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Magazine
Sep 27, 2018

Crusade or Conspiracy?

Despite failing to get on the presidential ballot, Gemma O'Doherty captured the nation's attention on her mission to weed out corruption. But is she just a conspiracist?

Alana O'Sullivan for The University Times
Alanna MacNameeDeputy Magazine Editor

Gemma O’Doherty smiles: “You’re Gemma, aren’t you?” The investigative journalist and aspiring presidential candidate is addressing the waitress hovering patiently beside our table in the Queen of Tarts cafe on Dame St. I look on as the pair reminisce about their previous meeting a couple of months ago. O’Doherty laughs. “I always remember a Gemma.” When I meet her in the cafe opposite City Hall, Dublin City Council has just voted not to endorse any candidate for the presidential nomination – including O’Doherty.

Now, O’Doherty has run out of chances to get on the ballot, but her anti-corruption crusade for the presidential nomination captured that attention of the country.

The exchange with the waitress comes to seem typical of the Gemma O’Doherty I spend the best part of two hours with. She is polite, reassuring me when I apologise for taking so much of her time, and encouraging (“hard questions must be asked!”), but intense. She keeps up almost unwavering eye contact, so much so that it can actually be a little disconcerting at times. We are, after all, in a very small cafe. Sometimes I don’t know where to look. With O’Doherty, it all feels very personal – if the French feminist rallying call of the 1960s was that the personal is political, with O’Doherty it goes the other way. The political – and the presidential – is personal.

O’Doherty – who over the course of a tumultuous career has made it her mission to uproot the corruption she sees as endemic in Irish public life – has spent months trying to secure the nominations she needs to run for presidency. I want to know why, and what she hopes to achieve from it. Born in Ranelagh (a heritage that, to me, is reflected in her accent, though she informs me that she is often told she sounds like she comes from the country), O’Doherty holds a bachelor’s degree in politics and a masters in equality studies, both from University College Dublin (UCD). She spent most of her journalistic career at the Irish Independent, where she latterly held the position of Chief Features Writer.

It was while working for the Independent that O’Doherty doorstepped Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, to confirm a story that penalty points had been wiped from his driving record. This action was to cost O’Doherty her job at the Independent in 2013. In her letter seeking presidential nomination, O’Doherty describes being “unlawfully dismissed shortly after Denis O’Brien’s takeover [of the Irish Independent] for refusing to be silenced about my investigation into the quashing of penalty points from the driving licence of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan”. She successfully won a case against the company for unlawful dismissal and the Independent published a “grovelling” apology: “Independent Newspapers unreservedly apologise to Ms O ‘Doherty for the stress and hardship caused to her and her husband as a result of its actions”, it read.

You get the feeling that it is here the politics get personal. In the subsequent years, O’Doherty’s work has seen her take on those at the centre of the Irish establishment – an establishment of which she sees O’Brien as very much a part. Over the course of the 39 minutes of our conversation that I record, O’Doherty brings up O’Brien three times: first, she claims that the two main political parties in the state are only interested in “the elites, the vested interests, the bankers, developers, Denis O’Brien and things like that”. Next, she expresses disbelief and dismay at Dáil proposals regarding the subsidising of the media, which she sees as “limiting the free press” and “insanity … because of the sort of newspapers they would be subsidising – ie, the Denis O’Brien press”. Lastly, she implies that there is a relationship between Ireland’s substandard public healthcare and O’Brien’s interests. She tells me “one of the biggest private hospitals in the state is owned by Denis O’Brien … all those people who are entitled to public healthcare, who are paying their taxes to get healthcare but they’re having to go Denis O’Brien. Very convenient, isn’t it?”.

O’Doherty traversed the country on an anti-corruption crusade, trying to get on the ballot.

Alana O’Sullivan for The University Times

Gemma O’Doherty’s appetite for exposing corruption in the Irish state, it would appear, shows no sign of abating. She has, since her days at the Independent, worked on a number of high-profile stories including the alleged cover-up of the murder of the youngest missing person in the history of the State, Mary Boyle. Her own website boasts of her position as “the third most influential news journalist in Ireland”. I want to know what is driving Ireland’s third most influential news journalist, a person of undoubted note in her field, to seek nomination for president of the country?

