Friday 28 October 2016

A beginner's guide to losing votes out on the canvass

Shane Ross

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

MY KINGDOM FOR A FIRST PREFERENCE: The late Jackie Healy-Rae and his son Michael were exposed to a few novel experiences while canvassing in Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
MY KINGDOM FOR A FIRST PREFERENCE: The late Jackie Healy-Rae and his son Michael were exposed to a few novel experiences while canvassing in Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle

We are about to suffer from a rare outbreak of democracy. Time to buy walking boots in the New Year sales. In about a month, it will be back to pounding the pavements. TDs are rumoured to have bought thick protective clothing, not to protect them from the weather, but to shield them from the mob.

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Dail deputies are set to engage in the part of political life that should be the most fulfilling. Citizens hold hopefuls to account. Such contact is billed as the high point of the democratic process. In truth, it is the encounter most TDs dread, the short window of time when the electorate can exact its revenge. For four short weeks, the boot is on the punter's foot.

Citizens have been waiting in the long grass for five long years to ambush their TDs. Ministers have been sighted in State cars hovering at a safe distance. Ordinary backbenchers have ducked and dived, dreading the day of reckoning.

Suddenly, some are surfacing from the undergrowth, casually pretending to feel comfortable in unfamiliar, local, even hostile surroundings. They behave as though they had never gone missing from the masses.

The canvassing season is opening. Battle is joined between the distant Dail and its voters. Most canvassers' instincts are not to mix it, especially on policy. The most skilled encourage citizens to relay personal stories. They have learnt that the best technique is to listen, not to preach, nor to tell lies and never to bluff.

Asking professional bluffers not to bluff is a tall order. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is a disaster.

At the last election, I well remember walking down the street and overhearing one of my super-zealous female supporters engaging with a male voter. The man had already promised us his number one when he mentioned that his mother had "always voted independent".

"I was only talking to your mother yesterday," volunteered my supporter and (adding a bit of political flattery) "she told me that you, yourself, were doing really well."

"That is particularly clever of you," responded the punter, "we buried her nine months ago."

I could have sunk into a hole in the pavement. We stood down that particular spoofer, confining her to the coffee machine for the rest of the campaign.

Not that I am immune to mistakes myself. At one door, I engaged with a very opinionated young man for at least 10 minutes. Gentle persuasion had landed him in our corner. At that point we were joined by his wife.

She was a lost cause. After a while, I tried to bring him back into the conversation with the words "as I was saying to your wife..." He exploded, almost self-vaporising. "That woman is not my wife. She is my mother. I may look 50 but I am 26," he spat out as he stormed off to the back of the house.

The vote was lost. His mother was tickled pink but explained that he was ultra-sensitive about looking much older than he was.

She apologised for not being able to support me but the die was cast. She was a committed enemy, a Sinn Fein voter.

Even my wife dropped me in the manure on one occasion at the door. She hit it off royally with a pregnant constituent after stumbling into sisterly dialogue with her. Even after the vote had been promised, the conversation continued, so strong was the rapport. The two seemed destined for a new friendship. The voter even sounded as though she might sign up for a bit of canvassing herself. After a while, my wife asked, expectantly, when the baby was due. There was an eruption on the doorstep.

As the door slammed in her face, she heard the immortal words: "It was born three months ago. You have just lost a first preference."

The latest bulge was food-made, not man-made.

I learned a basic canvassing lesson: never comment on a person's appearance. And do not judge a man's or woman's physical condition by their shape. Today, it may even be wrong to presume that you have guessed the right gender. Start with babies. When you have finished kissing the little charmers, never ask the young hero's age in anything but a gender-neutral phrase.

All babies must be "its" until the doting parents have revealed their gender. You can never judge a baby by its hair. It is easy to blunder into asking how old HE is when the creature is a girl with slow-growing locks. Never presume that a well-covered head is a girl's. Insult the baby, insult the parents. Two votes down the drain after a long session.

Michael Healy-Rae tells a true story of how he once went canvassing in Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula with his father Jackie, accompanied by a journalist from Radio Kerry. It was a baking hot day. After they had been in the village for half-an-hour - to their astonishment - two young women bared their naked breasts at the Healy- Rae brigade from across the street. Jackie was horrified, asking Michael if "the world had gone mad altogether?"

The journalist from Radio Kerry, equally dumbstruck, asked Healy-Rae junior if that happened a lot?

Michael replied nonchalantly that it happened "every other day" on the Kerry canvass. No wonder the Healy-Rae brethren are the most energised canvassers in the country.

Not all canvassing incidents are so amusing. Finian McGrath says he has been bitten by two dogs. Local vets report that both died from tetanus after the toxic effects of traces of Cuban socialism in their blood. McGrath even bought a Taser stun gun to protect his constituents' dogs after a writ was served on him by the owners. On another occasion, his canvass was interrupted by a constituent promising to vote for him if he swore on a stack of Bibles that he would stop singing in public. The Independent Alliance TD from Dublin Bay North capitulated and threw away his guitar.

Some TDs are rated disastrous canvassers. Vincent Browne famously remarked that when in Fine Gael Peter Mathews was elected "even though he canvassed".

And if you think the perils of TDs on the canvass are bad, spare a thought for the poor creatures taking to the Seanad trail immediately after the new Dail is returned. They are forced to canvass countrywide, seeking the votes of Ireland's county councillors, possibly the biggest liars on God's earth.

Candidates carry a bottle of brandy in one hand and a few GAA tickets in the other. Normally, the shrewder of the veteran hopefuls -knowing the councillors' cavalier attitude to the truth - divide the number of their votes promised by three and then subtract 20 to estimate their final total. One councillor is said to have promised all 30 candidates on a panel that he would give them a number one. And to prove his bona fides, he tipped them off to look for the green ink on the ballot paper to identify his secret ballot. When the votes were eventually counted, one ballot paper was marked all the way down in green ink. All 30 candidates had been given the number one.

The vote was obviously spoiled, but at the bottom appeared the sentence: "I kept my word."

Democracy is not always what it is cracked up to be.

Sunday Independent

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