‘Celebrity’ election candidates: On the campaign trail with Ciaran Mullooly, Nina Carberry and Cynthia Ní Mhurchú

Mullooly and Carberry are contesting the European elections in Midlands-North-West, Mhurchú in the South constituency

Luke “Ming” Flanagan was the first to crinkle a disdainful nose. “I see that I’m now running against two RTÉ ‘stars’. Pay the licence fee. To nurture the careers of future politicians,” the outgoing MEP for Midlands-North-West tweeted six weeks ago. “Have a joint,” said a wag. Upon which yet another ex-RTÉ star joined the celebrity line-up of Ciaran Mullooly and Nina Carberry. Cynthia Ní Mhurchú, thankfully for Flanagan, is running in a different constituency.

It gained legs. “I don’t know why it is that celebs get selected – maybe they’re better known and get more profile – and in this campaign that is a real worry that I have,” said former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, as quoted in the Anglo Celt. “It’s time we stop sending celebrities to represent us in Europe and instead send politicians who know what they’re talking about,” ventured Fianna Fáil candidate Niall Blaney. “We can send celebrity candidates to Brussels or we can send serious candidates such as my colleague [Senator Pauline O’Reilly],” said Green mayoral candidate for Limerick, Brian Leddin.

No word from Fine Gael on the subject, possibly because its celebrity punts have had mixed results. Former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh was its successful celebrity candidate in the last European elections but the self-destructed Dáil career of former RTÉ economics correspondent George Lee – who won his seat in a byelection landslide but abandoned it at nine months upon discovering he had “virtually no influence or input” – still scorches 14 years on.

The trouble is, it can look too easy. Carberry is hugely admired as a trailblazing champion jockey, likeable performer on RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars and Ireland’s Fittest Family and is the youngest and starriest of these three celebrities. She has none of the swooping, out-front battlehardness of Mullooly or Ní Mhurchú, a suspicion reinforced by Fine Gael’s reluctance to let her loose in unfamiliar campaign territory and the protective ring that kicks in around her when it does.


When, after protracted talks, The Irish Times finally gets to join a canvass with her in Fine Gael-friendly Enfield, Co Meath, by some lucky coincidence the Taoiseach happens to join us. Simon Harris hardly draws breath as he races from shop to shop, from grinning schoolkids to older people in cars, a masterclass in easy small talk, curiosity and informed advice combined with the equally important skill of knowing how to cut and run, politely.

In short, Harris sucks up all the oxygen, leaving a pleasantly reserved Carberry scurrying to keep up. “But you should have seen her [engage with people] over two days at the Punchestown races,” says a retinue member. But what horseracing fan could resist a handshake with a legendary Irish Grand National winner?

In the allotted 10-minute interview, she says she declared for Fine Gael because she has friends in the party, in particular Damien English, the Meath TD, and “I thought this is my time. I want to do something for someone else, not just for myself any more. I want to use my profile in a good way and this is the best possible way I can do it.”

Her priorities “are the people, getting out and meeting them and finding out what their issues are ... Especially businesses and farmers ... It’s opened up the world to me and I’m delighted now that I chose to do it”. Like almost every candidate in rural Ireland she empathises with farmers who, she says, “are getting a lot of blame when we talk about climate” and she worries about food security down the line “if their kids won’t take over the farm because it’s not a viable business”.

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Is it a mad idea to go into politics since she never gave it a thought until a few months ago? “I’m giving people a choice. I’m coming from a different side of things, a sporting and farming background. People say I was mad doing the Grand National ...”

Mullooly, by contrast, plied the plains for decades as RTÉ’s Midlands correspondent. He answers the phone himself and his only retinue is his Independent Ireland party buddy, council candidate Brian Crum, a Fianna Fáil defector since losing his seat last time out.

Over the decades Mullooly was entertained by approaches from all the big parties (apart from Sinn Féin), and the timing chimed between his retirement and the invitation to join the new party founded by TDs Michael Collins and Richard O’Donoghue.

Like most natural-born politicians Mullooly has an empathetic resting face, a sharp memory for names and faces, knows his turf (in all senses of the word), and moves startlingly fast for a big man in a fleece on a hot day. He does an easy, booming line in small talk and remains empathetic-looking even as a woman unleashes a stream of obscenities to damn all politicians. “All them departments are like RTÉ,” she spits, whereupon he tells her how RTÉ took away his cameraman at a time when Ryan Tubridy’s invoice could have covered two years’ pay. The root of her fury, it appears, is that her daughter was refused planning permission to build on her own land, a hot-button issue in rural Ireland.

As we hurtle through Westmeath – we talk while I drive, because campaign time sitting down is wasted time – he talks about his long and active involvement in suicide prevention, community work and his elevation to deputy national president of the Lions Clubs. The central plank of his policy is “absolute contempt” for where Just Transition [an EU funding project to support the midlands as it moves away from peat production and peat-fired power generation] has left jobs in the midlands. “If we’d lost 2,000 jobs at Dublin Airport there would have been murder, it wouldn’t have been allowed. But it’s expedient for the Greens and cowardly of Fianna Fáil to sit back and say we can’t appeal it.”

His anger is clearly sincere and so is his main target. “The Greens are desperate to move the agenda on – and they’re right. We all agree with the transition, I had solar panels installed in 2005. It’s that the transition hasn’t worked out. It’s moved too fast for the people who are left stranded.”

