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Friday 19 January 2018

Fergus Finlay: Gaybo was in danger of being owned by FF, so he quit

HE looks a bit foolish now, doesn't he? One minute he seems like a shoo-in for the Presidency, and the next minute he's gone.

The nation is left a bit bewildered. After a week of excitement, culminating in the revelation that Micheal Martin has all but guaranteed Gay Byrne a nomination, he pulls out, just when it seemed he was going to be unstoppable.

What kind of an eejit is he, several people asked me over the weekend. How could he have talked himself into one position, and them immediately talked himself out of it again?

But actually, I have a lot of sympathy for Gay Byrne. He didn't plant his own name in the media. In fact, looking back on it now, it has all the look of a Fianna Fail stroke, and Gay Byrne was the victim of it. Except he is no eejit. It might have taken him a couple of days, but I think he figured out he was being set up to score a point for a political party. To be used, in short. And if we know anything about Gay Byrne, we know he doesn't like being used.

Maybe he remembered a particularly notorious Late Late Show way back when.

The show had been set up as a tribute to the long and illustrious career of the late Brian Lenihan Snr, a great character and lots of fun. All sorts of stories were told about the good old days in politics, about the drinking and the carousing and the lads.

One story that jarred was about an incident where a garda stopped an unnamed Government Minister who was clearly the worse for wear.

The audience laughed nervously as it was revealed that the garda was offered "a drink or a transfer" for his temerity in holding up a government minister.

But that show was no tribute. It was intended to be used, and it was used, as the launching pad for Brian Lenihan's presidential campaign -- and he too was seen as a shoo-in at the time. Gay Byrne would remember well how he was used that night, and also how the subsequent campaign ruined Brian Lenihan's career and marked his legacy.

It's not surprising in that context that when Gaybo had a chance to think it through, he could well have realised he wasn't ready for this.

If you're running for the Presidency, you have to know why you're running. What you want to do if you're elected. What difference you think you could make. How would handle the constraints of the job and its potential.

What kind of President you want to be.

And that's just the job. But it's an unusual job, because you have to campaign for it. And unlike any other job in Ireland, you have to persuade a majority of the entire people that you are up for it -- physically, intellectually and emotionally. This is not a job you get head-hunted for.

And Gay Byrne was head-hunted. Stories were planted and gobbled up by a waiting media. Gay Byrne was used as the next phase of the news cycle in the immediate aftermath of David Norris' disaster. And once he got past the pleasure of being adored once again, he would have had to figure out how to turn the instant adulation into a sustainable campaign.

And he'd know full well that the next couple of months of that campaign would be perhaps the most intense of his entire career, exposing himself and his family to pretty intense scrutiny.

And there was the dilemma. He had two choices when it came to those difficult two months. He could either try to run a campaign himself, pulling the people and resources together under some trusted and experienced political manager. In America you can buy that kind of expertise, but not here.

Or he could let Fianna Fail do it for him. They would supply not just the nomination but the campaign team, the slogans, the design, the preparation, the messaging. They would end up owning him.

Imagine being Gay Byrne, at the end of the most glorious media career in Ireland's history, being owned by Fianna Fail. You might get over that if you won -- but you'd have to win. Gay Byrne was being pushed into a race that he couldn't, at any level, afford to lose.

And once he realised that was the case, there was only one inevitable outcome.

Not for the first time, Gay Byrne made the right career choice. That's how he has survived so long.

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