Gavin Duffy on presidential race: ‘I am mellowing as a capitalist’

‘I fear we are taking the presidency back to . . . a retirement home for very great politicians’

Harry McGee follows former Dragon and businessman Gavin Duffy on the campaign trail. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

It’s 10am on a weekday and a bus pulls up in rural Co Kildare. In front of us is a rugby pitch, the home ground of Barnhall RFC. Its most famous player was second-row Trevor Brennan, no stranger to bruising encounters.

Alighting from the bus is Gavin Duffy, who is now assuming the role of the “bruiser” of this presidential election campaign.

The 58-year-old businessman and Dragons’ Den panellist is upping the ante as he tries to make a contest out of it.

Sharing a ground with Barnhall rugby club is the Weston Primary and Montessori school. A year and a half ago, the old school building was burnt to the ground by vandals. New prefabs have been erected and today Duffy is performing the official opening.

The schoolchildren, full of eager and nervous excitement, ask him some searching questions about the other candidates and why he wants to be president. There are also some intriguing questions from the children which elicit great information. For example, the Duffys have loads of pets including three dogs: Kayleigh, a Bichon Frise; Johnny, a Labrador; and Scott, a 19-year-old Jack Russell.

Things didn’t start off this cheerfully. Earlier in the day, this reporter makes a bit of a blunder by venturing an opinion along the lines that the incumbent Michael D Higgins may be unassailable and the result of the vote on October 26th is a foregone conclusion. Duffy may also have a bit of an issue with an Irish Times editorial which referred to a comparatively weak field. It becomes clear the editorial has needled him a bit and as the day goes on he becomes increasingly animated – but, in fairness to him, not testy – on the subject of what he says is an unwavering “establishment” view that it’s all over bar the shouting.

Loquacious

Duffy is loquacious, engaged and fluid in conversation as you would expect from a person who has been a communications specialist all his life. At this stage in the campaign, one senses, he is impatient to disrupt what he sees as the “cosy” consensus. His prose has become more urgent, more pointed, and his criticisms of the President more direct.

Duffy’s transport is a modest enough minibus emblazoned with an “Ambitious for Ireland” logo and a big photograph of himself. A small team travels on the bus, including his wife and business partner, Orlaith Carmody (a former journalist) and their son, Lorcan, who is their social media person.

At his official launch, Duffy laid down the gauntlet to media on his past. The Mail on Sunday then uncovered a number of long-ago driving convictions, including a collision 40 years ago, where a young woman sustained serious injuries. He was uninsured at the time. He was later prosecuted twice on driving offences, the last time in 1993. He has issued a lengthy statement apologising for those events.

He has also spent a lot of time dealing with questions about communications advice he gave Denis O’Brien at the time of the Moriarty Tribunal report. He won’t disclose the advice but says it was given during 40 hours work he did for O’Brien over a 20-year span. People can make up their own minds about that.

As we travel to his alma mater, Newbridge College, Duffy outlines why he is standing. He believes Higgins did not bring the presidency to a new place, as his predecessors had done.

“[Higgins] promised faithfully at the last election he was only going to do one term,” he says.

“What’s he going to do in the next seven years [that] he could not do in [the first] seven years? I fear we are taking the presidency back to what it used to be criticised for, a retirement home for very great politicians who have given great service.

“I’m saying if you want a dynamic presidency back in the mould of Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese, I am the candidate who is offering to do that.”

Is he being ageist?

“No, I am not being ageist,” he replies. “I always have a concern about people who stay too long in a job. They don’t realise they are overstaying their term. It happens in business. It happens on family farms. Why say only one term and then do a second term?”

Brexit

Duffy has put Brexit at the centre of his election bid, saying what is needed is a more engaged and energetic president who will get things done. He envisages himself batting for the State on the issue at every available opportunity, and as the Government requires.

He has also floated a few interesting ideas, including an international youth corps; a call to the Government not to sell AIB – which he describes as the country’s biggest cash cow; as well as a call for more stringent regulation of global tech firms.

“If globalisation is built around major internet or global tech companies and if you can build your product in the cheapest locations, sell your product to the citizens of the world’s richest nations and declare your profits in a tax haven, that’s not right,” he says.

“I am mellowing as a capitalist and more open to, if not socialism, to social policies. I like to talk about a more compassionate society. I don’t think that everything should be determined by the cost. I do not want my children and your children to be dispensable contractors.”

So has he had a Bertie Ahern-style conversion to socialism? Not quite. But on taking on the big global tech companies, he says: “I will be going to the Taoiseach and saying; ‘Hey give me that one to run with on a global level’.”

Has he paid all his tax, and paid it all in Ireland? Yes, he answers.

On hunting and his involvement in the controversy over stag hunting and the Ward Union Hunt, he insists his only involvement was “stepping in and asking what’s going to happen to the indigenous deer herd”.

Anyway, he asks, who was the minister who granted the licence to the Ward Union Hunt in the first place? We can see the clever answer coming.

It was Michael D Higgins, no less.

After a lively address to the students in Newbridge, he warms to the theme of the establishment view that someone like him – wealthy, successful and high profile as he is – is not the correct fit or calibre.

“We do need some alternative thinking and I feel at the moment we have a cosy consensus in new politics, ‘Ah sure let’s have Michael D for another seven years.

“With respect, The Irish Times will go ‘rah-rah’ and RTÉ does as well,” he complains.

“We need a bit of fresh thinking. We are in a presidential election and what I’m asking you is, will you give the guy who’s come along with a few fresh thoughts a chance and at least we will end up with a presidential election, or else we can go along with a foregone conclusion – more of the same, if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”

On RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show yesterday, he repeated his concerns, accusing RTÉ of being “the President’s fan club”. When challenged, he referred to the station’s handling of the Sean Gallagher “Tweetgate” court case and asked why the amount of the settlement was a secret.