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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 3, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    Mairead McGuinness

    Harry McGee

    mcguinness.jpg

    I wrote a piece on Mairead McGuinness for this morning’s paper that appeared in a very truncated form. Here is the full piece…

     

    A GROUP of about 30 pensioners have gathered in the community hall in
    Dunshaughlin, Co Meath for a matinee performance of Alan Bennett’s
    play ‘The Lady of Letters’. A makeshift stage with two chairs and a
    table depicting a parlour has been set up under the basketball hoops.

    There’s an extra bonus for the good-humoured pensioners on this balmy
    afternoon. An unscheduled warm-up act has arrived to perform an act
    that we’ll call ‘The Lady of Lettuce’. It doesn’t last too long. About
    10 minutes. But it is an impressive song-and-dance routine. The
    costume is immaculate. The choreography is perfect. And as for the
    delivery? As polished as Micheál Mac Liammoir in all his pomp and
    glory.

    Roughly about half the people that Mairead McGuinness meets while
    canvassing tell her that they know her from television. They might as
    well add that they know her from vaudeville, cabaret, and grand opera.
    For in that strange feather-fluffing vote-mating ritual that
    politicians have to undergo every five years, she is undoubtedly the
    bill-topper.

    She works the room with the pensioners and later meets and greets
    shoppers on the sun-splattered main street of the Co Meath village,
    with the confidence of a seasoned pro. The sitting MEP – and former TV
    celebrity and agricultural journalist – adjusts, hones and tailors her
    performance according to whoever she meets. She effortlessly flits
    from polite to raucous; from droll to serious; from deferential to
    flirtatious; from tragedy to comedy. She looks the part too, a neat
    muted brown-green outfit set-off by a raffish pink scarf and bold
    designer specs.

    Make no mistake about it: the Lady of Lettuce is 100 per cent box
    office. And two hours spent in her company give ample evidence of that
    strange melding of spontaneity and cast-iron discipline, celeb and
    politician, which have conspired to make her the unbackable favourite
    to top the poll in the East constituency.
    Today’s canvass mainly centres around Dunshaughlin, which has become a
    satellite commuter town for Dublin (indeed half the people we meet
    here are castaways from the capital).

    She is accompanied by her own tight team and local canvassers
    including the big-hearted and big-framed (the latter detail will
    become important momentarily) Meath East TD Shane McEntee.
    Inside the community hall, a local man, Paddy Power, well clued in to
    the political scene, asks her to outline her policies: She gives a
    smooth precis of Fine Gael’s membership of the European People’s
    Party; its influence on water policy, food labelling and banking
    regulation, her efforts to get directives implemented in Ireland. “We
    do make a difference. It might sound cumbersome.”

    “Put pressure on this lot in Government,” responds Power. “I wouldn’t
    put ‘em in charge of running a six-penny raffle with a football club.”
    The canvassing takes a format. A la George Lee, the canvassers
    introduce her and stand back. The desired reaction is one of surprise
    at being in the presence of a celebrity.

    It’s impressive. Every time she is complimented on her appearance her
    standard reply is: “Years of practice and self-denial. You should try
    it,”. She always rounds it off with a hearty laugh. Many of the
    conversations, as you’d expect, revolve around farming. It all seems
    like plain sailing.

    But then, unexpectedly, she hits choppy water. She goes over to a man
    sitting into a car to say hello. It later emerges that he was once a
    stalwart of the local Dunshaughlin football team. He complains loudly
    about politicians taking money off the people
    At this stage, McEntee steps in.

    “You know who took it off you. It was Fianna Fail,” he interjects.

    The man goes ballistic. Within a second, he’s out of his car,
    shouting: “It was the whole lot of youz. The only time youz agree with

    one another is when ye are getting a f***ing pay rise.”

    At this stage McEntee, a former club footballer from a nearby parish,
    has stepped fully into the breach. Shapes are being thrown that
    suggest a rerun of ancient GAA hostilities between Nobber and
    Dunshaughlin. But the moment passes. With a loud shout of ‘f*** off’
    and an ostentatious slam off the door, the disgruntled punter drives
    off.

    It takes about a nanosecond for McGuinness to recover her composure
    after that. A passing van driver shouts out: “The man was right on the
    radio, Mairead!”

    “Which man? What did he say?” she asks coquettishly, knowing full well
    what man the driver is referring to. When he confirms it was the man
    who phoned the Pat Kenny show to say she was “sexy”, she lets out a
    peal of laughter and a “go away out of that!” comment.

    “I nearly died when Pat read that out,” she says, with a beamy smile
    that suggests that she didn’t nearly die when Pat read that out.
    There are a couple of sentiments she says more than once that are
    illustrative of her singular ambition. On her vertiginous 33 per cent
    showing in the first Irish Times opinion poll, she says: “My mother
    thought it was kind of low so you can see the kind of house I come
    from.”

    And while toeing the official party line of splitting the constituency
    with her running mate John Paul Phelan, more than once she gives the
    impression of straining at the leash to return to places like Bray,
    Greystones and Athy which the party chiefs have prevented her from
    canvassing in until the last week of the campaign. Her backing for the
    constituency-sharing strategy isn’t exactly unequivocal.

    “I am the only politician I know who has advertisements in local
    papers, in more than half of the constituencies saying vote for my
    running mate. I am on record as saying it will be a failure if we
    don’t hold onto our two seats.

    “The danger with all politics is that you spend too much time trying
    to manage and I do not think it is right to dictate to voters how to
    cast their votes,” she says.

    And has she been tackling the man rather than the ball with Labour
    rival Nessa Childers? No, she replies. It’s not her style. That was
    left to Avril Doyle, the same Avril who said no L plates in Europe
    when McGuinness came on the pitch five years ago. Five years later,
    there is no talk of learner MEP as far as she is concerned.

    “This is my job. I do want to hold onto my job. I have done a
    reasonable job. I have not promised miracles. … We should try to
    influence better,” she says.

    As she departs for the retrun trip to Brussels via Ashbourne and Navan, you get the sense that the Lady of Lettuce will be back by popular acclaim in 2011 in a performance with no running mate, the denouement of which will be a one-way trip to the Phoenix Park.


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