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Broadcaster jumps ship into shark-infested political waters

It was all rather discombobulating. It was akin to seeing Bertie strut about in a Meath football jersey, or hearing Brian Cowen invite Enda to join him for a pint and a sing-song in the Dail bar.

There was George Lee, the scourge of Department of Finance mandarins, the bespectacled Cassandra of Montrose who had mouthed dire predictions of economic doom to widespread scoffing from politicians of all stripes, standing at the pointy end of a forest of microphones, notebooks and tape recorders.

For RTE's economics editor did the unthinkable yesterday -- he jumped ship from a cosy and prestigious berth at the state broadcaster and hurled himself into the shark-infested waters of Irish politics as Fine Gael's candidate for the Dublin South by-election.

The rumour-mills had ground out George's name before this week as a possible runner in some election or other, but it had seemed an unlikely move for a chap who had become a bit of a rockstar in RTE, thanks to his doomy prognostications proving to be right on the money, so to speak, and also due to the relish he frequently displayed while delivering yet another tidbit of I-told-you-so dreadful news.

Fine Gael had been trumpeting that they had landed a celebrity candidate, but even so, the surprise couldn't have been greater if the party had unveiled Grainne Seoige as its contestant (though there's still a spot available on Fianna Fail's euro ticket in Ireland North-West if she's interested).

But lo and behold, the rumour was finally confirmed by George himself on Radio One's lunchtime news. And talk about going straight in the deep end -- his first engagement was an on-air grilling by the most formidable of his former colleagues, Sean O'Rourke. "Among the qualities required for people in politics are thick skins, how do you stand on that one?" enquired Sean.

"I'm obviously going to be tried in relation to my thick skin," George admitted, though he reckoned it was "thick enough".

And one suspects that George longed to be encased in the hide of rhinoceros a couple of hours later when he spied the mob of media giddily awaiting him on the steps of the Merrion Hotel.


So when George was a little late in throwing himself at the mercy of the media, the media showed little mercy. "Hurry up, George! The exchequer figures are out in an hour, and some of us have some work to do," bellowed one impudent reporter.

George finally arrived, escorted by a clearly chuffed Brian Hayes. And in fairness to the former RTE journalist, he handled the blizzard of questions with a degree of equanimity.

And the question most of the media wanted him to answer was -- what in the name of God possessed him to do it?

It seems he wants to be able to "look my children in the face when they ask me, 'What did you do when the country was on its knees in the greatest economic challenge in the history of the state? When you were in the position to do something, did you do anything?' Well, I will be able to look them in the eye and say, 'yes I did'," he explained, as his former colleagues tried to get their heads around this new Caring George.

But did he understand that he has crossed the Rubicon, and if it all goes pear-shaped in Dublin South, he can't just swim back to Donnybrook?

"Maybe someday if I were on my uppers I might sweep the floor in there, but I'm not planning on going back. It is my intention to make a career out of politics," he insisted. "I'm doing this because it matters and because it's time people put their shoulders to the wheel and did something positive for the country".

He already has. No more pre-breakfast doom and gloom on 'Morning Ireland'. Hurrah for that.