Mary disappears in hills of Donegal

THEY seek her here, they seek her there, they seek the missing Tánaiste everywhere.

Mary Coughlan is not just running for the national parliament — she is running from the national press as well.

A polite enquiry from the Irish Examiner for her canvassing schedule was met with: “There’s nothing in it for us to have you here. We don’t know where she’ll be — she moves around very quickly,” from handler who sounded rattled.

Not very friendly was it? So, we waited a few days in the hope Fianna Fáil would cheer up a bit — but they got even grumpier.

“Absolutely not!” was the terse reply when we again dared ask to observe Ms Coughlan on the campaign trail yesterday.

RTÉ and other national outlets had also been denied access to the strangely timid Tánaiste, so not to be muzzled, the Irish Examiner set-off for Donegal town to play detective in the great election mystery: “One Of Our Cabinet Ministers Is Missing.”

The quest began at the town’s focal-point roundabout known as The Diamond (which we detected was, in fact, a triangle — is nothing as it seems in Donegal?).

A phone call to the Tánaiste’s constituency office rang-out to the message: “This number is unavailable.” Damn! Ms Coughlan knows how to go to ground.

Cunningly, Fianna Fáil had tried to throw people off the scent by not bothering to set up a campaign office in the town — clearly they had their spirit broken in the Sinn Féin landslide by-election victory last November and realise Pearse Doherty will be comfortably returned along with the Fine Gaeler and Ms Coughlan now looks like being edged out by popular independent Thomas Pringle.

Posters of Ms Coughlan were only noticeable due to their infrequency, and few locals claimed to have seen a great deal of her lately.

Not much to go on, but surely the staff at the novelty shop Mary’s of Donegal would know the whereabouts of their namesake? But no, they shook their heads.

Donegal may consider itself the Forgotten County, but everyone remembers to be polite, and you soon worked out the local code for: “She’s finished,” is: “Oh, she’ll have a struggle this time.”

The FÁS scandals, the IMF bailout deception and the sheer gloom of the slump in the area came up again and again as reasons for her expected downfall.

But what was the Tánaiste’s side of the tale? Ms Coughlan was loose somewhere out there in the sprawling countryside, but the trail had gone cold.

Then, suddenly, a breakthrough — obviously, we have to protect the identity of the source in this sensitive situation — but there was talk of a sighting in Killybegs just along the coast.

The route threw-up the occasional Coughlan poster, but the roadside was littered with pictures of Shinner winner Mr Doherty whose image must now be so ubiquitous here he could rival Ronald McDonald in the instant recognition stakes.

Despite the brilliant winter sunshine, the fishing village could not hide its down-at-heel recessionary feel. Would this be the place where the elusive Tánaiste would finally reveal herself?

Insider information in horse racing is known as “a cough in the stable”, the breakthrough in the hunt for the education minister was more of a “tip-off in a chip shop”.

But it was enough to scramble the Irish Examiner to Emerald Drive — we’d tracked down the Tánaiste!

But, no, too late! We’d just missed her. Shame.

Not that locals were overly impressed by the visit: “My neighbours refused to talk to her,” said Theresa Frames, “I heard her on the radio with the other candidates, she seemed very arrogant — wouldn’t listen to anyone. She’s lost her mojo. Pringle will take her seat now. Unemployment and immigration are really hurting this place.”

Surely now FF would relent and release the Cabinet One to the media as we must have been just streets from her?

“She’s in a meeting,” came the gruff reply. But the Irish Examiner had driven four and a half hours for an audience — go on, give up the Greta Garbo of the campaign.

But our pleas were met with another stern “No!” and an outburst about Ms Coughlan enduring “two and a half years of derision”.

Derision? Yes, quite right, we should really have praised the deputy premier who earns €180,000 a year (more than David Cameron) and thinks Einstein, not Darwin, thought up the theory of evolution, didn’t know how many European commissioners each EU country had when it was the only buzz issue during the Lisbon referendum, and even as a fluent Irish speaker, got the name of Fianna Fáil’s partner in Government wrong when she (unintentionally) referred to the Greens as Gaeilge as “the Vegetables”.

Fianna Fáil and Ms Coughlan should be careful what they wish for — after Friday it is very unlikely the national press will ever bother itself to search her out again.

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