Wednesday 26 October 2016

Barbara Scully: Confessions of a first-time canvasser... from naked men to interior design ideas

Barbara Scully

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

'The seasoned political animals told me in no uncertain terms that in Ireland, posters and canvassing are the corner stones of any campaign.'
'The seasoned political animals told me in no uncertain terms that in Ireland, posters and canvassing are the corner stones of any campaign.'

When you have a friend, one you think very highly of, who decides to run for election and asks you for help, you say yes, right? You say, "Of course I will help" and don't give too much thought as to what kind of help that might be. In your mind, however, you see yourself stuffing envelopes or licking stamps.

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It began with the campaign launch and a fundraising table quiz. Off I went with some friends to do our best to provide modest financial support. Later, I began to cheerlead, especially on social media. I was a bit more cautious in real life because I was unsure as to where the boundaries were - talking politics is a bit like talking religion, some people really enjoy it, others consider it a very personal matter.

I dropped the name of my friend, who I believed would make a great TD, reasonably regularly into conversation so they knew I was supporting her, but in the absence of any enthusiasm as to what she stood for, I played it safe and offered little else.

Then canvassing and leafleting began and suddenly this project, which seemed like a good thing to do and a bit of craic, became terrifying. Surely canvassing and posters are very last century? There must be a more sophisticated way of reaching the hearts and minds of your fellow constituents? But no, the seasoned political animals told me in no uncertain terms that in Ireland, posters and canvassing are the corner stones of any campaign.

I was haunted by all the times I was mean to canvassers - either by taking them to task on their previous performance in government or sometimes just because they had the audacity to call when I was in the middle of getting dinner, eating dinner, or watching Kirsty and Phil scouting locations. Yes, I have been very mean to canvassers. And I believe in karma.

As one of 'the team', I got invited along to a 'canvassing workshop' with one of the aforementioned political animals - a veteran of many campaigns, a man who is passionate about politics and who knows what works. There were lots of hints as to how to engage unsuspecting constituents in conversation on their own doorsteps, from admiring their pampas grass (yep, still so very 20th century) to remembering to comment on whatever they are watching on telly, if you have a view of the screen. There was a more elaborate course in how to conduct walkabouts at a pace that is efficient and with lookouts posted ahead and sweepers behind. It was all very complicated and I wondered why the bloody hell I had volunteered in the first place.

Eventually, I ran out of excuses and my night for leafleting came around. It was early December and very cold and very dark. I stumbled my way around a local estate, getting fingers trapped in letterboxes that were pure evil, cursing houses that didn't have a security light to reveal the stray kids' bikes that provide a potentially lethal night-time assault course. And all the while, I felt vaguely like I was trespassing.

Then it began to rain. I was frozen to the bone. We decided to call it a night - only because the leaflets were getting soggy. I nearly cried when I realised that my car was back where I started. Then I remembered my brother lives just around the corner.

When he opened the door, he assumed I had had a major 'domestic' and had stormed out without my car keys - I looked that miserable. A dry-out and a cup of tea later, I recovered.

Christmas came and went, spring arrived and finally Enda dissolved the Dáil and so it was 'game on'. I had some afternoons free and thought this might be a better time to canvass - bikes would be visible and I wouldn't have to worry about disturbing elderly residents… well, I did worry but it was easier to tell their homes in the daylight and I could make a judgement call on each one.

The campaign moved from leafleting to actual canvassing. Big girl stuff. I was dreading it but tried to summon up my long forgotten sales technique from a previous life.

I always began by apologising. "Sorry for disturbing you," was my opening gambit. And I constantly struggled to stop myself from saying "and for opening your gate and entering your garden without your permission", which is weird. During election time, people's homes are not really their castles.

But, surprise surprise, I found I didn't actually hate canvassing. I kind of enjoyed it. Most people were very nice, almost everyone was polite even if not interested in me or my candidate. But best of all, some people were really daft and weird. Like the house where, when the door opened, we were greeted with the sight of a pair of naked male legs running up the stairs to a shout of "Sorry, I thought you were somebody else!". "Okay," I said, "I'll just leave a leaflet on the mat and close the door," as I picked up the candidate who was doubled over trying to quell her laughing fit. Afternoon delight in the 'burbs, who knew?

Getting up close and personal with other people's homes, especially the posh ones, was a bonus I hadn't anticipated. I got garden envy at how beautiful some people have their front garden. I got porch envy with quirky entrance vestibules with candles and eclectic accessories. And when a homeowner was up for a bit of conversation, I got a great view into the hall, giving me an insight into colour schemes and hall furniture I wouldn't have considered working together, but they did.

I learnt that you don't need to go 'through the keyhole' to get an insight into the residents of any home. There are signs and hints everywhere that may give an insight into a highly religious person or, as in one case, miniature head stones on a side wall with the names of the dogs who had lived there, which warmed the cockles of my weary heart knowing just how much those pets were loved.

I did the town walkabouts too, albeit without lookouts and sweepers - adopting a more relaxed approach. And maybe it was that, or maybe it was because it was Dun Laoghaire, but the craic with people was mighty. I hope my candidate is elected to Dáil Éireann but whatever the outcome, getting out and about with her and meeting my fellow constituents has reconfirmed my love of my place and its people.

And I have some great ideas to improve my kerb appeal.

Irish Independent

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