Nessa Childers will head the Euro poll in the capital
Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30
NESSA Childers can top the poll in Dublin and shunt Sinn Fein into second place. She is no longer a dark horse, more a racing certainty. But why did it take the pundits so long to catch up with the public?
Last Wednesday, on Newstalk's Breakfast show, Ivan Yates asked a high- powered panel (Noel Whelan, Odran Flynn and Dr Claire McGing) to pick the winners in Dublin. None came up with the name of Nessa Childers.
Yates then dropped his bombshell. He told them that a private poll (most likely taken by Fine Gael) put Childers at 16 per cent. On that figure, she was sure to win a seat. Hearing this, the panel hastily scrambled to find reasons why Childers was doing so well.
The only convincing one came from Claire McGing. She referred to RTE exit polls showing Childers' particular popularity with women. But nobody on the panel came up with the correct three reasons why Nessa Childers appeals across all parties to the great moving mass of Middle Ireland that I call Moby Dick.
Before I get down to these reasons, let me show my credentials. Back in 1989 I was Proinsias De Rossa's media adviser when, against the odds, he topped the poll for Europe. I believe I made two crucial contributions to that campaign and learned a lot of lessons about Moby Dick.
My main media contribution was spending most of our modest budget hiring the famous fashion photographer Mike Bunn to shoot a 'film noir' photo for an iconic black-and-white poster of De Rossa walking on a wind-whipped Sandymount Strand, on which the slogan 'A Breath of Fresh Air' was superimposed. It worked.
Far more important was my input into De Rossa's speech at the Workers Party ard fheis held in April 1989, a month before the election in May. To the shock of the Student Princes in the party, he subjected socialist shibboleths to searing criticism. In the context of the collapse of communism, this was crucial to winning middle class support in Dublin.
The Workers Party was already winning some support by its stern opposition to the Provo campaign in Northern Ireland. But De Rossa's denunciation of State socialism and his adoption of social democracy added hugely to the party's centrist appeal. Although he topped the poll on that policy, the sullen Student Princes pressurised him to revise his previous position the following year – and forced my resignation from the WP.
De Rossa's 1989 campaign was a dry run for my contribution to Mary Robinson's presidential campaign the following year. These two campaigns confirmed my conviction that European elections in Dublin should be fought like a presidential election. Based on that bank of experience, let me now review the three reasons why Childers will probably top the poll in Dublin.
First, Childers' core appeal is that she is that rarest of all things in Irish politics: a person of integrity who is prepared to confront her party for a principle. The incident that fixed her image of integrity firmly in the public consciousness was the Kevin Cardiff episode. In 2011, she defied the Labour Party when it backed the Government's decision to give a plum European post to Kevin Cardiff, former Secretary-General of the Department of Finance.
Ironically, the incident also involved Proinsias De Rossa, who called on Childers to accept the Labour line. Childers refused to retreat. She was astonished that the Coalition wanted to give a plum European job to the civil servant charged with keeping the books during the period when our national debt was overstated by €3.6bn.
Her stance brought down the wrath of the Student Princes now ensconced in the Labour Party. Reared on democratic centralism, they resorted to the same tactics that had resulted in my resignation from the Workers Party. Childers' description of her difficult days was familiar: "It was like being attacked by a pack of wolves."
Childers' stand on Cardiff still resonates today. Last week, she named her two substitutes: the respected security analyst Dr Tom Clonan and the equally respected Glenna Lynch – who cut to the chase: "I admire greatly her work in the Parliament, particularly when she stood up against the Irish
Government's appointment of Kevin Cardiff to the European Court of Auditors."
This brings me to the second reason Childers will be re-elected. Like Churchill, she has never been afraid to change parties. Far from being a liability, as mediocre pundits make out, the public respects politicians who change parties – provided they do it for principle and not for personal gain.
Childers got nothing but grief by defying the Labour line. She was still getting grief last month when the Labour candidate, Emer Costello, who described her as being "a little bit in a political abyss", spoke about her "colourful pedigree" and helpfully pointed out that, if elected, Childers would be forced to join the non-aligned group in the European Parliament.
Costello suggested this would mean Childers having to keep some doubtful company. "You have people like Marine Le Pen, who is the French National Front . . . you also have people like Diane Dodds from the Democratic Unionist Party." Costello's bracketing of a unionist politician with Marine Le Pen clinched my determination to vote for Childers.
The final reason Childers will be re-elected is because she is a chip off the old block. What she has in common with her politically mistaken but personally courageous grandfather, Erskine Childers, is a quality of character that is hard to pin down. But it comes across as a kind of innocent integrity.
When I say innocent, I don't mean Nessa Childers lacks political nous. The speed with which her posters went up shows her political skill. But she has a persona that puts personal rectitude above political cuteness. A persona that appeals to supporters of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Fianna Fail voters, deep in their historical DNA, revere the courage with which Erskine Childers faced a nervous firing squad. Without a blindfold, and with his last breath, he tried to make it easier for the country boys formed up to shoot him by saying: "Take a step forward, lads, it will be easier that way."
Fine Gael's political ancestors sentenced Erskine Childers to death. But today's rank and file members would respect his personal integrity because it is a valued Fine Gael virtue. So when they have done their duty by Brian Hayes, many will give their second preferences to his grand-daughter. I hope they give the third to Eamon Ryan.
A few months ago, Nessa Childers seemed like Robert Redford's lone sailor in the film All Is Lost. But her grandfather, the skipper of the Asgard, was one of the greatest sailors of the last century. Democrats should make sure she beats Sinn Fein by giving her a fair wind.
* * *
Last week, I wrote that Padraig Yeates' essay on commemorations appeared in the current issue of the Dublin Review of Books, but it actually appeared in the penultimate edition, which also contains Murder in the Bandon Valley, Gerard Murphy's detailed review of Barry Keanes book Massacre in West Cork which deals with the Dunmanyway killings: http://www.drb.ie/essays/ commemorating-what- and-why-