Pat McGuirk: 'It's as if they wanted me to gun down Gallagher, to slit his throat'
Jody Corcoran talks to the businessman who was asked by RTE to make 'a statement' attacking the man he was supporting in last October's poll
PAT McGuirk is in the poultry business in Co Monaghan. He supplies a number of supermarkets throughout Ireland, including Superquinn. He employs five people, sometimes up to seven. He took a keen interest in the presidential election.
As he said himself, in an email to The Frontline on RTE, he is "not really" a supporter of a political party, but "I believe in Sean Gallagher!" Last week when I spoke to him he said he had no doubt as to his preferred candidate. It was Sean Gallagher.
"I felt Sean Gallagher was doing a good job, that he could represent Ireland at a top level. I felt he was a good guy. I liked what he was saying about jobs," Mr McGuirk said.
On Tuesday, October 18, last, six days before The Frontline debate, Mr McGuirk sent an email to RTE, what you might call an expression of interest, that he would attend on the night and ask a question.
That night, at 21.20, he received a standard reply: "Thanks for contacting The Frontline." He was asked to provide further detail -- name, date of birth, address and phone numbers, landline and mobile.
He was then asked if he was a member of any political party or campaigning group, if he would like to contribute to the programme and, if so, on what topic. It is not necessary, he was told, to contribute to be part of the audience.
So far, so standard.
Mr McGuirk replied at 22.04. He provided the information required, which included the statement: "Not really part of any party but I believe in Sean Gallagher!" Last week he told the Sunday Independent: "I thought Sean Gallagher was the best of a bad lot."
His question -- see panel, above right --although clumsily drafted, was entirely relevant, in the context of Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness's declaration that he would not draw a full salary as President, but that he would use a portion of it to create employment for six people.
Two days later, on Thursday, October 20, Mr McGuirk received another email from a member of The Frontline team: "Hi Pat, Thanks for your application. I'm out of the office today but can be contacted on 085****** if you get the chance. Many thanks."
To his great pleasure, it seemed that he was going to get an opportunity to ask his question on live television in front of the 900,000 people who would be glued to their TV sets that Monday night, October 24.
Now, wind the clock back a year to The Frontline Leader's debate on February 14, before the last general election, which involved Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Micheal Martin, John Gormley and Gerry Adams.
The manner in which the audience and questions for that programme were selected was set out in a blog from David Nally, editor of The Frontline and posted in advance of the debate.
Biggest night of them all
Monday, 14 February 2011
Well we've had a few big nights on The Frontline since we first came on air 17 months ago but tonight must be the biggest of all.
Micheal Martin, Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Gerry Adams and John Gormley will all be in our studio for the first ever five-way leaders' debate in front of a live audience.
The audience has been put together by the polling company Millward Brown Lansdowne as a representative group of undecided voters and Pat Kenny will be taking about six questions from them in all.
Those questions have been selected by an editorial panel comprising myself, Prof Michael Marsh of the Politics Department in Trinity College Dublin and Dr Jane Suiter of the Politics Department in UCC.
We'll be trying to hit most of the big issues and to get the politicians to actually answer the question they're asked. Pat's role will obviously be far more restrained than usual but he won't be completely absent from the question and answer process either.
We won't be reading out viewer comments on the programme tonight but do post your comment in the box below.
The same day, RTE also issued a media release in advance of the debate, which provided more detail as to the lengths RTE was going to ensure fairness and impartiality.
For example, there would be 140 people in the studio; the polling company had set quotas based on gender, age and social class to achieve a nationally representative sample of uncommitted voters; they had then set additional quotas on a 2007 vote in order to mirror the outcome of that election; a panel of 43 recruited door-to-door/by telephone using a recruitment questionnaire; all respondents were chosen on the basis of being undecided, intending to vote and the above criteria.
Now let us return to The Frontline presidential debate.
From the manner in which Mr McGuirk and, presumably, other members of the public came to be chosen, it is clear that RTE decided not to follow the procedure as set down in the leaders' debate last year.
In itself, that is fair enough.
Indeed, when a viewer made a complaint to the BAI in relation to audience and question selection, RTE argued that, in fact, the arrangements in place for The Frontline presidential debate accorded more with the norm.
Really, it was the arrangements for the leaders' debate before the general election that were distinct in certain respects.
