“Stay true to what you believe and don’t criticise.”
This, Sean Gallagher said yesterday, was his mantra going into the final television debate before the presidential election last October.
Throughout his campaign, he prided himself on staying positive and not getting involved in any dirty tricks. Even yesterday, he repeated what he had often said, that one “does not grow one inch” by criticising their opponents.
But when he finally broke his silence about the so-called “tweet gate” controversy he believes ended his presidential dreams, he did not spare RTÉ or Frontline presenter Pat Kenny any criticism.
On the Monday evening before he appeared on that debate, on Oct 24, the election was his to lose. Three weekend opinion polls had given him a double-digit lead over Micheal D Higgins, with about 40% support. His position appeared unassailable.
But he walked out of the studios that night with his campaign in tatters after sensationally admitting he may have collected a €5,000 donation for Fianna Fáil from a convicted fuel smuggler in Louth.
Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness revealed that, prior to going on air, he had spoken to a businessman about a 2008 Fianna Fáil fundraiser to which Mr Gallagher had been linked.
He said the businessman claimed Mr Gallagher had called to his home to collect a donation after the fundraiser. Mr Gallagher repeatedly denied the accusation at first, before conceding he may have delivered a photograph to the man’s home.
The debate moved on to other issues, and then took a break.
When it returned, Pat Kenny said there had been a “development” — a tweet from a McGuinness campaign account saying Sinn Féin was going to produce the businessman the following day.
Mr Kenny asked Mr Gallagher if he wished to clarify anything. And from that moment on, his campaign imploded. At first, Mr Gallagher tried to cast doubt over the man’s story, saying he was “a convicted criminal”.
He said he had “no recollection” of getting a cheque. But challenged further, he conceded he may have been given “an envelope”.
Finally, he said: “If he gave me the cheque, it was made out to Fianna Fáil headquarters and it was delivered, and that was that. It had nothing to do with me.”
It was game over.
In March, the Broadcasting Authority upheld his complaint that the tweet mentioned by Mr Kenny had not been from an official Sinn Féin account. As such, it was a bogus tweet and, Mr Gallagher argued, grossly unfair to him.
The BAI said there were “no apparent efforts made” by RTÉ to verify the tweet and, despite information becoming available during the rest of the programme it was not from an official Sinn Féin account. RTÉ failed to clarify this.
The question still remains: Did the tweet cost Mr Gallagher the presidency, or was he the author of his own downfall by handling the questions poorly? It’s a question he himself cannot answer: “Who knows?” he said yesterday, admitting he could have handled it better. “It wasn’t my finest moment,” he said in an interview session at the Media Future 2012 conference in Dublin.
He said there was “no contriteness, no apology” from RTÉ and even went as far as comparing its treatment of him to how the Church handled allegations of sex abuse in the early 1990s.
In its ruling, the BAI made clear that RTÉ had made mistakes but there was no malice involved. But yesterday, Mr Gallagher accused the broadcaster of “arrogance” and “hostility” towards him.
In a statement last night, RTÉ said it “accepted the BAI decision that RTÉ was found to be unfair to Mr Gallagher on specific grounds” and that “the director general and the RTÉ board expressed their apologies to Mr Gallagher for the mistakes made”. A review of the programme will be completed shortly.
It is likely director general Noel Curran will be questioned on this report when he appears at the Oireachtas communications committee today to answer questions about the Prime Time Investigates ‘Mission To Prey’ programme. Asked yesterday about his preparation for Frontline debate, Mr Gallagher said he had told himself: “I want to come out of it being positive and I will not be riled no matter what other candidates, in the last dying effort, attempt to do that. For me it was about staying calm.”
But the final outcome clearly riled him and his message towards RTÉ is now a very negative one.
If it was an attempt to re-ignite a political career, it may yet backfire, with abuse groups taking issue with his comments and suggestions he was using the tweet as a source of comfort to gloss over his bad handling of campaign interviews.
* Enda Kenny has stood over his refusal to appear on a TV3 debate on the EU fiscal treaty, with his spokesman saying debates are “overrated”.
The Taoiseach has yet to decide on invitations from RTÉ whether to appear on any debate ahead of the May 31 vote. But he has refused to participate in a TV3 programme despite offers by the station to alter the format to suit Mr Kenny.
His spokesman last night said the refusal was “not personal” but also surmised that a forum that includes “party politics mightn’t be the best way” for debate on the treaty.
“He’s not engaging with TV3 on this occasion. The Taoiseach has been very energetic during the campaign. Debates are overrated. The Taoiseach is very engaged with the campaign. Whether or not there is a debate of any kind is not what will influence people.”
TV3 yesterday said: “It is also disappointing to note that the only occasions on which the Taoiseach has chosen to appear on TV3 is when he seeks to promote charitable causes.
“Whilst these appearances are important, our viewers are equally entitled to hear the Taoiseach’s views on matters of major national interest, including the forthcoming fiscal treaty referendum.”
RTÉ sources say Prime Time are planning a debate on May 29, two days before voters go to the polls. Informal discussions are ongoing between the show’s production team and government officials about Mr Kenny appearing on the show. It is understood that a separate TV debate next Monday, is being planned for the Frontline show. Sources say Mr Kenny has not been invited to appear but that an approach has been made to Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore.
— Juno McEnroe
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