Echoes of 1990 in Gallagher's defining moment

 

ANALYSIS:RECENT ELECTION campaigns have thrown up dramatic defining moments when a candidate with a seemingly unassailable lead snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in just a few minutes.

The most memorable in modern times was in 1990 when Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan saw his presidential prospects evaporate when he made the humiliating admission he made a false statement on live television. His phrase to explain it, “on mature recollection”, haunted him for the rest of the campaign.

And on Monday night, within 72 hours of a victory that looked certain, in another defining moment, Seán Gallagher may have met his own Alamo with ill-chosen phrases and unconvincing explanations.

Over the previous week, Gallagher had surged ahead in the polls. Inevitably, his rise had unleashed a torrent of media scrutiny into his business dealings and the extent of his involvement with Fianna Fáil. Despite a number of stories appearing, his support appeared not to waiver.

All that changed with the final debate on RTÉ’s Frontline, which focused relentlessly on Gallagher. Most of the audience questions were directed at him and he suffered a degree of hostility from his rivals that was unprecedented for a presidential campaign.

His two chief tormenters did untold damage. The first was Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness who abandoned any of the Áras aura he had tried to cultivate and went for the jugular. He dramatically alleged that a businessman had told him Gallagher had gone to his premises after a Fianna Fáil fundraiser to collect a €5,000 cheque. If true, it would be hugely damaging as it would have made Gallagher a “bagman” for the party rather than the grassroots footsoldier he made himself out out be.

He found himself struggling when Pat Kenny read out a tweet that purported to come from Sinn Féin saying the businessman (later identified as Hugh Morgan) would be giving a press conference. The tweet came from a fake account and thus was a fantasy. But it left Gallagher reeling. And under pressure from McGuinness he conceded that he may have collected an envelope.

His phraseology – the use of “envelope” and “recollection” – were poisonous for him as they conjured up Lenihan’s unfortunate moment and the brown envelope culture that was so prevalent in Fianna Fáil.

Yesterday, it transpired that McGuinness’s claim was incorrect in so far as the cheque was cashed before the event. Sinn Féin now claimed he went twice to Morgan, before and after. Gallagher now denied he ever called to Morgan, claiming he was forced to concede the point on Frontline because he was thrown by the allegation.

Morgan subsequently issued a statement claiming Gallagher had called to him before and after. There was a conflict of evidence. The net result electorally was the same – the damage was already done, it was all bad for Gallagher.

His other potential nemesis was audience member Glenna Lynch. She asked him hostile and detailed questions on his business dealings. When he suggested on RTÉ radio yesterday that she may have been a party plant, she rang up to deny any affiliation.

Lenihan’s defining moment in 1990 occurred on October 26th, almost a fortnight before polling. But his stock fell immediately and he had just began to recover when Pádraig Flynn’s attack on Mary Robinson brought the resurgence to an end.

This time, the extraordinary turn of events happened with just two days to go to polling, begging the question, is it too late for others to close the gap? There was a sense Gallagher’s interviews yesterday did not address the controversies. Credibility is key in a presidential election and with the electorate in a volatile mood, there is a growing sense that victory is slipping from his grasp.