How Seán Gallagher nearly became president of Ireland in 2011
Frontrunner was on the brink of highest office until his campaign imploded in the final days
Seán Gallagher almost became president in 2011 until his campaign imploded in the final days of the campaign. But what exactly happened?
It had been, as everyone wearily attested, a bruising campaign. But the opinion polls on the final weekend all bore the same message: Gallagher was on course to be the next president of Ireland.
The 49-year-old Cavan native, who described himself as an entrepreneur and community activist but was best known as a panellist on the TV programme Dragons’ Den, had come from nowhere to the brink of the country’s highest office.
As the campaigns of better-known candidates like David Norris, Dana and Mary Davis had wilted under intense media scrutiny, or never really got going in the first place – as in the case of Gay Mitchell and Martin McGuinness – support for Gallagher had grown continuously.
Now, with polling day just a few days away, his position appeared unassailable.
The secret of Gallagher’s success was hard to fathom; it is probably fair to say that he was nobody’s idea of a president before the campaign began.
Someone more different than all the previous holders of the office, it would be hard to imagine. But in an Ireland that had been stunned by the economic crash and ravaged by the ensuing austerity, his blend of sunny optimism, plain speaking and relentless talk of recovery had struck a chord with people desperate for a signal towards a better future. He was, apparently, an outsider to the discredited political establishment.
But he had the most indispensable quality of a successful politician – people liked him. He made them believe things could be better.
How much of this was by design or accident is impossible to know now. But allied to a growing, if subterranean, realisation among Fianna Fáilers – until very recently the largest political organisation in the country, don’t forget – that he was essentially one of them, his rise in the polls had been relentless.
McGuinness had prepared an attack on Gallagher which would change the course of the election.
With four days to go to polling, he was clear of the chasing pack – polls put him on 40 per cent, 38 per cent, 41 per cent and 40 per cent, will Michael D Higgins trailing in the mid to high 20s. Only a political earthquake could stop him now.
The final debate
“Seven people. One job. The final debate. What will happen here tonight will impact on voters’ decisions, so there’s clearly a lot at stake.”
When the programme began a few minutes later, the candidates were offered an opening statement to set out their stalls for the presidency. Most of it had all been heard before.
But McGuinness had prepared an attack on Gallagher which would change the course of the election.
The grass-root members of Fianna Fáil – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, McGuinness said. But Gallagher had not been an ordinary grass-root member, McGuinness said. He was part of “something very rotten at the heart of the last administration”.
He went on to say that he had been contacted by a man who had attended a Fianna Fáil fundraiser in Dundalk in 2008 where he had paid €5,000 and had been given a photograph of himself with then taoiseach Brian Cowen.
Gallagher had called round to his house to collect the cheque, he said. “The cronyism, the developers, the speculators and those who effectively destroyed the economy of this country, and Seán is up to his neck in all of that and he can’t deny it,” McGuinness said.
Kenny turned to Gallagher.
“You’re as thick as thieves with Fianna Fáil and you’re trying to deny it?”
Haltingly, Gallagher explained his association with Fianna Fáil, painting a picture of largely peripheral involvement. He had been asked to invite “perhaps three or four” local businessmen to a fundraiser. He denied he had solicited or collected money.
McGuinness repeated it. “I would caution you Seán, at this stage, that you are in very murky waters,” he warned.
“I can tell you quite clearly,” Gallagher explained, “I invited perhaps two to three people to that event. At the event people were asked if they’d like a photograph, as is normal at these functions, and I personally delivered – if that’s the case I don’t remember it – delivering a photograph, but I can tell you . . . ”
McGuinness interjected to say he had called to the man’s house to collect a cheque for €5,000.
“That’s not correct,” Gallagher replied.
McGuinness grinned broadly. “I have to say you’re in deep, deep trouble.”
In fact, the story of the fund-raiser was not new. The previous week, the Irish Independent had reported that Gallagher has asked “business friends” to pay €5,000 to “dine with Cowen”. But now Gallagher was adding faces, names, photographs, cheques and envelopes to the story. And for the first time in the campaign, he looked rattled. Seriously rattled.
Questions had also been circulated about some of Gallagher’s business dealings. Firms promised investment on Dragons’ Den did not receive the full amounts pledged on air. Gallagher had been paid huge amounts by companies which it turned out were struggling. Some of his companies had received significant State grants.