At O’Doherty’s invitation I attended a meeting of Dublin City Council where councillors had to vote on who, if anyone, they would nominate to put forward for presidential candidacy. The meeting is an extraordinary affair and the potential candidates are a colourful lot. Peter Casey, of Dragon’s Den fame, pulls a grotesque face at me as he passes the media booth. Taken aback, I hastily arrange my own features into the most blank expression I can muster. Another candidate, resplendent in the Irish tricolour and sporting Irish-dancer curls, gives a breathy, impassioned speech in which she roars “what are we gonna do about it, hey?” to the assembled councillors. She storms out not long after, teetering a little on her platform heels. The penultimate candidate devotes the greater part of her speech – and one would imagine her prospective presidency – to the “Irish dinosaur”. The last of the group suggests “that homeless thing” can be solved by mimicking the Amish people who are blessed with “magnificent houses”. This is not to mention the “joke” candidate, Norma Burke, whose greatest offence is not that she is insulting the office of President – it is that she is, unfortunately, resolutely unfunny.

O’Doherty alone appears prepared and primed, with a clear reason for seeking to become president. She declares that she is seeking the nomination to “serve the cause of truth, justice and integrity on and for the Irish people”. She later tells me that she wants to “open the field. “I’m talking about corruption, accountability, transparency in government and in all Irish life – public life – and I think that’s a fair enough agenda”. Since our interview, she has missed the deadline for nomination, after receiving only one nomination, from Laois County Council.

If the French feminist rallying call of the 1960s was that the personal is political, with O’Doherty it goes the other way. The political – and, until yesterday, the presidential – is personal

O’Doherty is herself less than flattering when discussing the agendas and the personages similarly seeking nomination as presidential candidates. “We have a television celebrity who has already been rejected by the electorate, we’ve two more Dragons – business-mentoring businessmen – and we have a woman, Joan Freeman. I’m sure she’s a great person, but unfortunately she’s part of the charity industry that I am trying to say we should not need in a first-world country.”

And the incumbent, current President Michael D Higgins? He is, says O’Doherty, “a person who has deceived the Irish people by saying that he would not run again and he has decided to run again”. I ask O’Doherty whether she feels as though Higgins was a good president. “Look, I’m sure he represented our country well abroad. He did not, you know, set my world on fire.” She tells me that she recently met Higgins herself. “He’s a very pleasant individual. I think he’s afraid, I think that he’s fearful. He seemed to me as somebody who was sort of fearful.” During a group discussion the pair both took part in, there was a debate about the concept of home and O’Doherty was less than impressed that Higgins failed to bring up the homelessness crisis. Indeed, she thinks he didn’t raise the issue much during his presidency, and that he would like to have spoken out a lot more. She certainly feels that he could have. “You know, there’s a lot of narrative at the moment saying that the constitution doesn’t allow the president to speak out. That’s not true.”

And it is here that, for me at least, that the potential flaw at the heart of O’Doherty’s stance on the presidency begins to show itself: her understanding of the actual job of the president.

Just what would a Gemma O’Doherty presidency look like? Well, for starters, she would have been down among those protesting on North Frederick St

The president’s role, O’Doherty asserts, is that of a watchdog: “If the head of state cannot talk up about the issues that are facing citizens, who can?” The president, she tells me, can “stand up and say, ‘hold on a minute now, I’m not happy about the way citizens are being treated here’ … we need to be down on the ground listening to people and hearing their stories, and their stories will then be filtered back up to power”.

I am keen to establish how that would work, an Irish president speaking out, holding the government to account. Just what would a Gemma O’Doherty presidency have looked like? Well, for starters, O’Doherty would have been down among those protesting on North Frederick St, “standing loyally beside them … and I would have been making very clear as president that this is intolerable in an independent state”.

I push O’Doherty on whether she’s trying to make a ceremonial role into something else. She shoots down my attempt to liken the role of Irish president to that of the British monarch. “They don’t have a written constitution in the UK, so it’s different. We do, and my priority would be to the constitution first and foremost, not the elected government. As much as I would respect their wishes, if I saw that the rights of citizens were being abused I would highlight that.”

