Monday 26 September 2016

Deirdre Conroy: Not so much more choice, but more confusion for voters in a crowded race

Published 05/02/2016 | 02:30

Mary Mitchell O’Connor of Fine Gael hanging election posters in
Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Mary Mitchell O’Connor of Fine Gael hanging election posters in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Justin Farrelly

A radio vox pop this week found that most working class people had no interest in the upcoming election or politics, they have enough 'to worry about'.

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Ironically, it is the protection of those on social welfare and the prevention of even greater financial burden that has spawned new parties and thrown up Independents in response to the traditional trio.

The latest poll suggests that one in four TDs could be an independent.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit don't reflect the wider dissatisfaction with conventional parties and whips, so Renua came along. Then the Social Democrats arrived on the scene. The Greens are trying to make a comeback and then there's Sinn Féin, two words that strike dread in the employer classes.

Posters for some of the record number of women who will contest the election on February 26.
Posters for some of the record number of women who will contest the election on February 26.

I'm sure I've left out some other honourable efforts, but you get the picture. Not so much 'more choice', rather, more confusion for the voter.

It had been suggested to me over the last few years that I should get involved in politics. I did engage once, briefly, in the very bad 1980s when we had PAYE marches. A promising new party emerged, the Progressive Democrats. I was secretary of the Ranelagh branch when Michael McDowell was elected. It was my first taste of canvassing and groupthink. Becoming a parent put a stop to all that, getting some sleep was more attractive than going to meetings.

Fast forward to 2016 and parenthood is mildly engaging. My two handsome sons are out in the wider world. But the state of the nation causes me no end of frustration - the housing crisis and rental market, in particular. In a supposedly thriving economy, we have a growing number suffering every week, through poverty and eviction. Logic dictates to me that the annual cost of thousands of hotel rooms and temporary rented homes far outweighs the cost of building social housing on land owned by the State, by developers in debt to the State, at a cost negotiated by the State.

When I was approached last summer by my local TD to think about running in this election, the timing was perfect. I had long experience in being self-employed, theoretically I was self-motivated and disciplined, except that the downturn had put paid to my business in the construction sector. That gave me first-hand knowledge of losing an income, and with that, a very surprising and depressing discovery, losing one's identity.

One of the gravest outcomes of Ireland's financial collapse has been the rise in suicide and depression. It is a subject widely avoided in the Dáil, but it is a very real, current issue, with far-reaching consequences for families and society. When my practice ground to a halt, I held a lot of meetings with my bank, I took in lodgers and started to study again. I felt I could represent a very broad section of the community.

I was out of the childcare trap, so I could devote all my time to my constituency. I knew my chosen territory very well. Dublin Bay South is the smallest constituency in Ireland, but one of the most densely developed and highly contested. It encompasses the full spectrum of society and a vast swathe of business, professional and educational bodies occupy space there.

Above, Labour’s Lorraine Higgins with her new election poster. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Above, Labour’s Lorraine Higgins with her new election poster. Photo: Hany Marzouk

I asked the TD to let me think about it. Last summer, I could not walk, never mind run for election. I had broken my hip and lost part of my femur in an accident in January and was awaiting a second operation. If the election was going to be called in November, I could not consider it. Still, I decided I would make myself as ready as possible. I researched tallies, worked out how many votes I'd need, got started on a list of where they'd come from. And went into hospital. I was not allowed drive and would be on two crutches for a minimum of six weeks. I had exams in August and had to taxi everywhere for weeks. I would only be able to canvass by social media.

By then, I had to admit to myself, I was too shy for all this. I tend to forget my words, I blush, I can't do 'small talk', I'd basically be useless as a politician. So I invested in a Women For Election Workshop last September. It was a three-day boot camp on Hodson Bay, in Athlone. I was in no doubt that I would run as an Independent candidate. As an independent thinker, I could not cope with the manipulation of a party machine. I had seen enough posturing, lying and incompetence over the last 15 years, when politics really had a direct effect on my life.

The others in the boot camp were mainly running as Independents or for Renua, there was one Green girl and one PBP. Those young ones had great spirit and energy. There was also a Fianna Fáil veteran, who would call the Independent Alliance women 'Shane's girls'. Being part of an 'alliance', not a party, meant that we could share knowledge, support and, crucially, remain loyal to the ideals, policies and principles we set out with.

The main thing I took home was that it should not just be new female candidates doing the boot camp. Every politician needs it. They need training, not just in communication, but predominantly in ethics, in standards in public office, in accountability, in dealing with the media in a genuine manner, instead of the trite way they've been trained to dodge a question since the Haughey era.

As the posters went up overnight, I saw how utterly over-optimistic I was about recovery, not Ireland's; my own. Perhaps, next time, when I have two good legs to pound the pavements, I will join the women who have taken a major step to advance real diversity in electoral representation. As of today, there are 156 women intending to contest the election which is equivalent to 31pc of the total candidates (503).

In all, that is 80 more women than in 2011. A signal for change.

A Pamela Kearns election poster on the Ballyboden Road in Dublin. Steve Humphreys
A Pamela Kearns election poster on the Ballyboden Road in Dublin. Steve Humphreys

Irish Independent

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