In a campaign, HQ is a warzone, fuelled by paranoia and occasional outbursts of euphoria, writes Terry Prone
ne thing was sure about PJ Mara, who died just before the weekend after a long illness. He knew politicians. More to the point, he knew what general elections do to politicians.
I remember at one point being part of an election committee belonging to Fianna Fáil which met every morning during the campaign in their offices in Mount Street under the chairmanship of the late Seamus Brennan. Every morning brought its serving of chaos with a side order of disaster.
The chaos took a number of shapes. A candidate had done or said something inappropriate. That’s how it would be described in the first communication from the local director of elections. Seamus Brennan would explain to the group that he had looked for more specificity and found that the candidate involved had a) belted an opponent or a friend over some inferred insult, b) made a physical or verbal approach to a female canvasser to which said female canvasser had reacted with some negativity, or c) been interviewed on a local radio station while pissed as a newt, high as a kite, or ignorant as a pig on some crucial policy. Or all three, simultaneously.
The PR people present always hoped that a competitive stinker issue might serendipitously emerge on the other side of the political divide to distract from their own problem, but their immediate focus— always — was on preventing the leader from getting enmeshed in the coils of the controversy, whatever it was.
Chaos also tended to follow the secret release of unofficial opinion polls. Seamus Brennan didn’t need advice from any of us on this, because he was the master of the fictitious assessment of public perception, having worked out that opinion polls can greatly influence voting intentions. If a given candidate is on the slide, people are markedly less likely to want to vote for them. Never mind what people say about their voting patterns, the reality is that if Josephine Bloggs is The Bright New Thing, and if you’ve encountered Josie in a supermarket car park and if she had the wit to ask you nicely for your number one vote, there’s a good chance that you might actually deliver it. If, on the other hand, you’re hearing of a secret poll that says she’s peaked, then you may not bother going out to put her name on the ballot sheet.
Brennan’s fictitious polls were among the most cost-effective election devices ever. That was easy, since they cost nothing. Their false information was scooped up by media gullibles who believed they were in on a secret. Best of all, from his point of view, was that the non-existent results tended to light a fire under lazy candidates or inactive directors of elections. Believing that your man or woman is showing up as a potential loser in a secret opinion poll can be a considerable motivator. Or could be, back in the Charlie Haughey days when everybody at every level in Fianna Fáil wanted to be well got with The Boss.
Another element of the daily early morning chaos in any election HQ is breakdown in discipline. Or Breakdown in Discipline, as the ones affected by it call it. It can take the form of a leaflet where none of the other people on the ticket are even mentioned. It can take the form of a social media blast suggesting that an opponent (usually of your own party) is immoral in some specific and interestingly squalid way. Or it can take the form of what actors call “improv”.
Improv in Ireland recently included a female candidate suggesting that when her constituents have voted for her, they should continue their preferences for other women, never mind which party they belong to. In the US, improv recently took the form of Donald Trump claiming that another Republican candidate is actually a Canadian citizen, even when he knows the claim to be false.
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Improv drives other candidates around the bend, because it works for the person who does it. They end up in pictures and headlines and on trend, thereby raising their name-recognition. Even when called on whatever they have said, they may win, as Trump did when he admitted that the Canadian claim was made because his opponent was rising in the polls.
Back home, as soon as improv kicks in is when the alternative candidates in that particular area contact HQ to demand that action be taken.
In that situation, PJ Mara didn’t waste his time on the ethics of the situation, or on consideration of corrective action. Instead, he would telephone the improv artist and deliver a lengthy and profane reproof. His own word for that process was “a bollocking”. Its purpose was to allow all of the lead team to hear him in action, so they could then use how terrifying he had been as a warning to other potential improv artists or as a reassurance to the already wounded that action had been taken.
But the reality, in an election, is that you can’t unring a bell and you shouldn’t waste time on the possibility of unringing it. However, if you can — as PJ Mara always did — give the impression that you’re on top of everything and won’t tolerate electoral indiscipline, then the troops, if they think about HQ at all, have faith that everything is under control. Which it never is. It doesn’t matter which political party is in question: during the three weeks of a campaign, HQ is a war zone, fuelled by paranoia, pessimism and occasional bursts of largely irrational euphoria.
HQ always needs a reliable media performer to go in front of cameras when someone has defecated on the fan. During one general election, Seamus Brennan decided that the only TD who could fulfill that role and handle an emerging problem was Maire Geoghegan-Quinn. MGQ, on media, was calm, authoritative and credible, and so the word went to her election office that she was to be located on the canvass and put in a car aimed at RTÉ in Donnybrook. An hour passed. People in her local office said they were having difficulty reaching her, but were working on it.
It was at this point that PJ Mara arrived, having been absent giving someone a bollocking. The situation was explained to him. He laughed, thereby creating a great resentment among the rest of the team, who were properly anxious. Mara suggested that the chosen approach might have limitations. People bristled. In silence.
The limitations, he went on, lay in Maire Geoghegan-Quinn’s total lack of interest in things national when she was fighting for her own seat. Those sent to find her, he stated, counting off the factors on his elegant fingers, would first of all find her with difficulty. They would then be told to eff off. They would come back and present a sanitised version of that message to party HQ, which could insist on talking to her directly, in which case she would tell HQ to do the same thing, possibly in two different languages. And, he finished, good luck to whoever made that call. Because it wasn’t going to be him.
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