Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Politically incorrect

Seán Duignan was the first co-presenter, with Eileen Dunne, of the ‘Six One News’ when it began broadcasting in October 1988. His career in the RTÉ Newsroom spanned four decades from the 1960s until 2003, apart from his stint in the early 1990s as Government Press Secretary to the Albert Reynolds-led administration. Here he remembers a rare slip-up on screen on the election night he got things spectacularly wrong.

Live broadcasting can be exhilarating but, if you relax for a moment, it can also bite.

From my list of broadcasting mishaps, the 1977 general election easily stands out as the most embarrassing.

I had just joined the Leinster House lobby – the then exclusive political correspondents club – at a time when the overwhelming political and media consensus was that the incumbent Fine Gael/Labour “government of all the talents” would be comfortably returned to office.

On the Sunday before polling day, I was one of the five “pol corrs” who featured on the ‘This Week’ programme airily agreeing with each other that the Liam Cosgrave-led coalition would be re-elected. A Fianna Fáil victory, I ventured, would be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

We had paid practically no attention to polls conducted by Irish Marketing Surveys Ltd., on the run-up to the election. This was perhaps understandable given that such surveys were then in their infancy in Ireland and widely deemed unreliable when it came to gauging the opinion of the Irish electorate, particularly given our proportional representation system. RTÉ and some newspapers had published the surveys indicating that the government would be defeated, but even Fianna Fáil insiders doubted any such outcome.

In the event, Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch could hardly conceal his astonishment when, for only the second time in its history, Fianna Fáil went on to win the support of an absolute majority of the electorate with an unprecedented 84 seats. And I was to cut a dismal figure on the Election ’77 count programme trying to explain how I had got it so wrong. Not only had Lazarus come back, I offered limply, but he had brought all his pals back with him as well.

I remember that even my wife Marie ridiculed us pol corrs: “If you’d bothered to ask me I could have told you Fianna Fáil were going to win. It was sticking out a mile.”

An old saying has it that if a cat jumps on a red-hot stove, it will never jump on a red-hot stove again, but neither will it ever again jump on even a cold stove. The inevitable upshot of my comeuppance was that the political correspondents – once bitten, twice shy – never again differed from the opinion pollsters, which seemed a foolproof policy until, as was bound to happen sooner or later, most of the pollsters got the 2002 general election wrong, when Fianna Fáil, under Bertie Ahern, unexpectedly retained power.

The moral of the story: place not your trust in princes or even the polls.

Watch Sean Duignan's story on 'A Little Bit TV' on the RTÉ Player here