On the trail the recognition factor is huge. No one ever gives out to him, he says, “because I covered every Paddy’s Day parade in this county for years. Of course they’re not giving out to me. Cross my heart I haven’t got a bad word about myself, or RTÉ or Michael Collins [the party co-founder] and I’ve been in every county [of the 15 in Midlands-North-West]”.

That may partly be because the name Michael Collins never passes his lips on the canvass while another of the party’s TDs, Michael Fitzmaurice, is never off them: “I’m running with Michael Fitzmaurice’s party”; “Fitz understands the turf, he gets the fabric of rural Ireland, the Greens don’t – for them it’s all or nothing”; “Fitz wants someone in the European Parliament to scrutinise the stuff [legislation/directives] coming in to us,” he says repeatedly.

He takes issue with this reporter’s suggestion that independent party is a kind of oxymoron or that shackling his credibility to Independent Ireland confers moral heft on Collins’s views (aired in Hot Press magazine recently) about castrating rapists, keeping some asylum seekers in “holding bays”, legalising prostitution – “they’re providing a service” – and automatic 25-year sentences for offenders on a third conviction.

He vehemently disagrees with some of Collins’s values but is clearly irked with repeated questioning about them – “I dealt with it twice last week ... People know exactly what my values are, they know exactly what I signed up to with Independent Ireland ... They’re not going for Michael Collins, they’re going for me.” The party has agreed eight policy papers and one of the main attractions for Mullooly is that there is no party whip. Still, he says he expects to be heading for Brussels with two or three party colleagues and therefore a “much stronger hand” than going alone into some still-to-be-decided European Parliament group.

Ní Mhurchú, former RTÉ journalist and passionate Gaeilgeoir, “batin’ people round the court” for years as a family law barrister, never doubted which party was hers. A dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáiler for decades, mainly because she felt it supported the Irish language, she was invited to run by PJ Mara when she 25 but decided to pursue the bar. The celebrity dust comes with memories of presenting Eurovision with Gerry Ryan in 1994, the year of the Riverdance phenomenon.

Like Mullooly, she is a smart communicator. No sooner had this reporter made contact with the campaign office than she was in touch herself with a welcome, confirming arrangements and venues. Relentlessly positive and hyper-energetic, she darts around in a light summer dress and well-used trainers, apologises for “doorstepping” the Tipperary Chamber awards launch before organising a three-way interview on the podium and ordering the Chamber chief executive into a photograph. She can’t help it. “It’s the múinteoir in me ... My husband says once a teacher, always a teacher,” she says.

Her focus is firmly on EU competences – local issues are handled by her equally fast-moving Clonmel party colleague, Councillor Siobhán Ambrose – while sounding uncontrived and relatable. Her style is in-your-face and highly tactile. She takes arms, hugs total strangers, picks up dogs, admires a score of babies and tells a passerby that “you need someone to beat hard on the table, someone positive in Europe, not a bullshitter”, before sitting on a bench and holding hands with an elderly man who sings a love song.

All three candidates accept the celebrity tag in one way or another. “I am a celebrity, I’m well known but I’m not a parachute into the election for that. I think it’s unfair and I feel it’ll stick to me in the election,” says Mullooly.

Ní Murchú says she may be a celebrity “only with a certain age cohort obviously – but absolutely I will take any label, I will subscribe to the label of lawyer, mammy – the most important job ... but the main thing is I’m just a hard grafter”.

Carberry says the label doesn’t bother her. “Obviously I have a high profile but I come from a different background to Mullooly. I’m a sporting person as well. I’ve achieved a lot and I’m proud of what I have done and in paving the way for a lot of women coming after ...”

But past performance in a different world is no guarantee of political success, as Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University, puts it. He outlines the fates of several GAA legends such as revered Offaly hurler Brian Whelahan and the Meath footballing great Graham Geraghty, both of whom contested for Fine Gael and felt the lash of political rejection. Then again there was Cork’s Jack Lynch, named like Whelahan on the hurling team of the millennium, who went on to lead Fianna Fáil for 13 years and served twice as taoiseach. And Kerry golden boy, Jimmy Deenihan, who won seven Dáil elections for Fine Gael and became a minister.

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In short, celebrity is not a reliable indicator of future returns. It’s 25 years since Eurovision winner Dana Rosemary Scallon sensationally won the third and final seat in the Connacht-Ulster constituency and was joined in Brussels by Finnish rally king Ari Vatanen and British actor Michael Cashman, aka Colin from EastEnders, one half of the first gay kiss ever broadcast on a British soap. Cashman is now a Labour peer in the House of Lords, garlanded for his human rights activism.

Whether we treat the increasingly powerful European Parliament with sufficient seriousness is another question.

“The big parties think about European elections as sending a very small pool to a very big parliament where the new members can try to concentrate on an area of particular interest to them and no harm can be done”, says Murphy. “And if they don’t get elected there might be another potential run-out for a Dáil seat.”

All of which makes it a win-win for the party and the celebrity, if not for the voter. So far Flanagan’s disdain for the “stars” has failed to put a dent in them. According to last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos B&A poll Ní Mhurchú was fourth out of 23 in the five-seater South constituency while Carberry and Mulloolly were fifth and seventh respectively out of 25 in the five-seat Midlands-North-West.

Flanagan has done himself no harm either. He leads the field.