Sunday 16 June 2019

David Quinn: Catch-all Gallagher was hit by 'Catch 22' problem

Sean Gallagher
and his wife
Trish leaving the
polling station at
St Oliver
National School,
Blackrock, Co
yesterday, after
casting their
Sean Gallagher and his wife Trish leaving the polling station at St Oliver Plunkett National School, Blackrock, Co Louth, yesterday, after casting their vote

David Quinn

ONE of the big lessons of the presidential campaign is that there is still a big vote out there for a Fianna Fail-style candidate provided he or she can shake off the Fianna Fail label.

Whatever turns out to be the fate of Sean Gallagher, even if his vote has halved since last weekend, it shows that the electorate still likes a catch-all, middle-of-the-road, 'whatever you're having yourself' candidate in the style of Fianna Fail -- especially if the person isn't actually Fianna Fail.

That a relative unknown like Gallagher, in such a crowded presidential field, managed to hit the dizzying heights of 40pc in the polls at one point is simply astonishing.

I think one reason he did is because for several weeks he managed to pull off a very neat trick. He ran as the sort of candidate Fianna Fail successfully ran for decade after decade but without being tarnished by the Fianna Fail label initially.

The advantage of running as a Fianna Fail-style candidate is that there obviously remains a very big public taste for Fianna Fail-style catch-all politics. Gallagher was everything to everyone, which is what Fianna Fail managed to be for years and years.

This presents Fianna Fail with a big opportunity but an even bigger problem. The fact that Gallagher did so well proves that catch-all politics still works. In other words, there still exists a 'Fianna Fail' market. That's the opportunity.

The problem is that if you want to tap it, you can't be Fianna Fail because the Fianna Fail brand is now so toxic.

Maybe the 'solution' for the next few years is to run Independent candidates from the Fianna Fail gene pool up and down the country in the style of Mattie McGrath -- that is, middle-of-the-road, populist vote-getters who have managed to shake off the Fianna Fail label.

But whatever else happens, Gallagher has laid down a template; be a catch-all candidate, but be more successful than he was at shaking off his past.

The person who turns out to win this election may simply be the Last Man Standing; and if this is so, then that person will surely be Michael D Higgins. But what a way it would be to win the presidency.

When Mary McAleese won in 1997, she secured 45.2pc of the vote and entered Aras an Uachtaran by public acclamation. It was a vote in favour of her much more than it was a rejection of the other candidates.

But if Higgins wins it will be more by default than anything else. Through the whole course of the election, up to and including last weekend, he never rose much above 25pc in the polls. Given his high profile over so many years, and the fact that the media never subjected him to any real or sustained scrutiny, this is hardly a ringing endorsement by the electorate.

And it is not as if the media could not have subjected him to more scrutiny. For example, Gay Mitchell was attacked a number of times for being temperamental. But Michael D is notoriously temperamental.

For example, in a debate on Newstalk last year with right-wing American pundit, Michael Graham, he blew his top, calling Graham a 'w**ker'. Very presidential.

Or what about the fact all through the 1970s and 1980s when given a choice between venting his spleen on US foreign policy or the Soviet Union he would vent it on America -- a democracy -- every time.

If Higgins is president, how is that going to go down in the US, especially if there is a Republican in the White House sometime in the next seven years?

Or what about some of the supportive things he has had to say about Hamas, or Fidel Castro, or Yasser Arafat? The blogger Mark Humphrys catalogues this very well on his website.

When Arafat died, Higgins praised him as an icon. But Arafat is the man whose organisations brought us plane hijackings, among other 'innovations' that have led to hundreds of millions of airline passengers each year having to ensure onerous security procedures at airports all over the world.

In the Dail in 2007, Higgins criticised the EU for categorising Hamas as a proscribed organisation, which it most assuredly deserves to be.

Gallagher deserved criticism for trying to play down his Fianna Fail past. We'll know today how much that past has damaged him.

But frankly I can't see how a Fianna Fail past, even if downplayed, is so very much worse than a past spent lending moral support to organisations like Hamas, dictators like Yasser Arafat, or venting your anger on the United States, not the Soviet Union. But apparently in Ireland for many people, having a Fianna Fail past is very much worse than any of this. As they say, go figure.

Irish Independent

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