The relationship between Sean Gallagher and the Fianna Fáil party is becoming more of an issue as he becomes a serious contender. Whether it is manufactured or substantive I'll deal with later.
In January this year Gallagher resigned from the National Executive in a letter later published on politics.ie. In the same month, he helped launch at least two election campaigns of Fianna Fáil candidate, including front bencher Dara Calleary. He claimed for some time that he left in 2009, but whether he was officially a member or not (whatever that means), he was clearly continuing to support the party until just before the General Election this year. In fact he officially resigned as per the letter from the National Executive in January 2011. In that letter, he makes no reference to his membership of the party (as distinct from the national executive). He does however express his "continued support" to Sean Dorgan and his colleagues. He has openly told of working on Seamus Kirk's re-election campaign, and in Rory O'Hanlon's office, though he is not clear on when those roles ended, and the 1990's in particular seems light on detail. In 2006 he gave a gift of an iPod to then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. As of today, Gallagher's representatives were denying he had anything to do with Fianna Fáil after 2009.
At best, Gallagher is being evasive on the question of the depth and recency of his relationship with Fianna Fáil, and, if he did indeed resign his membership of the party, why he did so. In one interview with Pat Kenny, he stated “I can’t be any more specific than I’m being. I’m standing as an independent candidate and I’m putting myself forward in that capacity. I’m not a member of any political party.” He is most likely at this point not affiliated with Fianna Fáil, he will have made sure of that. But the answers he is giving are Jesuitical - a phrase famously used by John Gormley to describe answers secured from their coalition partners Fianna Fáil on the occasion of the IMF bailout.
Membership of a political party in Ireland is at best a nebulous thing. What seems not to be in dispute is that Gallagher joined Fianna Fáil as a young man in the 1908s. It is unlikely that he ever formally resigned from the party; if people become effective non-members, it is through lapsing. And - taking Gallagher at his word - we can accept that he lapsed for significant periods over the past thirty years. It is also reasonable to assume that he has never been associated with any other political party in that time.
As Gallagher's profile rose with the Dragon's Den series, it was clear that it could provide him a platform for election to public office. Clearly also he is a man with personal ambition. Looking at the landscape in late 2009, the tide was turning. In November 2009, a RedC poll put Fine Gael at 36%, and Fianna Fail at 23%. If Gallagher at that time had designs on a Dáil seat, or the Presidency, the Fianna Fail ticket would possibly become more of a hindrance than a support.
However the thought process progressed from there, we can only speculate. But here's why his obfuscation is a problem for voters.
1) He appears to be misleading people about his history with the Fianna Fáil party. He says he left in 2009, while he was clearly providing public, active support in this year's general election.
2) His association with the party, while co-running a business with tight connections to the property industry, smells of that golden circle of Fianna Fail, Banks, and Property Developers. While Gallagher's company was a subcontractor, it was clearly likely to be well served by Gallagher's political connections. This is a point Gallagher has not addressed.
3) Gallagher, in distancing himself from Fianna Fail, appears to have done so exclusively for political gain. This is perhaps the most damaging aspect of his candidacy. His expressed continued support for the party seems in hindsight an attempt to retain whatever support he could from the party, its structure, and its network, while shedding the clearly toxic badge. It was, in effect, a power play. There was no valour in it, no idealism, no vision. It betrays a man who does not have strong principles, and who would be an apologist for Fianna Fáil.
Had he left the party on principle, he would have had a much better chance, and may even have had my vote. But it is not his attempts to downplay his relationship with Fianna Fáil that rankles; it is his attempts to retain that connection in spite of separation.
But to return to the original question of whether it's really an issue - people may see past it. Gallagher is a genial, charismatic speaker and the more people he speaks to the more people he will have voting for him. The media and the internet may make more of this isssue than is "real". Voters may not care, like with Fianna Fáil in 2007. This will play over the next few days, and the next polls will be out in five or six days. That will tell.