Michael Clifford.


The second coming of Seán Gallagher

A week out from the Áras election in 2011, Seán Gallagher was miles ahead in the polls. Why is he back for another shot, asks Michael Clifford.

The second coming of Seán Gallagher

A week out from the Áras election in 2011, Seán Gallagher was miles ahead in the polls. Why is he back for another shot, asks Michael Clifford.

Is Seán Gallagher pursuing restitution? Is he running for President because he feels he was shafted last time out and believes he is entitled to another show?

The announcement on Wednesday that the businessman was entering the race for the Áras came as no surprise.

But why?

Does he really believe he can recreate the conditions that brought him within touching distance of a massive political upset? Maybe so, and maybe he can finish the job this time around.

On the morning of Sunday, October 23, 2011, Gallagher was a short-order bet to be elected

President of Ireland the following Thursday.

As history records, that didn’t happen. What history cannot record is whether what was to transpire over the coming days rendered Gallagher’s candidacy a case of one in which “he could have been president”, or a case of “he should have been President”.

On that Sunday morning, two opinion polls had him taking a nearly unassailable lead in the race for the Aras.

A Sunday Times Behaviour & Attitudes poll had Gallagher on 38%, with Michael D Higgins a poor second on 26%.

The Sunday Business Post Red C poll — regarded as the most accurate due to its frequency and tracking — had Gallagher leading Higgins by 41% to 26%. In third place in the field of seven candidates was Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness on 13%.

On those figures, Gallagher looked home and hosed.

That evening, Michael D was filmed canvassing on Grafton St for RTÉ’s Six One News. He appeared spooked. He spoke to the camera in a voice with the heightened pitch of one trying to keep panic at bay:

“I am saying that I am more substantial and I am clearly the better candidate.”

He described himself as somebody “who never had a share, never had a company”. Over the previous few days questions had arisen about some of Gallagher’s business


“When I had the opportunity of being minister I founded a television station, I refunded the film industry, I built these canals, the Chester Beatty Library, Collins Barracks, 17 theatres,” said Higgins.

“That’s real, you don’t have to go searching in the Companies Office

to find that.”

Gallagher wasn’t taking the bait. That evening he was canvassing in Roscommon. When his spokesman was asked for a comment on what Higgins had said, he simply replied: “His [Gallagher’s] campaign has always had a positive approach.

That’s at the core of what he’s about. If candidates want to make comments about him that’s something the public will have to make a judgment on.”

Higgins and his campaign team were not the only ones panicking. Within the media/politics bubble, there was a certain consternation over that weekend.

Insiders who thought they knew how the country operated couldn’t get their heads around the fact that this guy, best known for his role in Dragons’ Den, was going to be President. Some journalists — and political operators — were peeved that their predictions Gallagher would crash and burn had turned out to be completely wrong.

Seán Gallagher during 2011 Ára campaign.
Seán Gallagher during 2011 Ára campaign.

Others were baffled that somebody who, despite the campaign, remained a man of mystery would actually become President.

There were those who felt that a candidate with zero experience in politics should not be trusted with such a high office.

In reality, Gallagher had managed to capture a large slice of the zeitgeist. In 2011, the country was in rag order following the economic collapse three years earlier. Disillusionment with mainstream politics was rampant.

There was widespread hostility towards anybody who could be identified with “the establishment”.

After all, those in the establishment hadn’t just been on the bridge when the ship of state was holed but had now reached safe harbour, while most people were trying desperately to stay afloat.

Into this milieu marched Gallagher — a man with a plan, a man with a vision. He had a background in business, yet was not implicated in the great collapse. His record included a stint working with young people and in the voluntary sector.

He had a disability, a visual impairment. All of these factors established him as an outsider at a time when insiders were despised.

Crucially, he was “off the telly” — one of the more likeable Dragons in the Den. In this respect, Gallagher had a huge advantage over any other non-political figure. People felt they knew him.

They liked how he conducted himself in the den. They liked, as Pat Kenny would later put it, “the cut of his jib”.

When he first raised the prospect of entering the race the preceding summer, polls had him on around 6%.

As the campaign heated up, two other independent candidates, former Special Olympics Ireland chief executive Mary Davis and campaigning senator David Norris, each enjoyed a brief spell breaking free from the pack to take a lead in opinion polls.

Both of those candidates came under intense media scrutiny. Davis was drawn into a number of controversies over her role on State boards and links with Denis O’Brien.

Norris had to repeatedly answer questions about his attitudes to and previous statements on the age of consent for sexual relations.

Meanwhile, Gallagher met the people. On October 6, two reputable polls had him on 20% and 21%, respectively, to put him in front of the chasing pack. A week later, his standing among voters had risen to 38%.

Then on the last week of the campaign, another leap, apparently putting him beyond reach. The omens were obvious.

This was not, as had been speculated, a case of voters flirting with this guy on the dancefloor before going home with the old reliable.

By then, the media had begun looking closely at Gallagher’s business dealings and his links to Fianna Fáil, a party that was very much still in the doghouse three years after the crash.

On the Saturday, a reporter in the Mail On Sunday had a story that Gallagher had once collected a cheque for €5,000 for a Fianna Fail fundraiser. Of itself, this was no big deal, but in the prevailing climate it was a toxic charge.

Gallagher said he couldn’t remember it and the story wasn’t published. That was that, but in retrospect perhaps the candidate would have been better off facing the issue head-on.