It is here that I begin to wish I had brushed up on my constitutional law. We are on shaky ground here, both O’Doherty and I. O’Doherty has tweeted that she “would not sign into law any bill that was not in the best interests of all our people”. This statement, however, was subsequently shot down on national radio by Dr Jennifer Kavanagh, a law lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology and the author of Constitutional Law in Ireland. According to Kavanagh, “if it comes down to signing legislation, if they feel that there may be constitutional implications they [the President] can summon the Council to see should they send [the legislation] to the Supreme Court. That has nothing to do with the best interests of the people”.

I bring up the offending tweet, asking O’Doherty whether she’d said she would not sign any bill into legislation that she felt was not in the public interest. “Not quite”, she begins. A misquote, then? “No, no, I’m very much into the public interest … I would not be obstructive. I would sign every bill that was in the best interests of all citizens.” This, I suggest, looks a lot like a presidential veto. I wonder aloud how one determines public interest, and the difficulty of setting an objective standard for such a concept. “No.” She is definite. “I mean, public interest is not difficult to establish at all.” But O’Doherty fails to tell me how she would determine what is and is not in the public interest. Instead, she answers my question to that effect with a lengthy digression on the privatisation of Ireland.

To be fair, O’Doherty does acknowledge that she “is not a constitutional lawyer”, telling me she has made that “very clear”. And certainly I must admit that our venture into matters constitutional has exposed gaps in my own understanding of our constitution and how it defines the role of president. But the difference is I’m not seeking nomination for candidacy: O’Doherty is.

It’s not the only discrepancy in the O’Doherty narrative. Despite telling me that she would have joined those at North Frederick St if she were president, and despairing at the lack of a protest gene among the Irish people, she tells me that she’s actually never protested herself. But perhaps this is about to change. O’Doherty says that “in many ways I would be sort of very conservative, in terms of ‘let’s do things diplomatically’. But there comes a point where you have to say, ‘hang on a minute, these people are destroying our taxes down the drain every day’. So there comes a point where democracy, so-called first-world democracy, is not providing housing, not providing healthcare, not providing a free press, not providing truth and justice and you have to say, ‘no we’re not doing this anymore’”. She is quick to qualify her statement. “Whatever way you can do it non-violently of course, it goes without saying.”

From O’Doherty’s perspective, the “velvet revolution” she would like to see in Ireland will not come easy. She speaks glowingly of how “the French bring their country to a standstill when their rights are being exploited”, highlighting how Paris’s Eiffel Tower, “the most high-profile tourist attraction in Europe, was shut down because the staff there said ‘no, we’re not doing this anymore, people are in trouble, this is not safe, we want to make a point here’. And they did it”. The Irish, she opines, cannot emulate their Gallic cousins because they have a problem: “They’re so used to being abused that they think this is normal treatment … I’ve referred to a sort of Stockholm syndrome going on with Ireland at the moment. The people have been so badly abused by the government that they’re nearly trauma-bonded to these two big parties. This is what happens to victims of abuse.”

And if we do somehow overcome our collective trauma? O’Doherty, to be fair to her, does have some solutions for replacing current, corrupt Ireland (after all, “the beginning and end of Ireland’s problems is corruption”) with her new, clean one. Until yesterday, she was traversing the country on an anti-corruption tour with other advocates. One, a man who is exposing fraud in agriculture, will allegedly be able to recoup millions for Revenue, which can then be funnelled into hospitals and healthcare. Another is trying to introduce public banking, which would see citizens own the banks rather than shareholders in France and Germany. They’re looking at how rural post offices, being shut down now “at a rate of knots”, could be used to provide banking networks so the public don’t end up having to bail out the banks “which would cripple them”. She is working with a group of people who are experts in all of these fields.

I’ve referred to a sort of Stockholm syndrome going on with Ireland at the moment. The people have been so badly abused by the government that they’re nearly trauma-bonded to these two big parties

“What I’m saying is an anti-corruption movement needs to develop throughout the country. Every town and village and city needs to start hunting down candidates whose priority is corruption, tackling corruption and tackling the waste of taxpayers’ money.” O’Doherty wants the movement to run candidates in every constituency and to push out the two main parties “that have had too much control”. Because, she says, “they have had control for the guts of a century and they’ve ruined it for us every time. So it’s time for them to go. Thank you for trying, but you’ve ruined it”.

