to create a new, dynamic presidency that Gavin is talking about.
"I see myself not just as a very strong supporter of Gavin, but also somebody who has worked with him side by side.
"A president is only one person and they can only get to so many places in the country, and it would be a pleasure and a delight for me to go and fulfil a function if the president couldn't do it and if they were happy for me to do it."
He adds that there is currently "no official role" for what she is referring to, but should her husband get a nomination and be elected, she is adamant that she would take her role as 'First Lady' very seriously. She also acknowledges that some will see it as "counter-intuitive" for her to be willing to step into a secondary role when one considers the work she has done in recent years to encourage women to stand for election. As a professional communicator, Duffy certainly talks a good game although he feels that being a media trainer is not necessarily an advantage if he finds himself in the firing line. It's well and good to offer advice, he reasons, but it's a different situation when you, yourself, becomes the story.
But does he have what it takes? Some of those who know him well suggest he will be up for the fight, although dislodging a very popular president will be no easy task.
One figure who has worked in the worlds of politics, public relations and the media, has mixed views on Duffy's chances. "He can be very funny, very able and very entertaining. I've seen him have rooms of business people in the palm of his hands and he'd be very well versed in the dark arts of middle management.
Part of the establishment
"But he's seen by many to be part of the establishment. He would have advised both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and he's the sort of person that would be on the speed-dial of every CEO in the country in the event of a crisis. And being in the midst of that sort of power may not be appealing for some voters, who might consider him to be 'more of the same'.
"And he's had a shaky enough start since announcing his intention to seek a nomination. But so too did Seán Gallagher - he had a poor start and finish but he was very strong in the middle of the campaign and people forget about that."
The commentator believes there are aspects of his communication he could work on. "He has this annoying verbal tick of saying 'etc' all the time," he says. "He'll have to learn to take his own advice."
Another communications industry source who has known Duffy for years believes he can be a formidable candidate, but there's a caveat. "He needs to lose his haughtiness," he says, "and I'm sure he'll try to in this campaign, but he can come across badly sometimes.
"Gavin has a cocksure self-belief that is exactly the sort of attitude you need when advising business leaders and politicians, or when you're entertaining a room of high achievers, but it can be a bit off-putting when you're trying to connect with ordinary members of the public. I think you'll see Orlaith playing a big part of all of this. She's a superb communicator and has a lighter touch than he does, and I'm certain she'll be part of the story once the campaign really gets going."
Another, who worked with RTÉ during his days as presenter of Morning Ireland and of its first television business show, Marketplace, says Duffy's presidential aspirations suggest his ambition is as intact as it always was. "I think Gavin was a very good broadcaster, someone who could get to the heart of a story quickly, but something that was very apparent even in his mid-20s was how ambitious he was.
"There was always the sense that he was always looking for the next way to advance his career or to try new things, and he did that. Whenever I'd meet him in the years afterwards, I was struck by how keen he was not to sit still. Maybe that's what really makes an entrepreneur. There's a drive there that you don't find in many and I really don't think he'd have put his hat in this particular ring if he didn't think he had a good chance of getting the gig."
And what a gig.
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