No charity from McGuinness in Gallagher donation row

Martin McGuinness
Image caption Martin McGuinness pushed favourite Sean Gallagher onto the back foot during the last Irish presidential debate.

Having spent much of the Irish Presidential campaign criticising the media for its trenchant questions about his IRA past, last night Martin McGuinness turned interrogator during RTE's final election debate.

Armed with information about the role played by independent candidate Sean Gallagher in a Fianna Fail fund raising event in Dundalk in July 2008, Mr McGuinness first elicited what sounded like a denial from the candidate, then warned him he was getting into "deep trouble".

As the programme continued, the presenter, Pat Kenny, told the audience Sinn Fein could produce a man who had handed Mr Gallagher a 5,000 euros donation after meeting the former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Mr Gallagher appeared to backtrack, swaying that "if" he had taken "an envelope" when handing over a photograph of the event to the donor, any cheque would have gone direct to Fianna Fail.

There is of course nothing wrong or illegal in soliciting donations for a political party, but commentators agreed that the exchange was likely to damage Mr Gallagher's campaign, associating him with the "toxic" memories of the era when Fianna Fail was in power.

Although, the star of the Irish version of "Dragon's Den" has been open about his past membership of Fianna Fail he has tried to play it down during this campaign, emphasising his independent position. The Dundalk anecdote brought this into focus, whilst the mention of an envelope containing a cheque stirred memories of previous inquiries into corruption and the stories of Bertie Ahern's famously puzzling financial dealings.

The point was underlined by the sceptical reaction of the audience in the TV studio and David Norris's quip that the mention of an envelope was "unfortunate".

"Political assassination"

However, Mr Gallagher has today launched a determined counter attack. He identified the donor in question as Hugh Morgan of Morgans Fuels and drew attention to the fact that the businessman was convicted of smuggling fuel in June 1998.

Back in February, the Irish Daily Mail reported that Mr Morgan had rented an office to Gerry Adams during his campaign to become a Louth TD. Mr Gallagher has accused Sinn Fein of carrying out a "hatchet job" and a "political assassination" on the basis of the word of a convicted fuel smuggler.

Fianna Fail headquarters clarified that they received the donation the day before Mr Cowen's fundraising dinner. Mr Gallagher says this shows he "could not have collected any cheque from Mr Morgan after the event when I delivered the photograph".

Out campaigning in Drogheda, Mr McGuinness admitted he might have got some of the details wrong - but claimed that Mr Gallagher received the cheque personally before the dinner. Mr Gallagher countered by accusing Mr McGuinness of changing his story and lacking credibility.

The candidates will continue to argue over the details, but many voters will react to the general impression conveyed by the TV debate. The question is whether Mr McGuinness's last minute assault on Mr Gallagher was sufficiently damaging to erode his 15 point lead in the opinion polls.

If so, then the Labour candidate Michael D Higgins could benefit. Martin McGuinness might still be too far off the lead to stand a chance of succeeding Mary McAleese, but if Sean Gallagher doesn't secure victory this final bad tempered exchange could be remembered as a game changer.

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