In a way, it comes down to what the BAI, in its report last week, repeatedly referred to as "evidence".
For example, the report states this: "The committee is satisfied that there is 'no evidence', contrary to the views of the complainant, that the broadcaster, presenter or production team deliberately ... constructed the programme in a manner that lacked objectivity or impartiality."
In fact, earlier last week, a spokesman for RTE went further.
He told the Sunday Independent: "All members of the audience were asked to submit questions in advance. The editorial team then selected the questions to be asked to reflect the issues raised over the course of the election in regard to all the candidates."
Which brings us back to Mr McGuirk, a 43-year-old poultry man, father of one, seven years a widower.
It is reasonable to infer that Mr McGuirk, and other audience members who asked questions that night, would have expected that their questions, as submitted, be assessed and selected by the "editorial team" of The Frontline. In fact, The Frontline team seems to have engaged in a process with the questioners -- or at least they did with Mr McGuirk.
Mr McGuirk says he was repeatedly contacted by a member of The Frontline team over the weekend before the broadcast on Monday, October 24, last.
He says he was moved on from his question to a more general question in relation to "jobs", and then, specifically away from the other candidates to focus exclusively on Sean Gallagher.
He did not have a difficulty with this. He was a supporter of Mr Gallagher, after all.
When he left his home in Monaghan that evening, his cousin Carmel in the car alongside him, his intention was to focus on what was the motif of the Gallagher campaign. He would ask how Mr Gallagher, an entrepreneur, as President would help to create jobs to help lift the country out of recession.
Mr McGuirk was anxious to stress to me last week that he was a Gallagher supporter "even though I never met the man". He did, however, like what Mr Gallagher seemed to stand for: "Jobs is a big issue," Mr McGuirk said.
He was such an admirer that he has, hanging in his home, a photograph of his son taken with Mr Gallagher who was canvassing in Clones at the time.
He is such a supporter, in fact, that he took it upon himself to ring the Gallagher campaign office the weekend before the debate to tell them that he had been chosen by The Frontline to ask a question about jobs.
He left a message; a member of the Gallagher team called his mobile phone, which rang into voicemail. A text message was then sent to acknowledge his telephone call.
There was, he says, no further contact from that day to this: "Absolutely not, nothing."
Maybe 10, more like 15 or 20 years ago, he says, he had canvassed briefly for the former Fianna Fail minister Rory O'Hanlon. When it was pointed out that Mr Gallagher had also worked with Dr O'Hanlon, he said: "I know that, but I swear to you, I never met the man, Sean Gallagher, I never even talked to him in my life."
As he entered the RTE studios, he says he was met by The Frontline team member with whom he had engaged by email and telephone over the preceding days.
"I met her at the door. She was signing people in. She said to me 'We want to talk to you'." She handed him a typewritten question, more of a statement, really, than a question.
It read: "I'm sick and tired of hearing from Sean Gallagher about jobs. He created 100 jobs in the boom and most of them are gone. I think he's too cute for his own good."
Mr McGuirk says he was "gobsmacked". He was told to "go over there and rehearse that". He could not believe what was happening. He was in "shock", he says: "I felt it was as if they wanted me to go in and gun down Sean Gallagher, to go in and slit his throat."
His cousin, Carmel, excused herself. She wanted no part of it. Mr McGuirk did not know what to do. "It was horrendous what was on that paper," he told me, "it was horrendous."
He says he was then brought in to the studio and led to his seat, number C17, where, he says, he was rehearsed on the question as presented to him. "I felt they wanted me to cut him down. I told them 'I can't ask this', they said I can, or at least that I should ask something like it; to stay as close to it as possible."
As he sat there, awaiting his turn, Mr McGuirk began to wonder how he had landed himself in this situation. "The question they gave me was 10 million per cent away from where I was, my initial question," he realised.
The atmosphere is the studio was "unreal": "Christ almighty, they went at him," he said of Mr Gallagher, "it was like a bunch of hound dogs."
When his turn came, Mr McGuirk said he could not bring himself to ask the question as presented. He was, by this stage, sorry he had not walked away.
"They lowered me into it," he said. With the camera on him, he meekly offered: "Sean, in the boom time you created 100 jobs and how many of them are still in existence? People are sick and tired of hearing about creating jobs, so how many of them are still there?"