Presidential hopeful Sean Gallagher: RTÉ payout money is there for my kids' education
The presidential candidate wants to lead by example for his daughter who suffers from the same eye condition, writes Niamh Horan
He is the man who was almost President. Nearly one million people watched as Sean Gallagher floundered live on air, while trying to answer a question on fundraising for Fianna Fail, with hoots echoing from the audience on RTE's Frontline presidential debate.
The former Dragons' Den investor successfully complained to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) that the question arose from an allegation on a fake Twitter account. He also won an apology and substantial damages in court against RTE after he sought a declaration that the programme was unfairly edited, presented and directed in order to damage his electoral prospects.
Now seven years on, and back for another shot at the presidency, he describes the aftermath of that car crash moment.
"When it was over, things began to sink in," he says.
A meeting with his campaign team at the end of the 2011 race was "the first time in most of my adult life that I was properly emotional". He "shed a tear".
Then came the silence. "My phone did not ring for 18 months, apart from family and friends. I had fallen somewhere between politics and business… and for whatever reason, nobody ever reached out."
During that time, he replayed the programme in his mind. "I went over it countless times every day for months. What could I have said? What should I have said?"
Venturing out didn't help. "Every time I met people, whether it was in a taxi or walking down the street, people would come over to me and say 'I'm really sorry for you, that was terribly unfair...why didn't you say….' But of course that's hindsight."
Today for the first time, he cites his congenital cataracts as part of a sequence of events that led to his downfall on the night. He explains how light can temporarily blind him.
"The environment was a challenge," he says. "When I'm standing in a studio with lights on me, people sometimes say, 'Sean, you're not your natural-looking self'. It's because the lights are blinding me.
"That night I was standing there at the podium, which was stainless steel and the reflection was like staring into the sun. I had to ask somebody for sheets of paper to put on it. But I should have physically changed that environment. If you can imagine, there's seven candidates, the audience is booing and hissing because I'm in the front. There were lots of issues around it."
He says the incident occurred at a time when he struggled to ask for help with the challenges caused by his disability. "I never wanted to be defined by it so I always focused on what I could do."
Unable to read small print, for example, in the last campaign, he memorised speeches rather than allow himself to be seen working his way through reams of pages in giant text. This time around, he has surrendered that control and acceded to scripting.
"I was not being true to who I was," he says.
He realised that if he wasn't open enough to admit his own limitations, then how could he join the conversation about recognising the challenges people with disabilities face.
Now he says: "If I am delivering a 10-minute speech in 30pt size [the print size he can read]... I have a speech of 33 pages."
His new approach is paying off. "I am more comfortable and I can perform to the best of my ability, but I am also educating everybody in the room."
Asked why he felt the need to hide his limitations, he says they made him feel vulnerable.
"You feel inadequate that somebody would think less of you... but it's changed this time." The change was apparent when he did his first interview for this campaign.
"The cameras would normally interview you outside the council building and I had to explain to the crew that that was not comfortable for me, because I would struggle with the glare from the sun."
Comments he has heard, in his adult years, highlight the need for education around disability: "During my first ever TV appearance, I overheard somebody say: 'Who's the guy with the Cavan accent with the squinty eyes who looks like he's trying to remember where he left his car keys?'"
On another occasion, a newspaper editor said: "Sean thinks he's cool walking around the city in sunglasses." Yet he relies on these for his sight. "It's not that anybody would mean anything, it's just lack of awareness."
Now he says he is changing his attitude for the sake of his two-year-old daughter, Lucy. He reveals for the first time that she was born with the same condition as her father. Her birth forced Gallagher to ask himself: "What example will I be setting for Lucy if I am not prepared to clear the path for her, so she doesn't have to pretend that she doesn't face challenges?"
"It is my job to make sure Lucy has self-esteem and unconditional love, irrespective of any limitations she might have," he says, adding: "You can't protect her from people who might make comments if she can't see properly or if she is squinting in the light - like I have done most of my life...the challenge is to make her strong in herself."
The fact that their young children will be subjected to the harsh reality of a presidential campaign was at the forefront of Trish Gallagher's mind when Sean told her he wanted to run again. He says she was "emotional" and in "shock" when he initially broke the news. "It took her a couple of weeks to get her head around it."
Her first response was: "How will it impact on our children?"
But Sean is adamant that he is running again so that he can be a role model for his children. "If you believe in something, if you want to make a difference then you've to put yourself out there... that's the best example I can set my kids."
One criticism put by his critics is this: In the seven years since Sean ran for office, Ireland has gone through monumental social change; throughout it all, he was nowhere to be seen. So what happened?
"I became a father which is probably the biggest change in my life," he says.
He then gives a long list of things that consumed his attention. He cites successfully fighting for a new law to protect subcontractors in the property industry, his case against RTE in Dublin's High Court, writing his column with the Sunday Independent, becoming a father and setting up a new business.
But I bring him back to the major social issues, issues from which he has nothing to gain personally by working on. One by one, we go through marriage equality, the Repeal campaign, opposition to Irish Water and the homelessness crisis.
Did he actively campaign on any of these? One by one he concedes, "No, I didn't actively campaign....I can't campaign on every issue."
He says he cannot reveal how much he won from RTE because the damages are bound by a confidentiality agreement.
Asked what he did with the money he says: "The money is there for my kids' education."
What is most notable about Sean, however, is something that happens as the interview wraps up. Several times, when asked if he would rule out running in another presidential campaign, he refuses to be drawn on the matter. Despite numerous opportunities, he won't rule it out. He wants to focus on the campaign at hand.
And so in the next five weeks, he will fight for a cause he believes in - to bring disability to the front and centre of Irish life and to change the public's perception "from disability towards ability".
He also wants to build confidence and skills in people with disability. He believes the time is right and that it's a cause worth fighting for. "My whole life has been about self-determination," he says.
He knows one downside is that people will say he has been referred to in the media as a "failed presidential candidate".
"But I wasn't a failed presidential candidate. When I talk to kids, I tell them not to be afraid of failing, you have got to put yourself out there. A ship in the harbour is safe - that is not what ships were built for."