Sunday 23 October 2016

Bertie Ahern: Treat the polls with caution - remember what happened in the British election

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

Then Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern celebrates outside the Dáil after being elected as Taoiseach in July 1997. Photo: Photocall
Then Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern celebrates outside the Dáil after being elected as Taoiseach in July 1997. Photo: Photocall

Every general election is determined not by strategists and spin doctors but by the people who show up.

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Some scoff at politics as the ultimate blood sport, but it is far more important than that: it is really the will of the people at work.

Well, having taken part in 10 elections, I can tell you that the best-laid plans will be torn up and thrown away if the voters don't like them.

If we really want to commemorate those who gave everything, if we want to remember the men and women of 1916, their courage and sacrifice, then this year of all years: get out and vote.

When Pádraig Pearse with a trembling hand held the Proclamation looking over the rubble of O'Connell Street, he didn't see a ruined city, he saw a future where people like you and I could change a government not with a gun but with the ballot box. The peace and freedom to do that is our privilege today, and we should use it with pride.

There are far too many corners of the world where people are still dying for that right. We should use that right, whatever the issues are, and in this, our 32nd Dáil election, they are likely to be jobs, health, education and housing.

So if you are a pensioner, unemployed, struggling to pay rent or hoping some day to own a home, or if you are disabled or part of a hard-pressed family hoping to be able to get a bit of extra money, the only real way you can actually influence anything is to use that priceless gift of suffrage passed down to us from another time.

Today, the weapons and methods employed in campaigns are policies and manifestos. It may be brutal, ruthless and there is no quarter sought or given, but, thank God, it is not war.

Tactics and strategies may differ but most campaigns are the same. They unfold over a timespan of three weeks, there are no brakes or shock-absorbers on this ride, no safety belts or air-bags - well, not in the car, anyway!

It's bruising, but it's electrifying and those in the thick of it get swept up in the rush.

The first week is the launch. This centres on announcing the election, setting out and explaining the manifesto and meeting the issues head on.

The second week is really about the hand-to-hand combat on core issues. There should never really be more than six issues. Anything more is confusing and people lose track. You concentrate your firepower on what matters. Of course, there will be flashpoints and trapdoors that you didn't see coming; if you fall down you get back up and you come out swinging even harder.

The third week is largely focussed on bringing it altogether. and the finale is the leadership debate.

Everyone has done the legwork. Whether you're involved by day or night or at weekends putting up posters, knocking on doors, or handing out leaflets, you'll find yourself banjaxed at this point.

I'll keep my powder dry on the leadership debate, as we'll revisit that particular theatre closer to the election.

Over the 21 days of the actual steeplechase, the hurdles have to negotiated and there's always a Becher's Brook that nobody saw coming.

Then, from left field there can also be a slew of opinion polls that play havoc.

I would strike a notion here: remember what happened in the UK.

It's important to speak to the right people and to ask the right question. In Britain, many of those polled were at home, while the working population had other voting intentions, so when the results came through, they didn't tally with predictions.

Whatever about the don't knows, it's the ones that "don't give a damn" and can't be bothered to vote at all, that trouble me.

You can't go around grumbling if you haven't even bothered to vote.

When I came into politics, it wasn't uncommon to have an 80pc turnout. These days, turnout has been under 50pc in some places, and that really is a shame.

All campaigns and results are memorable in their own way, but 1997 stands out for me.

The Rainbow Coalition was in place and there were some big beasts in the political jungle to be taken down. I was up against John Bruton, Dick Spring and Proinsias de Rossa.

We went after them on everything, and came out on top.

Of course, choreography plays a part in how things unfold. In 2002, I had all the boxes ticked: speeches were written in advance and I went out on the plinth in Leinster House, to announce that we were under starter's orders for the Park. We had things all mapped out. I imagine Taoiseach Enda Kenny will take a similar approach, when he calls a halt to the 31st Dáil.

But 2007 was a different story. The country woke up to hear the news on a Sunday morning, that we were going to the country.

There were all kinds of theories as to why we did it this way. The truth is that the President was about to leave the country and we needed her signature to wind things up and go to the country. It was as straightforward as that.

Having been in Fianna Fáil for so long, you always have skin in the game whether you have a hand in it, or are just watching from a distance.

I have enormous respect for all those who play their part, no matter what their party. It's gruelling and it's relentless. As party leader for the three elections, we toured all 42 constituencies - as they then were - sometimes twice, over the 21-day run. They were 19-hour days and it was hell for leather.

I'd meet people who'd been canvassing on the opposite side for 40 years against us - we always gave each other the time of day.

Courtesy and respect are vital. Today, too many play the man or woman, and not the ball. If there's one thing I would ask of people today, it is to be respectful of the candidates.

To get back to the Proclamation made by those brave men a century ago: "The Irish republic claims the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman."

The truest way to show that allegiance is at the ballot box, and that is the lasting legacy of 1916.

Bertie Ahern won three general elections as leader of Fianna Fáil

Irish Independent

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