Monday 26 September 2016

Beating a path to (and from) the doorsteps

Shane Ross

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

AWKWARD MOMENT: I came face-to-face on the hustings with Bernard Byrne of AIB. Photo: Mark Condren
AWKWARD MOMENT: I came face-to-face on the hustings with Bernard Byrne of AIB. Photo: Mark Condren

The location for my first canvass of this election was hand- picked. Advised by an old hand with local knowledge a few weeks ago, I headed for a specially selected comfort zone.

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"Go to this road," insisted my adviser, pointing at the map, "you will get a warm reception. Most of the residents speak with a marble in their mouths, just like yourself. None of them will need medical cards or potholes filled in." That road is a doddle.

So I agreed to start somewhere that would lift me onto Cloud Nine, before facing the more demanding voters a little later.

After hitting a few unopened doors I rang the bell of a large house. A vaguely recognisable man appeared. He was a trifle nondescript, but familiar.

"Hello, Shane," he greeted me in a friendly manner. "Bernard Byrne of AIB."

I wanted to sink through a hole in the pavement.

Bernard Byrne is not any old AIB director. He is the big boss of the state bank. How could I ask this man for a vote? A few weeks earlier at the AIB egm I had been hassling him and chairman Richard Pym about salaries for top bankers, the coming privatisation, variable rate mortgages and other banking misdemeanours. I remembered the top table on that day, refusing to give me details about advisers' fees and unpleasant rancour about other matters. I had left the meeting in a hot snot. Worse still, at the sight of Bernard I instantly remembered that I had regularly urged any shareholders who would listen, to vote against the entire board of AIB's re-election. So I had probably canvassed against Bernard's election and voted against him with my proxy.

The boot was on the other foot. Here I was on his doorstep, pamphlets at the ready, trying to persuade him to re-elect me. The pamphlets contained some blatant anti-banker sentiments. There was no point in spouting out my usual doorstep patter about the evil bankers and how they needed manners put on them. Last year, I had even denounced Bernard's appointment to the top job as he was an AIB insider.

Bernard played a blinder. He greeted me with a friendly smile, obviously enjoying how beautifully the tables had turned. I stuttered and stammered, wondering how the hell to slip out of the neighbourhood. We spoke awkwardly about anything but banking or politics. Not for the first time a banker had me on the run.

Yet his response was stylish. He was charming, gracious and amusing. He did not invite me into his house for a Martini but politely enjoyed my discomfort. Bernard was a human guy. Still, I guess he will be voting for Enda and Michael Noonan. After all, they own AIB.

I made my excuses and left. After I had met three equally charming bankers on the same affluent South Dublin road I fled, kicking and screaming, to an adjoining street only to discover that the residents were the bankers' clients, celebrated developers who are household names .

I have sacked the adviser. It is too late to change the constituency.

Last Thursday, chastened by the bankers, I headed for less leafy suburbs. The residents there were surprisingly detached. They had their own preoccupations. I attempted to engage them about the current "Fiscal Space" codology. Instead of being outraged they rightly mocked the concept. One man told me that he thought he had backed it in Paddy Power's a few months ago but it had fallen at the first fence, while his wife wisecracked that Fiscal Space was part of the rarefied atmosphere surrounding the planet Venus. My daughter, who was canvassing for me at the time, asked a voter for a Number One - without identifying herself. The voter told her - confidentially - that her candidate's marriage was breaking up. She swallowed, but instantly volunteered that she was a family member, confessing to ignorance of the impending divorce. She said she thought she might know if her parents were on the verge of parting. The voter was mortified.

Canvassing is invariably humorous. Sometimes you can become totally confused by your surroundings or stressed by the wind and the rain. Recently, at an empty house I mistakenly dropped my cheque book through a letter box, confusing it for a canvassing card. Surprisingly, it has not yet been returned.

Sometimes it is a nasty business. Rivals lurk around corners. In one estate where I canvassed I found that a competitor had been spreading some pretty savage stuff about me. A kind resident alerted me to a few unprintable allegations that were being whispered at the doorstep; I had to advise my team not to retaliate, merely to retain a dossier. It is bulging.

The best bit of craic on a canvass is guessing the political loyalty of a particular voter. If a resident does not promise you the Number One, you are pretty well sunk, relegated to somewhere down in the lower preferences.

Voters like to tell you if you are top of the list but are mostly reluctant to reveal when you are bottom. In the smarter suburbs of Dublin Fine Gael loyalists stick out a mile. They are slightly disapproving of the whole canvassing business . They hate socialist TD Paul Murphy. They have had a good recession and are not very sympathetic to anyone (bar their own children ) who has suffered. They have forgiven the Government for the property tax, think the great unwashed should just grow up and pay their water charges and are still pretty sniffy about Fianna Fail.

They would not dream of voting Labour, although they hold their noses and give them preferences after Fine Gael. They have never heard of Paddy Power. They have a copy of the pro-Government Irish Times in their drawing rooms and love its Political Editor Stephen Collins. They would not be seen dead with a tabloid, but quietly read the Sunday Independent while constantly condemning its sensationalist stories. Fianna Fail supporters are equally easy to spot. They are emerging from the woodwork. A few months ago, they were coyly admitting on the doorsteps that their family had always been Fianna Fail, but that they had deserted them "last time". Today they are telling us the current gang are "worse than Fianna Fail" a way of granting themselves a pardon for ever having voted for the soldiers of destiny. The Fianna Fail DNA is re-emerging into the open. The next step could be a return to old pastures in the secrecy of the ballot .

There are no Labour supporters on the doorsteps. They are unwilling to admit they voted Labour in 2011.

The best craic is 'Aggro Man' who has been waiting for any old TD in the long grass. He gives you a piece of his mind and cannot wait to head for the pub to tell his mates how he "ran" the local TD from his doorstep. 'Aggro man' has been building up a head of steam for years. He always has a fresh line of attack in response to each of your defences, is invariably insulting and listens to nothing.

The only way to counter 'Aggro Man' is to agree with anything he says. It drives him mad. Last Thursday, 'Aggro Woman' came rushing out of a house in my constituency, told me I was bottom of her list, began to harangue me with a litany of woes and after 20 minutes, told me to stop wasting her time. I took her at her word and vanished. She looked deeply disappointed.

A few minutes later a bedraggled husband ran after me. "Don't worry about her," he whispered, in case she could hear him. Then his eyes twinkled. Safely out of earshot, he confided: "Look what I have been putting up with for the last 27 years! You are getting my number One".

I am looking forward to the next three weeks.

Shane Ross is the Independent Alliance TD for Dublin South

Sunday Independent

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