Monday 18 February 2019

Andrew Lynch: Dirty tricks and kicks on the road to the Aras

Norris may be fuming, but history shows that a smear or two may help your campaign

David Norris is hopping mad. His campaign to become the next President of Ireland has been derailed by the resurfacing of an old magazine interview in which he appears to make controversial statements about paedophilia, incest and the age of consent.

The senator admits that the fallout is bound to cost some support -- and he also claims that a dirty tricks brigade is out to get him.

Still, Norris should not give up hope just yet. The recent history of presidential elections suggests that anyone who wants to live in Aras an Uachtarain needs to grow an incredibly thick skin. There have only been two contests in the last 38 years, but both were dominated by a series of vicious personal attacks -- some destroying their targets for good, others backfiring and actually working to the candidate's advantage.


Mary Robinson and condoms go back a long way. When she campaigned for the legalisation of contraception in the 1980s, a steady supply of used specimens arrived in her letterbox. In 1990 she ran for president and was asked in a Hot Press interview if she would be willing to open a condom stall in the Virgin Megastore (which was illegally selling them at the time).

Robinson replied, "Yes. This is a very young country and I think it would be helpful to have a president who was in touch with what young people are doing." The reaction from Catholic commentators was so hostile that one newspaper dubbed the interview, 'The Longest Suicide Note in History'. It didn't help when Robinson reversed her position and claimed that she always said "Yes" after a question just to show she had understood.

As her campaign adviser Fergus Finlay (a leading candidate himself this year) later wrote, "It could be argued that Mary got away with murder -- and was helped enormously by the fact that Fianna Fail basically ignored the controversy."


As Charlie Haughey's deputy throughout the 1980s, Brian Lenihan's catchphrase was "No problem!" In the 1990 presidential election, however, he landed himself with a problem that no amount of bluster could solve. Leading by a mile in the polls, he was asked on RTE's Question And Answers if he had made a controversial phone call to President Patrick Hillery asking him not to dissolve the Dail in 1982 -- and told the audience, "I want to assure you that never happened." Unfortunately, a UCD student then produced a tape of an interview for his thesis in which Lenihan had said the exact opposite. The candidate dug his hole even deeper by going on Six One News and declaring that "on mature recollection" he definitely hadn't rung the Aras. As his wife said afterwards, "Whoever advised him to look into the camera should be shot."

A few days later, Haughey was forced to sack his old friend from the Cabinet -- and the dead cert suddenly became the underdog.


A week before polling day, the result was still in the balance -- Robinson ahead, but Lenihan making a comeback. Then FF minister Padraig Flynn launched a personal attack on Robinson that backfired in spectacular fashion.

On RTE's Saturday View radio programme, he accused her of having "her new clothes and new hairdo and newfound interest in the family... but, you know, none of us who knew Mary Robinson in previous incarnations ever heard her claiming to be a great wife and mother." Bertie Ahern, who was Lenihan's campaign manager, knew that something was wrong when a young woman approached him and declared, "It's bastards like Flynn who have destroyed the party my parents love." Flynn's sexist gaffe ensured that Mna na hEireann turned out in force on election day -- and the rest is history.


Before Dana Rosemary Scallon sensationally entered the 1997 presidential election, she had lived outside Ireland for several years. That's probably why the former Eurovision winner agreed to be interviewed by Vincent Browne, whose take-no-prisoners style had caused some of his colleagues to nickname him 'Mad Dog'. The resulting encounter was car-crash radio, with Browne sighing his way through most of her answers and Dana worried that her host might be seriously ill.

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission decided that the interview had been unfair and Browne apologised by singing All Kinds Of Everything on his show. Dana, however, had the last laugh. The sympathy she got had a positive effect on her campaign, helping her to come a respectable third and launching her successful attempt to become an MEP two years later.


When the Labour Party persuaded Adi Roche to become their presidential candidate, the opinion polls suggested they were on to a winner. Passionate, idealistic and hugely respected for her work with the children of Chernobyl, she seemed like a natural choice to succeed Mary Robinson.

In the space of just a few days, however, the Angel of Chernobyl's halo began to slip. First, a group of her ex-employees raised some serious issues with her management style. Then it was alleged that her brother had been sacked from the army over his links to a terrorist group (this was subsequently proven to be untrue).

Roche was also widely mocked for bobbing her head along to a Luka Bloom song on the campaign trail and signing autographs, "It's about love and peace -- Adi." Her campaign went into freefall, she finished a poor fourth and her political career was over for good.


Mary McAleese seemed to come out of nowhere. So when she suddenly became the frontrunner for the Park in 1997, it was hardly surprising that her past would come under intense scrutiny. There was widespread shock when a series of leaked documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs suggested she was a closet Sinn Fein supporter -- and to make matters worse, she then received the endorsement from hell from Gerry Adams.

While the journalist Eoghan Harris labelled her "a tribal timebomb", McAleese kept her cool. She rescued herself with media interviews that convinced the electorate she was the victim of a smear campaign. Instead of destroying her reputation, the mudslinging helped her to win a landslide victory -- paving the way for a highly successful presidency that culminated in last month's visit from Queen Elizabeth.

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