Seán Gallagher congratulates Michale D Higgins.
Seán Gallagher congratulates Michale D Higgins.

The last campaign debate was an RTÉ Frontline programme on the Monday evening, hosted by Pat Kenny. What unfolded was a car crash for Gallagher.

MARTIN McGuinness brought up the issue in the debate, saying he’d been contacted by the man in question. “That’s an absolute disgrace and clearly shows the rottenness of the system,” McGuinness said.

The matter was brought up again later in the programme when Kenny said a tweet had been picked up from an account that appeared to be linked to McGuinness’s campaign.

It said:

“That man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow.”

Now Gallagher stumbled, saying he’d “no recollection” and “if that man gave me an envelope...” and similar phrases that could have been plucked from one of the tribunals which had investigated political corruption.

Again, Gallagher’s inexperience of being under pressure was exposed.

It turned out that the Twitter account was fake. It also turned out there was no press conference.

Gallagher had a chance to hit back the following day in interviews with Kenny on radio and Brian Dobson on RTÉ’s Six One news. He didn’t manage to do so.

Three days later the people voted by 56% to 35% to elected Michael D Higgins. (the first-preference vote flipped opinion polls from days earlier, With O’Higgins beating him 40% to 29%).

Gallagher felt, with some justification, that he had been shafted.

He took legal action against RTÉ, which resulted in the payment of substantial damages and an apology last year.

What if? What if the Shinners hadn’t gone after him? The tweet and the apparent priming of McGuinness to stick the boot in had all the hallmarks of a dirty tricks campaign.

Sinn Féin was looking to secure at least 20% of the vote to bank for future elections. Yet Gallagher, a native of Cavan, appeared to be hoovering up the vote in the border counties. So the Shinners managed to puncture a candidacy that theretofore appeared iron-clad.

What if Gallagher had handled the attack better? What if he turned to McGuinness and told him that nothing he’d ever done was as rotten as overseeing murder, as McGuinness had done in his admitted role as an IRA commander?

What if he’d avoided talk of recollections and passing envelopes? What if he handled matters better the following day with the benefit of preparation?

Can the final result of the election be attributable to those 24 hours in which Gallagher stumbled and fell?

Professor Gary Murphy of DCU’s School of Law and Government isn’t convinced. “There is a good chance he would have won if that didn’t happen, but I hold him as culpable

as RTÉ for his defeat,” says Murphy.

“The way he handled it when it arose and again the following day, he had two chances to do a better job and he didn’t.”

Murphy also believes the lead four days out from the election may not have been as secure as the opinion polls suggest. “A reasonable case could be made that his lead was soft,” he says.

“Mary Davis and David Norris had both being doing well until they came under scrutiny. Gallagher just came under scrutiny later in the campaign. But you still have to say that if Frontline hadn’t happened, there’s a good chance he would have won.”

That was then. Seven years down the line, the candidate that was is a candidate once more.

He should have no problem securing the nomination from four local authorities. He is reported to have done private polling that puts him in a good position.

But seven years is a long time in politics, not to mind television. Gallagher’s public profile over that time has been muted at the very least.

He has hardly been seen on TV. That may well be down to the protracted legal action against RTÉ. But still, his television persona was his unique selling point last time around.

His only ongoing media engagement since 2011 has been a column in the business section of the Sunday Independent.

In that guise, he had a little cut at the incumbent last Sunday before he had even declared. His column centred on the homelessness crisis — unlikely fodder for a business column. He decried the lack of leadership in tackling the issue.

Then he cited a law enacted in 2013, the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform act, which he claimed was crucial to allowing lenders repossess properties on foot of defaulted mortgages.

“There were certainly significant legal grounds on the subject of property rights and citizens’ rights for the legislation, or part of it, to be referred to the Supreme Court by the President, to test its constitutionality,” Gallagher wrote.

“A referral such as this by the President to the Supreme Court is provided for in Article 26 of the Constitution. However, President Higgins signed it into law on July 24, 2013, without such a referral.”

Ouch! Are we to believe that a President Gallagher would have acted differently, or that there would have been a different outcome, or that the law, in reality, makes a blind bit of difference to the prevailing crisis? Or was the yet-to-declare candidate taking a cheap shot at the incumbent?

The column, along with Gallagher’s refusal to face any questions since he declared on Wednesday, indicates that his campaign will not be benign this time around.

He is certainly up against it. He will be streets ahead of all but Michael D in terms of name recognition.

His own skeletons were all suitably aired last time out, so he is largely insulated from scrutiny of his record, alliances or personal circumstances.

He can, to a large extent, rely on some who are well disposed to Fianna Fáil — a party with which he had links in the past.

On the other side of the ledger, he has not been relevant for the guts of seven years. The Ireland of today differs much from the Ireland of 2011. Problems persist, and in the case of the housing crisis, have got much worse.

Is there still a thirst for the kind of outsider who nearly stormed the ramparts seven years ago?

More than anything though, he is up against a popular incumbent, and in a race like this, incumbency matters.

There are other candidates vying for a nomination, the most likely to succeed being Gallagher’s former fellow Dragon, Gavin Duffy.

However, Gallagher is the man who must be regarded as possessing the best chance to unseat Michael D. Whether or not it will be a case of back to the future by the time we get to the week before the vote remains to be seen.

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