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'On that evening I let myself down' - Sean Gallagher addresses 'Tweetgate' on first campaign stop

The businessman spoke at length about the 2011 controversy in Leitrim today.

Updated Sep 3rd 2018, 3:11 PM

SÉAN GALLAGHER SPOKE at length today about that infamous moment in 2011 when he was confronted with claims contained in a false tweet during a live TV debate.

The businessman, who finished second in the Áras race seven years ago, declared his intention to seek a presidential nomination via the council route last Wednesday.

In his first public appearance on the campaign trail today he addressed Leitrim County Council’s monthly meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon and answered questions from local and national media outlets.

In his address to councillors, after outlining his priorities in the areas of disability and support for the Irish Defence Forces, he spent a large portion of his allotted time speaking about the 2011 Frontline debate and his own response to the controversy – which came to be known as ‘Tweetgate’.

“What happened in that studio on that night changed the outcome of the presidential election,” Gallagher said today.

Leitrim County Council had been one of the four local authorities to nominate him seven years ago, he noted, going on to tell the chamber:

“On that evening I let myself down and I let you the members of this council down and for that I am truly sorry.”

Claims that Gallagher had once collected a cheque for €5,000 for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser derailed the Dragon’s Den star’s campaign during the TV debate – which was the last set-piece media event of that campaign

He initially dismissed them when they were raised in the programme by Martin McGuinness.

Later, host Pat Kenny raised the issue again saying that a tweet had been issued from an account apparently linked to the Sinn Féin candidate, claiming that the man Gallagher picked the cheque up from would be at a press conference the following day.

Gallagher stumbled in his response to the tweet, saying he had “no recollection” of the events described. His reply was met with hoots of derision from the studio audience. 

The businessman later launched a legal action – and last December the national broadcaster apologised to him and agreed to pay out “substantial damages” over the incident.

As part of the settlement an apology from RTÉ was read out in court, in which the broadcaster accepted it should have verified the origin of the tweet which was read to the candidate on air.

Speaking today, Gallagher said that the claims relating to the fundraising cash had been put to him by a journalist the previous week. The candidate explained at the time that they were not correct and the paper had decided not to run the story, he said. 

When the tweet was read out on air and he was confronted again with the claims it “caused me to doubt my memory momentarily,” he said.

He said he was aware that to many people he appeared unconvincing in his response and that as a result many people in that moment changed their vote.

“I wish to say sorry to those who changed their vote because they lost confidence in me during that interaction.

Many people saw me as something I am not and that pains me.

He said that, on behalf of anyone seeking public office, he had felt compelled to hold RTÉ to account for what had happened. He added that he fully accepted his own failings in the incident.

Gallagher was one of four presidential hopefuls to address the council in Carrick-on-Shannon today, alongside fellow former Dragon Peter Casey, burlesque performer Sarah Louise Mulligan and former airline worker Patrick Feeney.

Each of the prospective candidates were allotted ten minutes to speak – however Gallagher went substantially over that, asking the chairman for more time so he could finish his prepared remarks about the Frontline incident and his response to it.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, he said it was important for him to put the controversy behind him and to concentrate on the current campaign. 

Asked directly whether he reckoned he would have been elected president had the infamous tweet not been read out, he responded: 

I have to leave that to history and the analysts but I’ve stated my case very clearly here and RTÉ have their own answers to put forward.

He said he had no resentment towards anybody over what had happened “but when I see injustice I want to address that injustice and move on and today I feel that I have done that – I have moved on”.

Asked what he had to offer to voters this time around, he said his candidacy was not a criticism of Michael D Higgins, and that he was seeking to put forward a vision for the next seven years. 

The incumbent president, he added, had “done Ireland proud” during his time in office. 

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Gallagher issued several tweets on the issue of the presidency over the summer, but hasn’t taken part in any media interviews since announcing his candidacy in the middle of last week. 

Speaking today, he said he would be taking part in a full array of media events during the campaign proper. In addition to seeking nominations from local authorities, he said he was currently focused on transitioning his business interests over to a management team and on his role as a father to two young children. 

Asked directly if he was happy to take part in RTÉ TV debates this time around he said: 

“I’m sure that’s something that will unfold as the media outlets decide what debates will take place and the format of those debates and the timings – that will all unfold in time.”

Peter Casey, who has stated his views in a number of media interviews since confirming his own Áras ambitions last week, reiterated his plan to donate his presidential salary to different charities each month. 

He also called for a constitutional amendment to limit the president’s term in office to five years. 

Elsewhere today Gavin Duffy, the third former Dragon’s Den personality in the race, secured the first council nomination of the contest with the backing of 17 councillors in Meath. 

Gallagher will next address Wexford County Council and Roscommon County Council on Monday. 

Three motions in support of the businessman – from a Fianna Fáil councillor, a Fine Gael councillor and an independent – have been accepted by Leitrim council this afternoon. A vote will be held next Monday.

A candidate needs the backing of four councils or 20 Oireachtas members (TDs or senators) to get on the ballot paper. 

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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