Martin's phone call could prove key moment in presidential campaign


ANALYSIS:GAY BYRNE was in his holiday home in the Rosses in Donegal last Saturday night when he received a call on his mobile phone. He was a little taken aback when he found out who was calling him – Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin.

Martin was also on holidays in the west Cork village of Skibbereen and obviously there was a sense of urgency about the call. He asked Byrne would he be interested in becoming a candidate in the presidential election in October. He assured the broadcaster, who had celebrated his 77th birthday the evening before on August 5th, that if he were to run as an Independent candidate, Fianna Fáil would facilitate his nomination by ensuring he won the support of at least 20 Oireachtas members.

Realpolitik dictated that given the toxicity of the brand, the nominators would also need to include prominent Independent TDs and Senators.

Byrne neither agreed to nor rejected the proposition. He said he would consider it. He further elucidated on that yesterday by saying he would not deliver his decision overnight.

“Nobody said that I had to give an answer immediately,” he told The Irish Times. “Everybody is on holiday and nominations do not close until September. Nobody has pushed me to make up my mind. I want to speak to my wife, to my daughters; one of my daughters is in France on holiday and is not returning for a week.

“I am taking my time. Until somebody tells me [it is now necessary] I will not give an answer.”

Until Martin’s phone call, there had been no formal approach by Fianna Fáil to the broadcaster, but his name had been floating around within party circles for some time.

The call also marked the first decisive move by Martin in the presidential campaign. His strategy and that of the party’s for many months had been to sit on its hands and put off the key decision whether to choose one of its own or to go outside the ranks.

Over the years, Martin’s critics have contended that his major flaw has been his indecision and prevarication. Those close to the party leader have pointed out that deciding too early was a mistake – Mary McAleese did not emerge as a candidate until the last week of August in 1997.

As events have unfolded, his supporters have argued that this strategy of delay has been borne out.

Firstly, Fine Gael chose who many Fianna Fáil TDs considered their hardest-to-elect candidate. As one of its TDs put it: “If they had picked John Bruton, they would have walked it. We would have found it hard to put up somebody against Pat Cox and Mairéad McGuinness, but Gay Mitchell is definitely beatable.”

Then David Norris’s campaign buckled, removing – at a stroke – the most formidable Independent candidate.

Emboldened, Martin declared last week that the next president of Ireland would not come from among the remaining four candidates. However he knew that if his party was to approach an Independent candidate, it needed to be done sooner rather than later – hence the urgent phone call last weekend.

In its reduced circumstances, it was always clear Fianna Fáil was reluctant to run a party candidate. Some TDs, however, believed they need to be on the slate on the basis that the party could do no worse than its February mauling.

A majority of its TDs have been unenthusiastic. “It could bloody well be worse and could finish off the party,” said one of its younger, more outspoken TDs.

The situation was complicated by South MEP Brian Crowley making it clear he was interested in running, but Martin seems to have received Crowley’s intentions in an “I hear what you are saying” mode.

Fianna Fáil’s coat-trailing has been almost epic. It eventually managed to form the committee to consider its options a week before the summer recess. The six members – Martin; Éamon Ó Cuív; Dara Calleary; Seán Ó Fearghaíl; Timmy Dooley and Senator Darragh O’Brien – have yet to meet and are unlikely to do so until early September.

Informally though, a lot has been happening. A small number of TDs – principally Dooley, Niall Collins and John McGuinness – as well as party officials had been sounding out possible candidates.

Names which have been mooted include RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan and another veteran RTÉ broadcaster, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. Indeed, the party recently commissioned poll research on Ó Muircheartaigh as well as two internal figures, Ó Cuív and Mary Hanafin.

It is Byrne’s name though that has recurred most often. He was first mentioned by Clare TD Timmy Dooley, who was very impressed at how he acted as compere for the concert in Queen Elizabeth’s honour at the national convention centre in May.

On the back of it, Dooley arranged to meet Byrne’s daughter, Crona, who lives in Killaloe, Co Clare, and made the suggestion to her – the initial feedback, according to one party source, was that he was not hugely interested. Byrne said yesterday that his daughter “had jokingly referred to it once or twice” recently, suggesting he did not really consider it as an option.

Whatever the status of his standing, Martin’s phone call on Saturday night may well turn out to have been the moment when the dynamic of the presidential election was changed irrevocably.