Seán Gallagher: ‘Is Michael D hiding something on expenses?’

Presidential candidate remains bullish as he campaigns within his comfort zone

As the presidential election campaign comes to an end, political correspondent Harry McGee joins Sean Gallagher on the hustings in Dublin. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Up at Northwood Business Park in Santry, the last leaves are desperately clinging on. But soon they will have to bow to the inevitable.

Seán Gallagher walks across the carpark past the russet-coloured trees to the Gourmet Food Parlour’s restaurant. He is upbeat and assertive but with less than 48 hours to go to polling day, one feels that he, like the other four challengers to Michael D Higgins, is clinging on at this stage.

That is the nature of these things. It is the end game and the outcome is already evident, and has been since the beginning of the campaign. Gallagher rues that the campaign was not longer, indicating that four weeks was not enough for those who wished to take on a popular incumbent.

And now, in the final days of the campaign, the businessman has come out with the gloves off.

He returns to a recurring theme of the campaign – the €317,000 allowance for unspecified Áras expenses – and asks again why they are not being published. But now, for the first time, there is a note of suspicion.

“Is there something within these accounts that Michael D is hiding?” he asks. “If not, why not publish them? The questions have been raised but the answers are not forthcoming.”

It is a forceful move, but may be too late to make any real difference.

Final canvass appearances

We join Gallagher on his final canvass appearances before the moratorium kicks in. In between radio interviews, he visits the Loreto on the Green school in Dublin in the morning and the Gourmet Food Parlour in the afternoon.

At the door he meets Alan Quirke and Shirley Byrne, who take him through its history. Twelve years in existence, it has gone from having 12 employees to 300 employees.

Gallagher quizzes them up and down about the company, asking the kind of questions he might have asked during the Dragons’ Den years; about branches, the catering side, growth plans, and so on. There is a sense that this is his comfort zone, talking to small and medium businesses about expanding and diversifying. On the wall inside, there is a framed newspaper article penned by Gallagher six years ago, when the company was first spreading its wings. He says he did a similar piece on the Santry Sports Clinic, a few hundred metres down the road. And dozens of others.

For others, there is the GAA or tidy towns or community groups. This is Gallagher’s nationwide network – businesses and enterprises.

That approach worked in 2011, but it just hasn’t resonated in the same way this time round. Candidates will never admit it – and Gallagher in particular is a person who always emphasises positivity – but the election has really become one about who will finish second.

Performance

He remains bullish. He was happy with his performance in the Primetime debate and berates Higgins for not appearing on Thursday evening’s debate on Virgin One. But he himself did not appear in the first debate and got a scorching for it last night, with other rivals describing him as arrogant.

He sees it the other way round. He argues everyone should have refused to participate in the first debate, thus putting pressure on Higgins. One of the reasons he has changed his mind on this issue and is participating in the last debate is to ask the questions he says Higgins has not answered.

“I put questions that I never received an answer for [about his expenses].

“The strange thing is Leo Varadkar and the Government see nothing wrong with that. In what Government department would they get away with that? Is it okay for him to say that in other Government departments, do not worry about auditing your accounts?”

He continues: “Many journalists have said they have asked for publication of the accounts and they are not getting answers. More importantly, the electorate and the taxpayers are not getting any answers.”

Asked has he got tired of being asked what he has been doing for the past seven years, he replies: “I wish that you or anyone would have accompanied me for every hour of every day for the last seven years. You would not have asked me what I was doing.”

He repeats his oft-aired comments about staying with the same, or looking for something new: “It’s time for change. We need a president with a different vision for the next seven years.”

But unless the polls have got it disastrously wrong, that is unlikely to happen.