A 'mock' election that may hold up a straw in the wind for the Big One
The Carlow-Kilkenny by-election is anything but irrelevant, writes John Waters. It may portend the imminent normalisation of Irish politics for 2016
Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30
Elections bring for candidates an odd shift of grammar. Normally, a politician is called upon to be unwaveringly serious, to absorb with due gravity every detail of each voter grievance and reprimand. Arising from this demand of their calling, the more successful politicians acquire an outward demeanour often indistinguishable from priestliness.
An election requires this demeanour to be maintained, while at the same time requiring the politician to act the fool for the benefit of photographers at a nanosecond's notice. There's an unwritten rule of campaigning that no football manifesting within the vicinity of a candidate should remain unkicked. Hard hats have an invisible notice, seen only by canvassing politicians, commanding: "Wear me and grin."
The protocol of the photo op is nowhere written down, but is understood by everyone, despite its attendant absurdities. The politicians know the rules: the madder the pose, the more likely a show in the paper. The public recognises the meme but knows that this is "the kind of thing you do during elections". It's as if we require of our politicians to exhibit simultaneously both gravity and a capacity for silliness - perhaps because this reassures us that they are human underneath their competence.
A barber's chair is a sitting duck. In Bagenalstown, the Fianna Fáil leader, an unexpected canvasser in the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election, dutifully takes the hand mirror when directed to do so by the photographer. The candidate, Bobby Aylward, sits in the chair, pretending to have his neck shaved.
Both men must be conscious that they risk an instant resonance with that Chill Insurance ad in which a harmless eejit receives a horrendous haircut, but is too polite to say anything except "It's grand", and Jennifer Maguire whispers, "The state of ye!"
Micheal Martin is good at such shifts from gravity to inanity. He has an ageless quality that makes him an attractive candidate and yet a not-quite-convincing chief. This may help to explain why he's worked a miracle in leading the party back from the brink, yet has failed to take it consistently out of the relegation zone.
This is an odd by-election. Not only is it happening on the same day as a high-profile national referendum, but, just six working months short of a general election, it is largely irrelevant to the national circumstances. Necessitated by the departure of Fine Gael bruiser Phil Hogan to Brussels, the election has the feel of an end-of-term kickabout, a pre-season friendly or, to recast the metaphor, the Leaving Cert "mocks", calculated to put the participants through their paces in final preparation for the real thing.
At another level, it offers an opportunity to take an electoral pulse at what increasingly seems an unexpected moment of somewhat more benign uncertainty than we've become used to. Six working months ago, it would have been impossible to predict the mood that prevails out there now. Although, still in the aftershock of economic downturn, there's a new, if tentative, hoping that requires all interested parties to break into a trot to catch up.
There are trots in this election - at least two or three of the 13 candidates - anti-austerity, an independent republican, a person-before-profit. And yet, it is already clear, this election will not belong to them as might have occurred at the height of the water-charge protests last November. This is an election that threatens to veer disconcertingly back into the mainstream, communicating a surface twitch on the exterior of an electoral psyche that continues to defy prophecy and analysis.
It would be difficult to pinpoint a constituency more emblematic of the social profile of Ireland than Carlow-Kilkenny. An almost 50/50 combination of urban and rural, it represents a sample slice of the whole.
Kilkenny city is an intense and sexy metropolis, a deeply unexpected phenomenon at the heart of a determinedly agricultural region. It bears comparison with no other Irish city or large town, possessing a quality of cosmopolitanism that makes it seem bigger than its vital statistics. An arty and self-confident city, it survives largely by its own lights: from tourism, service industries and a fistful of financial services jobs. It has the appearance of self-sufficiency and is relatively unscathed by the recent years of depression. Yet, its political hinterland has not been so fortunate, with many towns and villages laid waste by austerity.
On a sunny but chilly late-April morning, Kilkenny affects a jauntiness that could easily convince the visitor that the worst is now behind, and yet, you do not have to travel far off the main thoroughfares to see evidence of a society barely clinging to hopes of better times.
Further afield, the farming communities of both counties look forward to a payoff from the recent expiration of milk quotas. But this promise remains an abstraction and has yet to show itself in public.
The by-election, it is generally agreed, is a three-horse race between Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. Not long ago, there might have been talk of a protest vote, but now the focus seems to be recalibrating towards the future.
The Fine Gael candidate, David FitzGerald, believes that people are beginning to leave the past behind and ask what happens next. The approximate coincidence of the coming general election with the 1916 centenary will, he believes, deepen the kinds of questions voters will ask of both candidates and themselves.
