The fixer, unmasked
The fixer, unmasked

The 26-County presidential election campaign erupted in a major controversy in its final days as so-called independent candidate Sean Gallagher admitted he secured substantial Fianna Fail ‘donations’ in exchange for dinner in the company of then Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Confirmation that the motivational speaker and businessman -- turned TV celebrity -- was deeply involved in the murky activities of the previous government has badly damaged his campaign, which had appeared on the verge of success.

While it emerged in the early days of campaigning that he had been a member of Fianna Fail’s executive, Gallagher appeared to have distanced himself from his links to the disgraced organisation.

But on the eve of the election, an Armagh businessman, Hugh Morgan, has come forward to say he handed over a 5,000 euro cheque for Fianna Fail to Mr Gallagher, who called to his home in 2008 to collect the money, in exchange for a meeting with the newly-appointed Taoiseach.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness first revealed the sensational allegation during the course of the final Presidential debate of the campaign on Monday night, ahead of voting tomorrow [Thursday].

Mr Gallagher accused Sinn Fein of a “dirty tricks” campaign designed at “taking him out” of the race for the presidency. He said the allegation had only emerged last week when he began to move ahead in opinion polls.

During the debate, and under pressure from both Mr McGuinness and members of the audience, Mr Gallagher admitted he may have delivered a 5,000 euro donation from a “convicted criminal and fuel smuggler” to Fianna Fail headquarters in respect of a fundraising event.

“If he gave me an envelope... if he gave me the cheque it was made out to Fianna Fail headquarters and it was delivered and that was that. It was nothing to do with me.”

The mention of the word “envelope”, redolent of the corrupt “brown envelope” payoffs in Irish politics, drew howls of derision.

In 2008, Fianna Fail was forced to close the infamous ‘Galway Tent’ which operated at a summer racing festival in the west of Ireland. The tent saw business figures and developers openly solicit favours from the party’s top brass in exchange for ‘donations’.

Speaking on RTE’s Six One news on Tuesday, Mr Gallagher denied he had collected the cheque from the wealthy oil importer. That allegation was “an absolute slur”, he said. He had asked a number of business people in the area if they wanted to attend the fundraiser, and “one of them obviously recommended Mr Morgan as somebody who might like to attend”.

However, much of this was contradicted by Mr Morgan, who said he had first been contacted by phone by Mr Gallagher to invite him to the fundraiser.

“In the course of the call he requested a donation of 5,000 euro for Fianna Fail. He advised me that this type of fundraising would replace the annual Galway Tent Fundraiser. In return for the 5,000 euro donation I was promised a private audience with the Taoiseach and I would get a photograph taken with him.”

Fianna Fail also confirmed the details of the fundraising dinner and the receipt of the cheque from Mr Morgan at that time.

Mr Morgan later issued a further statement insisting that Mr Gallagher called to his premises in Armagh to collect the cheque and that he had handed it over personally. There was also a CCTV recording of Mr Gallagher’s visit to his home, he added.

While Mr Gallagher continues to deny he physically collected the cheque after the fundraiser and “refuted” Mr McGuinness’s allegations, he has not denied organising the deal.

There have also been a number of other allegations over Mr Gallagher’s business operations, including the claim that one loss-making business was drained of funds in order to deprive investors of their investment. Last week, Mr Gallagher also came under pressure over a director’s loan for over eighty thousand euro from one of his companies that appeared to breach company law.

Mr Gallagher said he had been subjected to “smears” and a Sinn Fein “hatchet job”.

“I stand over everything that I have done as being impeccable with honesty and integrity. Absolutely. I absolutely refute any allegations that will be framed in such a way as to make me, my company or my integrity any way... allow those to be undermined.”

Labour Party presidential candidate Michael D Higgins, who lies second in the polls behind Gallagher and has most to gain from the developments, said there were still questions to be answered over the affair.

The scandal has cast a further shadow over an election which had already seen a panoply of controversies involving almost all of the seven candidates, as well as a concerted campaign by certain media groups to denounce Martin McGuinness over his IRA past.

The race remains a close call between Gallagher and Higgins, with Mr McGuinness still considered an outside bet by political pundits.

The dismal campaign of the main government candidate, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, finally came off the rails at the conclusion of the debate on Monday night, when Mitchell shouted condemnation of the audience’s choice of questions during a hysterical tirade against the debate and its presenter, Pat Kenny.

In a final message to voters today, Martin McGuinness said there is a real choice in the election. It was one between himself as “the only non-establishment candidate who can win” and candidates “who bankrupted the country and are now, through the imposition of austerity measures making ordinary people pay for it”.

He urged people to vote for change and ‘a New Republic’.

“When I embarked on this journey over a month ago it was because I was inspired by ordinary people to make a stand,” he said.

“I am inspired by the people who played no part in bankrupting this country but who are being forced to pick up the tab for the bankers, the developers and the political elite.

“I have spent the last four weeks visiting everyone of Ireland’s 32 counties. I have stood with parents heartbroken by the emigration of their children, with hospital campaigners, with people being denied the right to cut turf on their own bogs, with parents being denied Special Needs Assistants and with families up and down the country struggling to make ends meet in the face of unemployment and crippling mortgage payments.

“The people who brought this situation about, who sold our sovereignty and destroyed our economy are not patriots. This week I met with the descendants of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. They represent what real Irish patriotism is about. Patriotism is about your country and your people. It is not about yourself. I believe in the Proclamation of 1916 and I believe in its implementation and in particular not paying lip service to cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.

“Ireland needs a new beginning. Thursday’s election can be the start of the renewal of this great nation. Change is possible in Ireland. But it will only come about if people come out on Thursday and vote for a new type of politics.”

* Results of the election, the two referendums and the Dublin West by-election will be carried here as they come in on Friday.

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