Thursday 29 September 2016

Writing was on the wall for Coalition - and on the doorsteps

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Maria Bailey speaks to Emma Baker (18) as she canvasses in Blackrock. Photo: Damien Eagers. Photo: INM
Maria Bailey speaks to Emma Baker (18) as she canvasses in Blackrock. Photo: Damien Eagers. Photo: INM

The problem had been one of blinding simplicity. "We didn't listen to the people," Mary Mitchell O'Connor stated from the front seat of her car as she drove up to the Dáil for Fine Gael's first parliamentary party meeting since the election.

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It's hard to hear the dogs in the street when you're holed up in an underground bunker in the guise of a campaign headquarters down at the Dublin docklands - or dutifully doing a round of the factories in a relentlessly dull Tory-esque election campaign.

Was it arrogance or fear of confrontation that saw them abandon the tried and trusted Irish route of sending the Taoiseach out to physically meet as many human beings as possible, pressing the flesh in as many towns and villages across the country as could be squeezed in?

Perhaps it was both.

Mitchell O'Connor was right. The message was out there, loud and clear, but her party either didn't hear it or refused to believe it.

They held a rock-solid certainty that the ballot boxes would resoundingly ring with the strength of the mandate they were about to receive, having dragged the nation to higher ground in the wake of the economic collapse.

As late as January, there was talk of an overall majority in the offing, with the assumption that people would be warming their very bones with the post-budget decrease in the Universal Social Charge and increases in child benefit.

But it was far, far too little too late.

Fine Gael forgot, to their detriment, that the crisis of the last eight years has resulted in a far more sceptical electorate with a houndlike nose for political promises doomed to be broken, an electorate that trusts nobody brandishing a glossy manifesto.

"You must listen to what the people are telling you," observed former Dublin Lord Mayor Michael O'Halloran (80) as he sat on the sidelines of the grim battle of Dublin Bay North at the RDS.

The message this time was that the people were "browned off", he wisely noted.

This was an election lost on the doorsteps, one by one. Householders pulled no punches, dropping clues all over the place of their concern that the State was failing the most vulnerable in our society when it came to the very basics of human rights.

Pensioners languishing on hospital trolleys, young families forced into emergency accommodation, medical cards snatched greedily away from the most vulnerable, and the closure of rural garda stations.

And yes, Irish Water, too.

Trailing candidates across the country throughout the shortest election campaign in the history of the Republic, it was almost unfailingly clear who would retain and who would lose their seats - and more importantly, why.

In Dublin Rathdown, an angrily tearful teenager confronted a startled Alan Shatter over the closure of Stepaside garda station.

Within the large, sprawling estate of The Gallops in Leopardstown, Shatter and his team heard time and time again of the resulting spate of crime.

Shatter defended the closure. And the result? Bitter rival Shane Ross - who had promised the moon on Stepaside garda station - topped the poll and Shatter lost his seat.

In Dublin Bay North, Sean Haughey's steady homespun approach - not to mention his pedigree - paid dividends.

On a doorstep in Artane, an elderly woman patted him gently on the head and said she knew him and would vote for him.

His hapless party colleague, Mary Hanafin in Dún Laoghaire, had staked her hopes on a return to national politics.

But again, the message was clear on the doorsteps that Maria Bailey - a former pupil of Hanafin's at Sion Hill in Blackrock - was doing well in the area.

Hanafin lost out and Bailey was in.

Richard Boyd Barrett, by contrast, was greeted as an old friend by constituents who engaged with him in impassioned conversations about water charges, homelessness and new charges for the green recycling bins.

"We knew it would happen," Boyd Barrett said, reminding the householder of such concerns when bin charges were originally introduced.

With his solid groundwork, Boyd Barrett's seat was assured.

All across the country, grassroot credentials and footwork paid off. The electorate wanted action and results, flinging out TDs who failed to bring home the bacon.

In Wexford, Micheál Martin was a whirlwind on the streets, nipping in and out of bookies, sweet shops, antique emporiums and hair salons.

People warmed to his manner, crowded around him, captured selfies and spoke afterwards of how nice he was.

"Time is a healer," said one man sagely, summing up the miraculous resurrection of Fianna Fáil that only in January was a party being written off in the past perfect tense.

Witnessing Gerry Adams hurtling down Dublin's Moore Street on the last day of the election campaign was a similar demonstration of the power of pressing the flesh - and Sinn Féin's flawless performance at ground level, year round.

Meanwhile, Enda's first election pitstop was a visit to a pre-cast cement factory in Co Westmeath - striking a solid yet uninspiring note which sounded throughout.

His inability to ad lib was shown when he hit out at his own constituents as "whingers".

In Longford, a devastated James Bannon (FG) hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the lack of the human touch to politics.

The people told them, but they never listened.

Irish Independent

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