It seems plausible that the inertia of the past few years is finally being overcome. You can feel it out on the canvass, when politicians bounce up the paths and no longer flinch as the door opens. In "The Butts", a local authority estate in Kilkenny city, the Sinn Fein candidate Kathleen Funchion is on first-name terms with almost everyone. Along the way, she huddles in confessional mode with various residents as they relay to her their struggles with officialdom and the constrictions of their welfare payments.
She says the buzz on Kilkenny's streets hides a deeper reality of continuing struggle and dispossession. A native of Callan, to the south-east, she says that small towns in the constituency have been decimated by the closures of Garda stations, post offices and bus routes. Talk of recovery, she says, is mostly hat and not many cattle.
Nevertheless, on the streets, there is an absence of militancy or fulminating. Kathleen promises one female resident of The Butts that Sinn Fein intends to bring "change", and the woman responds: "Good, because we need it!" But there's a strange sense of rhetoric about the exchange, as though it is simply the obligatory expression of a familiar consensus, neither angry nor particularly energised.
Kathleen Funchion knows all these people and their wants and griefs. This is the cutting edge of the Sinn Fein machine, and in its way, it has recast the entire model of politics in this Republic. While decrying clientelism of the old kind, Sinn Fein has reinvented the wheel and required its opponents to run breathlessly after it.
David FitzGerald, a man with a ministerial head on him, is careful to emphasise that his vision of politics embraces both the function of legislating at the national level and paying close attention to the needs of people as expressed on the doorsteps.
In his pocket, he carries a notebook, into which he carefully writes the details of every crib and query. He gives every doorstep exactly the time it requires. Like Kathleen Funchion, he knows people and their circumstances, and speaks to them easily and with an impressive absence of condescension. This is not a traditional gladhanding exercise: every vote is numbered, like every grain of sand.
The only distinct difference I noted between the Fine Gael and Sinn Fein canvassing styles is that the Shinners avoid putting election leaflets into letterboxes with "No Junk Mail" notices, whereas FitzGerald has no such reservations.
The Fianna Fail machine, in this midweek Bagenalstown outing anyhow, is more old-style electioneering: knocking on doors to introduce proudly the party leader; bursting into dark snugs and lounges to interrupt meditative dipsos in their reveries; chats about hurling; blitzing round SuperValu making small talk with staff and customers. The reception is, at worst, polite, the tension of recent years apparently evaporated. People receive the canvassers with the good humour of the old days.
As Bobby Aylward puts it, there are now "a few more parties taking their share of the blame". It's all looking like a 'New Dawn for Fianna Fail' headline when one of the canvassers, who may need to re-sit his cute-hoor diploma, confides that this is a particularly "staunch" area. Even at the worst of times, he says, people round here didn't stick the boot in.
Round the corner from SuperValu, Micheal is tipped off that a party supporter in one of the houses is due to clock up the century on June 2. Moll Nolan smokes 40 cigarettes a day, a habit to which she laughingly attributes her longevity. The architect of the pub smoking ban sits beside her in her living room and congratulates her.
"Your credibility is shot now, Micheal", a party voice pipes up. For all his willingness to play ball, Martin is noticeably slightly uncomfortable in these situations, as though excruciatingly aware of their artificiality. Rather than affect sincerity, he pulls back into a kind of ironic detachment, emerging momentarily to connect for real.
Martin dismisses with no little impatience metaphors of "mock exams", dress rehearsals or training sessions. By-elections are just different, he says, having their own dynamics. This one represents an important test for the parties and will tell a lot about the electoral mood. From the Fianna Fail viewpoint, he says, the public temper has indeed abated.
"The door is open again," he says, and now it's up to them. If he is confounded by the party's apparently beached condition, he is not about to say so.
If this election is, indeed, a straw in the wind, it may portend a reversion to a more or less normal climate of electioneering. The rage of recent years appears to be burning out, the energy which temporarily gravitated to the fringes shifting back. The winners are likely to be those who have carved out their platforms in the centre ground, waiting to capitalise on the renewal of hoping.
Such a shift would favour David FitzGerald. There's no doubt that Sinn Fein is hoovering up most of the votes of the still-disgruntled and pessimistic. Occupying that odd no man's land between protest and possible power, it may suck the energy away from the marginal parties and independents.
Fianna Fail, having seemingly entered into a non-aggression pact with itself, seems ill-prepared to take advantage of its apparent release from sackcloth. Here, there are internal mutterings about the decision to run the old-school candidate Aylward rather than launch a new face. A month ago, the local party's most promising Young Turk, Patrick McKee, defected to Renua Ireland.
Here, loitering without intent as it waited for the rain to clear, Fianna Fail seems to have missed its chance. Nobody seems to have remarked that not drawing attention to yourself is not necessarily the best strategy for fighting elections.