We have, I realise, wandered somewhat from the path of O’Doherty’s presidential candidacy bid. So I ask her about the allegations and the media maelstrom that have threatened to overshadow, and maybe even derail, her campaign: namely, her allegation that there was state involvement in the murder of Veronica Guerin. O’Doherty is keen to stress that she doesn’t want Veronica Guerin to become an issue. “I didn’t raise this issue”, she tells me. “It was asked.”

But Gemma O’Doherty is a journalist: she knows what people want to hear, what makes headlines, what sells stories. When I ask about Guerin she leans into the recorder. She clears her throat. The Gardaí, she believes, are “capable of anything, and most people know that”. As regards Veronica Guerin, she says that British press reported on potential state involvement at the time (and indeed she recently tweeted a link to a UK Independent article from 1996 to that effect). She believes that the Gardaí know already, that “the background to this would imply that”. “A member of an Garda Siochana who I trust – he is an honest man, he’s been vindicated in other matters – informed me that a state official was colluding with individuals who wanted to silence Veronica.”

She is not going to identify her source, and she informs me that under European law she doesn’t have to. “My sources are”, she tells me, “the most important thing to me”. All that she can tell me is that when she took on the case of an alleged cover up of a priest, Father Molloy, “ I was advised by a number of people, one of them a former director of elections for Fine Gael, that Veronica had been silenced at a time when she was getting very close to exposing more Garda corruption. We know that the night before she exposed the corrupt Garda deal with Martin Cahill and John Traynor – Martin Cahill stole the Father Molloy file – her home was attacked for the first time.”

It looks as though O’Doherty’s frustration with the country’s elites may be set to continue. At the aforementioned Dublin City Council meeting, the council resolved not to endorse any candidate for the presidential election, a decision O’Doherty feels was prearranged, and “an attack on democracy”. Two weeks remain in the race to get her name on the ballot. She tells me she’s certainly not going to give up until then.

If the head of state cannot talk up about the issues that are facing citizens, who can?

She thinks there will be a lot of public disappointment if she doesn’t make it, though she says this it’s less about her personally, more about her message. “People have had enough, and they know now … they’re waking up and they know that it is all about the corruption.”

But if she doesn’t make it onto the ballot? “I am considering very strongly establishing … an anti-corruption movement in Ireland. I’m not interested in it being a political party per se, I would rather set up a grassroots movement so that people realise that corruption is the problem … we have to stand up and say now we want integrity, we want truth and justice and we want clean politics. So that’s the plan at the moment. Or else I’ll emigrate.”

“I hope I won’t have to emigrate.”

All in all, it’s hardly surprising that O’Doherty failed to make it onto the ballot. The odds, one might say, were never in her favour. As Miriam Lord put it in the Irish Times, “tearing down Ireland’s corrupt political and media elite from within the walls of Aras an Uachtarain?”. Described as such, O’Doherty’s agenda does certainly seem rather, to quote Lord again, “off the wall”.

The main problem with O’Doherty’s bid, to me, was that she tried to make the president’s role just too political. Unfortunately for her, it really is more of a ceremonial one – at least not in Ireland, today. And because for O’Doherty, the political, and politics, are bound up with an establishment that she sees herself as standing very much in opposition to, the whole thing felt just a bit personal – a little like this is a personal crusade by someone wronged by an establishment she has resolved to take down. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, or that it detracts from O’Doherty’s message that corruption in Ireland is as serious as it is systemic. During our interview, she raises some very real and pressing issues. She wants the best for the Irish people. Of that I am certain. What’s more, I like her. But these factors alone do not a good president, or even a good would-be candidate, make.

I hope I won’t have to emigrate

Despite O’Doherty’s helpfulness and patience, it’s nonetheless something of a relief to leave the Queen of Tarts. Her message might be important, but it is nonetheless somewhat depressing. They have been playing the Smiths in the café, and with “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” playing in the background, listening to the long litany of ills and ailments of our country has sapped me of my energy. I breathe a sigh of relief when I step out into the brisk September air.

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