AS THE DISTRACTION OF THE TAOISEACH'S MONEY was dragged through th second week by the media the question of Cui Bono (To whom the benefit?) was on my mind. Fianna Fáil had just suffered an unexpected slump in the polls. Last time when there was a similar rumour going around about a difficulty of the Taoiseach's with regard to finance, his ratings went up 7% in the polls. Fianna Fáil efforts were now made to pin the leak on the Fine Gael party, but the possibility was always there that some of their own friends had leaked the information themselves. There was much protestation about "smearing" a decent man. Still, in the next poll, their ratings did not improve so much - just 2 per cent which heralded a dead heat.
But then PD leader, Tanaiste MICHAEL MCDOWELL, surprised everyone by saying that, last Autumn, Bartholomew had given him a radically different account of his finances from the one he had given during the campaign. The PD leader gave everyone to believe that he would resign from Government, but then said he definitely would not, and finally demanded a full statement to clear up the matter from Bartholomew which the latter promised for Friday 11 May.
DURING THE SECOND WEEK, Bartholomew's luck again re-surfaced as he had to fly with the same PD leader McDowell to Belfast for the accolade of the opening of the new Assembly into which he had put a lot of work throughout his term and Michael's position was softer after they came back to Dublin. Bartholomew was given extra time to make his statement and he was strutting the streets with chest much farther out than had been the case during the first week.
This was the week when THE NURSES DISPUTE took over from all others as the issue of importance. In an act of defiance, the Health and Safety Authority, backed by the (PD) Minister for Health MARY HARNEY and her Government, threatened to dock 13% of existing pay because of the dispute. In the USA where Mike Quill fought (and lost) for workers' rights, this kind of action might have won applause but in the country of Jim Larkin it appeared to be an unnecessary, aggressive, arrogant and maybe suicidal action. It was aggravated later in the week when the Nurses invited all party leaders to a Conference and they were treated to a lecture from the glum Ms Harney and a finger-wagging barrister Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fáil. The leader of the Opposition ENDA KENNY suggested an outsider should, even before the election, be invited to examine the issues - a suggestion derided by Bartholomew in a long sentence but adapted before the end of the same sentence in a waffled format. At week end the now angry nurses promised to escalate their strike, while promising to deal with all emergencies.
THE TAOISEACH made his promised (5000 word) statement in the Sunday Independent on 13 May. In it he claimed that allegations made by Tom Gilmartin against him about monies received were false, (this allegation is still to be determined by a Tribunal), that the strange manner in which he bought a house (the matter in the leak) was due to his marital break-up. It was Mr Wall's house, he said, bought in March 1995, but Bartholomew had, before this, accepted about £28,000 in cash from Mr Wall in his office to refurbish/furnish it and pay Mr Wall's stamp duty (Dec 1994) as he and Mr Wall had an arrangement that he would rent it from Mr Wall with an option to purchase it later. Bartholomew rented the house as agreed ("from the summer of 1995"). Mr Wall also willed him the house (6 June 1996) but Bartholomew did not know of this at the time. He, in fact, purchased the house in 1997. He had done no wrong, he said.
TANAISTE MCDOWELL, whose party had been elected largely to be the watchdog of the public on their larger partners in Government, said that he was happy now with the Taoiseach's explanation.. At week's end, both parties were down in the polls.
ENDA KENNY, leader of FINE GAEL, had steadfastly avoided getting involved in this affair in spite of Government taunts that his party must have been responsible for the leaks from the Tribunal that gave cause to the controversy. Instead he dealt with his own "contract for a better Ireland", putting his position on the line if he did not deliver. In his rapid tour of the constituencies he was jaunty, confident, touchy-feely, buoyant, jovial, and unexpectedly charismatic. The cross-country whistle-stop tour with impromptu speeches compensated for the high profile of his antagonist BARTHOLOMEW who was joining REV IAN PAISLEY at the site of the Battle of the Boyne on Friday 11 May.
MINISTER BRIAN COWEN, at the very start of the campaign, had chosen to say that he and his colleagues would roast the Opposition on a slow barbecue throughout the election campaign. This Minister, an able speaker when he controls himself, lost marks for the Government by roaring at opponents in radio and TV debates, "You're wrong, you're wrong, you don't know what you're talking about", by conducting his part of the debate as if he were an inquisitor "Answer the question, answer the question, you won't answer my question" and denying his opponent the right to reply by loud interruptions as soon as his opponent had uttered the first few words in reply. As the Government lost its way, LABOUR LEADER, Patrick Rabbitte, met Minister Cowen in a TV dialogue. Rabbitte showed his teeth in his opening statement "The Minister's barbecue has gone out" and the rest of his witty statement was half drowned by the the furious interruptions of the roaring Minister.
At the end of the second week, the position for the Opposition was almost too rosy. The danger for them was that they had peaked too soon. Mistakes could now be made by any candidate or party. Bartholomew's posters were being taken down in droves, presumably by party planners, as if his grinning face might now be a liability. But Fianna Fáil were expected to fight back. The PDs continued to campaign as if they were winners. In an amazing faux pas the leader of the GREEN PARTY, TREVOR SARGENT declared that the Greens might not now be able to consider a pact with Fianna Fáil after the elections. Green Party voters would be expected rather to get Fianna Fáil out of office than help them back in. The slip was quickly relayed on TV as if Sargent had been intending to go in with Fianna Fáil until he realized that the polls were indicating Fianna Fáil might not have the numbers. The gaffe would definitely raise the hackles of many supporters and could cause unwanted dissension among the members of the Parliamentary party.
As with the Greens, there was an uncertainty surrounding the LABOUR PARTY and SINN FÉIN. Both, while castigating the present Government, have adopted a position that leaves them (almost) free to take up any option after the results of the election become known. In a previous election, when a weary electorate decided for a change of Government, believing that a combination of Fine Gael and Labour were the preferred option, Labour got an unprecedented 33 seats in the Dáil. Labour leader DICK SPRING, went to Fine Gael leader John Bruton and demanded a share in the top office - a "rotating Taoiseach" position (he and Bruton to share the office of Taoiseach every six months). When this was rejected, he did a volte face and brought Fianna Fáil back into Government. For this betrayal, the electorate never forgave the Labour Party.
So, the election looks more open than ever. At this stage, a worried electorate face the possibility of any one of the following combinations for the future Government:
Fine Gael and Labour alone?
Fianna Fáil and the PDs alone? (outgoing)
Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens?
Fianna Fáil, PDs, the Greens, some Independents?
Fianna Fáil and Labour?
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin?