Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Gaybo and Fianna Fail are strange bedfellows

Micheal Martin's offer to back Gay Byrne's run for the Irish presidency could be a poisoned chalice, says Sam Smyth

Gay Byrne
Gay Byrne

Fianna Fail's temptation of Gay Byrne, a pensioner without portfolio, is like the storyline from a dark gothic novel. A devilishly ruthless and discredited political machine offers a free ride to a much-loved, but indigent presidential candidate.

And on the face of it, Fianna Fail's leader is making him an offer he cannot refuse - a nomination, funding and organisational expertise.

But Micheal Martin has added the ultimate bait: Gaybo will be an Independent candidate and can even make trenchant criticisms of Fianna Fail.

At 77 years old, it will probably be the last temptation of Gay Byrne, a man of undoubted courage and conviction.

But can he credibly take Fianna Fail's votes for a nomination, its money and the unfettered use of its organisation and still be seen as truly independent?

Rival candidates will use any real or imagined connection to Fianna Fail in a guilt-by-association whispering campaign.

Byrne himself has never been linked to any political party, although members of the others have been suspicious of him because he never demonised Fianna Fail.

Anyone who has closely observed his great skill as a broadcaster couldn't but have noticed his gut instinct for the popularly held view.

However, party diehards, and even some of his RTE colleagues, have wrongly interpreted his natural populism as suspicious.

If he rejected Fianna Fail's offer, he would find it relatively easy to raise the money for a presidential campaign. Rumours of showbusiness promoters and entrepreneurs fund-raising for his campaign have been ricocheting around Dublin.

Veteran observers think he would have little difficulty raising, say, €500,000 to pay for a 10-week blitzkrieg of a campaign.

However, getting people of the required experience and calibre for his campaign team would present Byrne and his supporters with an enormous challenge.

As one veteran of presidential campaigns said, if Byrne was a candidate, he would be the one to beat. But doing it as an Independent will be by far the most difficult road to the Aras, compared with the short-cut offered by Fianna Fail.

The nomination, the money and organisational expertise required to catapult him into the Aras is available from Fianna Fail - and he doesn't even have to acknowledge the party's existence.

Granted, say his friends, if Byrne does run under their patronage he will be tainted with the toxic brand of Fianna Fail, but not if he publicly disowns the party.

The other big puzzle is: what's in it for Fianna Fail if it gives him the nomination, funding and expertise?

Even if the membership can swallow that, why would the party leader give Byrne carte blanche to blame the party for everything that has gone wrong in the Republic's recent history?

After all, wasn't the current leader of Fianna Fail a member of the three governments, led by Bertie Ahern from 1997, blamed for the south's current economic mess and, by extension, the destruction of Byrne's second pension?

Those questions are easily answered by the battle hymn of old Fianna Fail optimism: no problem.

The belief is that Byrne can beat Gay Mitchell and a defeat for Fine Gael will be seen in Fianna Fail as a victory - even if Byrne is not the party's candidate.

It was no coincidence that a succession of senior Fianna Fail TDs came out to encourage Byrne's candidacy after Micheal Martin called him last weekend.

One frontbench spokesman said he would not care if Byrne's speech accepting a nomination attacked Fianna Fail for its reckless profligacy in government. He would not be telling any lies, said the TD. It might even waken up some members of the parliamentary party to how Fianna Fail is seen by voters.

Former Fianna Fail ministers are elbowing their way through the crush of their colleagues to encourage Byrne to become a presidential candidate.

And none of them appears to care how hurtful Byrne's criticisms are for former leaders - or current members - of Fianna Fail.

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