SOMEWHERE in a box gathering dust in former Garda superintendent Derek Nally’s house are pamphlets, posters and other mementos from his 1997 bid to become president of Ireland.
One contains a letter from a well-known journalist. While the writer couldn’t get involved in his campaign, he did support Nally and had some advice for him. It was from Eoghan Harris, the Sunday Independent columnist who would later be credited with having assisted in Nally’s campaign and, like much of Harris’s recent career, the unsolicited advice ranged from the unsavoury to the downright bizarre. One nugget concerned, of all things, Nally’s breakfast.
‘He suggested I start eating porridge in the morning and lose weight,’ he recalls. ‘The fact that I was already eating porridge was beside the point. He also suggested I wear different coloured ties.’ However, as Nally soon found out, Harris’s real agenda had little to do with the diet or neckwear of the presidential hopeful, who now rues the day he ever met him.
Like so many of the ageing journalist’s alliances over the years, his association with the respected ex-garda ended in something Harris has been doing a lot of recently – shouting.
‘He tried to push me onto an anti-Mary McAleese course in relation to her closeness to Sinn Féin,’ Mr Nally, now 71, recalls.
‘I went along with it at first,’ he knew I would because of my own philosophy in relation to the Provos. He wanted to keep pushing that particular theme but I had enough of it and wasn’t prepared to go along with it in the end.’
Harris took Nally’s reluctance badly. ‘I met the man only once in my life, and that was for little more than half an hour. The one phone call I remember taking from him was the last time I ever spoke to him,’ says Nally.
‘He was highly irate about the fact that I had backed off McAleese. He was shouting and screaming down the telephone. It was extraordinary – so much so that I held the phone away from my ear and let the other people in the room listen in.
‘I was at a campaign meeting at the time and they just told me to ‘hang-up on the b******’, which I did.’
He added: ‘I doubt there is anyone else I have ever met whom I can say this about, but he’s one man I never want to meet again.’
Ten years on, Harris is still consumed by his obsessions, but even veteran media observers wonder if the newly created senator – once a highly regarded and inspirational producer at RTÉ, a talented movie scriptwriter and lecturer and a writer of brilliant polemic in the Sunday Independent – is now in danger of becoming a self-caricature.
As if his pre-election defence of the tarnished Taoiseach on the Late Late wasn’t enough, the columnist has since fine-tuned his wide-eyed sycophancy into an art form.
The 64-year-old’s belligerent appearance on TV3’s The Political Party last Sunday was a case in point. When anchor Ursula Halligan’s questions strayed into the area of Bertie Ahern’s finances, he demanded that the interview be stopped and re-recorded.
The former media trainer’s face collapsed in misery when the host calmly pointed out that the show was taped ‘as live’ – hissy-fit and all.
Insisting ‘it wasn’t a crime’ for Bertie Ahern to receive secret donations from businessmen while minister for finance, he had said what Ahern had received were ‘not large sums of money’, and preposterously asked: ‘Why would we need to know where the money came from?’
Sitting back in his chair, his hands resting on his ample stomach or gesturing towards Miss Halligan, he implored her: ‘Where is the evidence that Bertie Ahern ever used his public office for private gain?’
When she asked whether he thought anyone who accepted private money while in public office could be compromised, he waved his hands at her in sudden exasperation demanding: ‘Stop this here.’
Chucking the rattle from the pram, he declared: ‘We’ve used up all our time here. I’m stopping this, Ursula. This is not working.’
‘We’ll move on,’ she reassured him. ‘We’ll move on, we’ll move & do you want to move on?’ But he just glared intently at Miss Halligan, shaking his head in silence before eventually answering a question on Mr Ahern’s pay-rise.
For a man who prides himself on his inherent understanding of the workings of the Irish media, he is proving himself remarkably inept in his use of it of late.
His debate with Fintan O’Toole on Today FM’s Last Word was another classic example. Harris interrupted the respected Irish Times journalist no fewer than seven times during a discussion about media treatment of Bertie during the general election.
He railed against the ‘sleazy little people’ who wrote stories about the Taoiseach’s finances. The Irish Times in particular, had, Harris claimed, tried to ‘destroy’ Ahern.
Again, a vitriolic Harris soon resorted to shouting. When O’Toole objected that it was impossible to debate with someone who shouted all the time, Harris stormed out.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ And he was gone. On Wednesday, in the not-so-private surrounds of the Dáil restaurant, Harris threatened three times to storm out of a luncheon with colleagues, before making good his threat at the fourth attempt.
His table-mates were David Norris, Shane Ross, Joe O’Toole and irascible former senator John A Murphy, the particular object of Harris’s spleen. One of them told Irish Times columnist Miriam Lord: ‘It got a bit personal and names were bandied about and Harris stormed out.
‘There were a number of attempted walkouts by Harris, who got very hot under the collar,’ said another.
‘There was a partial rise of the haunches and the napkin clutched in the fist. We managed to quell three attempts, but this merely delayed the launch. He walked out when the third course arrived.’
It all begs the question – why is this man so angry?
Veteran media observers suggest he has become a victim of his own sense of self-importance and simply cannot understand why his peers continue to publish stories that portray his beloved Taoiseach in a less than favourable light.
Instead of merely defending Ahern, however, he has taken it upon himself to savage anyone who has dared to report on the Taoiseach’s finances, in particular our sister title, the Irish Daily Mail.
The paper stands accused of, as he puts it, ‘sensationalist sick journalism’ – a bit rich from someone who works for a paper that falsely labelled the late Liam Lawlor’s interpreter and legal adviser a teenage prostitute.
As one media watcher said last night: ‘He has taken it on himself to defend the indefensible. It irritates him hugely when people don’t defer to him and he simply can’t deal with it.
‘The more he shouts and the more he storms off, the more he looks plain ridiculous and not quite the intellectual and ideological giant he prefers to be seen as.’
Another added: ‘He really just resembles an angry man – a former firebrand who is far too keen to trot out the Fianna Fáil line.’
But given his long history of rubber-burning, tyre squealing U-turns, predicting how long Harris will stay loyal to Bertie is about as easy as forecasting his next dramatic exit.