Back on Frontline, an audience member raised specific questions about a cheque for €89,000 for one of these companies that had been misdirected to Gallagher’s personal account. It was a mistake, Gallagher said, and had later been rectified. But the hammer blow was yet to come.
Returning after a commercial break, Kenny announced there had been “a development on the Martin McGuinness for President Twitter account. Sinn Féin are going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand.”
“You know who it is?” Kenny asked Gallagher.
“Yes,” Gallagher said. He was a fuel-smuggler, a convicted criminal and someone with links to Sinn Féin. But he didn’t want to get involved in this. He was shouted down by the audience.
Kenny asked, incredulously: “You went to a fuel-smuggler’s house and invited him to a Fianna Fáil do?”
Gallagher was floundering now, trying to explain that he had been asked to invite local businessmen. “What I have done – I may well have delivered the photograph – if he gave me an envelope” – here the audience hooted again – “If he gave me the cheque , it was made out to Fianna Fáil headquarters, and it was delivered and that was that. It was nothing to do with me.”
It was riveting television. Gallagher, the presidential frontrunner, was unravelling before the eyes of 900,000 viewers at a critical point in the campaign. But to RTÉ’s excruciating embarrassment, the tweet turned out to be from a fake account. But this was never acknowledged during the programme.
As it happened, the donor – Hugh Morgan, an Armagh businessman (who is Hugh Morgan?) – would later make a statement saying that Gallagher invited him to the fundraiser, requested a €5,000 donation, collected the cheque and later delivered the photograph of Morgan with Cowen. Gallagher disputed aspects of his account, but not the central thrust of it.
In December 2017, after years of legal exchanges, RTÉ apologised in the High Court to Gallagher and paid him what he described as “substantial damages” for his treatment by the programme.
A 2012 decision by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld Gallagher’s complaints that he had been treated unfairly. RTÉ also conducted its own review of the programme, which found that while Gallagher had been subjected to tough questioning, Higgins had not.
The allegation is that you haven’t been telling the truth
But it was not just the tweet, or the Frontline programme that derailed Gallagher’s bid. The following morning, in a bid to rescue his campaign, he appeared on Pat Kenny’s radio show.
Asked to address the question about his business dealings put to him by the audience member who described herself as a businesswoman, Gallagher testily replied: “Who is the businesswoman, what’s her background, and where does she come from, and what party is she attached to? I’m tired of people being wheeled out with agendas. You put that person here in front of me and let them tell you and me and the nation their background.”
Later he demanded: “You don’t know why she was there or her political background . . . Is she on somebody else’s campaign team? Is she a member of a political party?”
A few moments later, Gallagher got his answer. The woman, Glenna Lynch, rang the show. They put her straight on air.
“I’m so shocked. I was driving on my way to see someone, a client in work and I had to stop the car. It’s absolutely shocking,” she said.
“I’m a completely normal person. I have three children. I’m married, I live in Stillorgan. I am not involved in any political party [she would later stand for the not-yet-formed Social Democrats]. I don’t know a single politician and I think it’s extraordinary that Seán believes normal people, voters, don’t have the right to ask a question.”
Gallagher was in free-fall now.
The final phase of his spectacular fall would not come until that evening, when he was interviewed live on RTÉ’s Six One News by Bryan Dobson.
In a relentless, forensic dissection of Gallagher and his campaign’s accounts of his fundraising activities, Dobson secured an admission by Gallagher that contrary to his spokesman’s previous denials to journalists, he had recruited donors and solicited money for Fianna Fáil.
In 2011, with the economic crash still the central feature of Irish life, it was hard to construe a more damaging admission. It undermined the central appeal of Gallagher’s campaign – that he was untainted by the failed politics of the past.
“The allegation is made that there is something corrupt,” Gallagher pleaded.
“There is no allegation of corruption,” Dobson replied. “The allegation is that you haven’t been telling the truth.”
“I always tell the truth,” Gallagher insisted.
But his campaign was now a flameout. When the votes were cast, Gallagher and Higgins had swapped places – Higgins won 40 per cent, Gallagher 28 per cent, and Higgins – the last man standing after a gruelling two months – won easily on transfers.
Gallagher, a picture of impressive dignity for a man who had gone through such a spectacular reversal, stressed that Higgins would have his “full support as president”.
“He has given a lifetime of service to this country and I know he will be an outstanding president,” he said at the count.
Asked about the dramatic end of the campaign he replied: “Tonight is not the night for blame.”