Sunday 18 August 2019

John Downing: 'FG banks on 'guns and Roses' spat to deliver a seat dividend'

All smiles: Fine Gael candidates Mairead McGuiness, Frances Fitzgerald, Maria Walsh and Seán Kelly at Tuar Árd Arts Centre, Moate, Co Westmeath, yesterday. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
All smiles: Fine Gael candidates Mairead McGuiness, Frances Fitzgerald, Maria Walsh and Seán Kelly at Tuar Árd Arts Centre, Moate, Co Westmeath, yesterday. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
John Downing

John Downing

Former Rose of Tralee and army crack-shot Maria Walsh has insisted she will not resort to force of arms in her election turf wars with party rival Mairead McGuinness.

In fact, both Fine Gael candidates agreed yesterday that their aim was to each win one of the four Euro seats in the 13-county Midlands North-West constituency, as they made light of the reported spat about campaign ground rules.

Ms Walsh, a political newcomer, downplayed reports that she was at loggerheads with Ms McGuinness, a European Parliament vice-president seeking election for the fourth time.

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The Mayo woman, crowned Rose of Tralee in 2014, and also an active member of the Defence Forces Reserve (DFR), took issue with alleged encroachments into her designated territory. "As a 31-year-old woman, I have a crown and sash from the Rose of Tralee in one hand, and in the other hand my marksmanship is 37 out of 40 shots with a Steyr rifle. I'm not here to be pushed over," she had told the 'Sunday Independent'.

But at the Fine Gael campaign launch yesterday, in Moate, Co Westmeath, Ms Walsh said she had been merely answering media questions and was not responsible for headlines. She was proud of both her DFR membership and her Rose crown - but would shun negative campaigning and heartily endorsed Ms McGuinness's assertion that they can win two seats for the party.

A diktat issued by Fine Gael headquarters just three weeks ago stated that Ms McGuinness and her team were to canvass Louth, Meath, Kildare, Longford, Westmeath, Cavan and Monaghan, while Ms Walsh was to focus on Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal.

But Ms Walsh was concerned that Ms McGuinness was active in her territory before the divide was fixed - and more recent local ads in Galway and Mayo for Ms McGuinness neglected to mention her running mate.

Ms McGuinness got a round of applause and provoked much hilarity from party supporters at the campaign launch as she refused to take her rival's reported comments too seriously. "I did frisk her before she crossed the border into Westmeath…we will return the arms when they go back across the Shannon," she said to much laughter from colleagues.

The three-time MEP said she had fought many campaigns but avoided negativity in all of them.

She cited the 2004 Euro campaign battles with Avril Doyle of Wexford, where keen rivalry resulted in a surprise win of two out of three seats, boosting the battered fortunes of Fine Gael at the time.

In the 2004 campaign, Ms McGuinness was banned from canvassing in Ms Doyle's Wexford home base. On the other hand, Ms McGuinness was given sole campaign rights in her home base in Co Meath.

But there were several high-profile reports of boundary incursions on both sides.

One involved Ms Doyle's mobile electronic hoarding appearing at Fairyhouse race course, only to have the display covered with posters for Ms McGuinness.

On May 31, 2004, just as polling day approached, McGuinness posters appeared in Ms Doyle's Wexford base.

Fine Gael backroom operators had to intervene on many occasions to restore campaign order and discipline. Curiously, much of the details of these spats did make it into the public domain.

The friction led to publicity, which in turn led to votes.

Fifteen years on, Fine Gael strategists hope history can repeat itself.

Irish Independent

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