Back from the political wilderness: the return of Seán Gallagher
‘Dragons’ Den’ star kept low profile following bruising conclusion to 2011 campaign
Presidential candidate Seán Gallagher: “In my lifetime I will see a united Ireland and that is important for me.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Presidential candidate Seán Gallagher and his wife, Trish, in Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
One week in autumn 2011, Seán Gallagher was everywhere. A week later, he had disappeared.
Tweetgate essentially ended whatever chance he had of defeating Michael D Higgins in that year’s presidential election.
The infamous moment on the RTÉ Frontline programme centred on the use of a tweet which purported – falsely – to come from an official Twitter account of Martin McGuinness, the late Sinn Féin politician who was also running for the presidency.
The tweet said a man alleged to have given a cheque to Gallagher for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser would be presented at a press conference the following day.
Nowadays, when Gallagher recounts the moment, he says every taxi driver he meets tells him what he should have said when McGuinness rounded on him.
But when this reporter tells people about the Gallagher interview, the question they all ask is this: “Where has he been for the last seven years?”
Gallagher was largely off the public radar since his defeat. And then, suddenly, he reappeared, like a boxer coming out of obscure retirement for a rematch with the champion.
Back in 2011, Gallagher was a high-profile Dragons’ Den star with an attractive message about being a jobs tzar in a depressed economy. Since then, the economy has recovered, society has moved on, his profile is no longer so high and he has not been involved in public life.
So what does he have to offer? Why re-enter the fray now?
The answer is complicated.
On one side, Gallagher believes his own life experiences and achievements make him a person who could represent, and speak, for the State.
While Gallagher’s public persona is that of a Mr Positive, one can’t avoid sensing there is a motivation that is a little negative. This may revolve around the way the last campaign ended and his protracted court case against RTÉ.
Tweetgate has lingered for him, there is no doubt about that. His decision to contest the election seems to be partly borne by a need, if not to settle the score, to address unfinished business.
In the long hiatus, one forgets details of Gallagher’s back story, and his varied and interesting life. Born with congenital cataracts and a severe visual impairment, he was told by a teacher at his school in Cavan not to focus on what he could not do but what he could do. Now in his mid-50s, he has followed that advice all his life.
He has had a peripatetic career path, getting involved in youth work and counselling; working with people with disabilities and with Travellers; as a health promotion specialist; as an adviser for then minister for health Rory O’Hanlon; working with enterprise boards; and then as an entrepreneur – his ‘smart home’ company made him a wealthy man and propelled him into Dragons’ Den.
And then to the fateful campaign and the Frontline programme. Here was a person whose outlook on everything was positive, confronted with an immeasurable defeat. Here’s how he explains that paradox. “Our campaign was positive and that is who I am, I am authentic,” he says. “It did take a negative turn in the end.”
And so to the nitty gritty of the night. Now he says he should have said the issue of collecting a donation was nonsense, there was nothing wrong with fundraising .
“Had I said that, it would probably would have moved on. The fake tweet was introduced but my performance was not good that night in response to the tweet,” he admits.
But he denies being coy about being associated with Fianna Fáil. The party’s reputation was dirt at the time and he was seen as its proxy candidate in many circles.
“I never, ever said I was not in Fianna Fáil,” he says. “When people kept saying to me ‘You are the Fianna Fáil candidate’, I would reply and say ‘I am not, I am an Independent’ and that may have come across to some people that I was trying to distance myself. I was not, I wanted to make clear I wanted to stand as an Independent.
“That’s the nature of politics: you want to take somebody down to gain an advantage.
“My response to it was less than convincing when it was put to me so dogmatically and combatively after the tweet.
“A lot of people were watching me at home and a lot of people saw in me something I am not. That did pain me because I was unconvincing on the night.”
For 18 months after the election, he says, his phone did not ring. He had to rebuild his business and rebuild his life. He fell out of public view and public consciousness.
“I fell somewhere between the world of business and politics. It did leave a cloud over me . . . My reputation had been damaged whether I liked it or not. Though it was not my fault I had to put it right.”
He took a case against RTÉ which took six years to be resolved. He won an apology and substantial damages.
The outcome, he contends, ensures there is a level playing field for all future debates. He wrote a weekly column for a Sunday newspaper and became involved in new businesses.
He set up a company that provided office and factory space for companies, joined a company called Team Horizon which recruits engineers for pharma companies, and became president of a new pharma company in Florida that delivers drugs using patch technology. He also focused on his family – he and his wife, Trish, have two young children.
He continued to mentor SMEs and entrepreneurs around the country. In a sense, that has been his “chicken dinner circuit”. He has been to most communities in the country, flying beneath the radar.
One senses Gallagher’s campaign will be a “ground war”, with him fishing most of his votes from rural Ireland.
Back in 2011, he promised to do with job provision what the McAleeses had done with the peace process. What is the message now?
“My message is the same but not focused on business. I have many things to bring forward. I have a values-based campaign, all authentic and based on my life experience.
“There are whole swathes of Ireland not seeing the recovery. We need a sustainable model for Ireland, encouraging rural Ireland. We need to go back to the heart of it, to get leaders to be leaders in their community.
As a visually impaired person, he says he will also champion disability and challenge divisions caused by disability.
The third idea involves a big claim. “In my lifetime I will see a united Ireland and that is important for me,” he declares.
“The friends that I have that live just miles across the Border consider themselves to be as Irish as I am. I would be a president for all the people of Ireland who wish to be in Ireland and to be a friend to those who do not wish to.”
Asked if he really believes it will happen, he replies “absolutely” and adds that contact and conversations between communities need to occur.
So what is his attitude to Fianna Fáil now? “I am proud of my time in Fianna Fáil and proud of what I have learned. It’s part of my history and part of my fabric.”
On funding, he says his campaign will be “frugal”, with no election posters, and he will be helped largely by volunteers.
A lot has changed since 2011, including societal issues. Like the other candidates when asked about upcoming abortion legislation, he says he would not allow his personal views impact on his constitutional role.
He may have disappeared for seven years, but as of now Gallagher seems the only candidate with the profile to mount a real challenge to the incumbent.