| 11.7°C Dublin

Independents set to reap the benefit of public fury

THE first day of a momentous month and it's dark and raining in Bray as a smallish group of voters makes its way to the Best Western Hotel.

They are going to see economist David McWilliams introduce Stephen Donnelly, independent candidate for the Wicklow constituency.

Mr Donnelly is momentarily nervous as he gets to his feet but soon settles into his stride. The more he talks about the problems facing the country, the more confident he becomes.

An engineer by training and now a successful management consultant, he completed his Masters degree at Harvard, studying the interaction between the IMF and small states like ours -- so this is all familiar, if rather bleak, territory to him.

He compares the current situation with the EU bailout to a rich neighbour putting a heap of money on some wheezing nag which promptly drops dead half-way through the race, then coming to you and not only expecting you to pay his original stake but also the money that he was hoping to win as well.

Then, when you point out that you don't have it, he offers to lend it to you -- at an additional and painful premium. It's an analogy which is proving popular with audiences (well, Wicklow is a horsey county).

What's needed now, Mr Donnelly insists, is experienced negotiators who can go back to Europe and the IMF and hammer out a better deal.

It's not that independent candidates such as himself want to captain the ship of State, he adds in another memorable metaphor, but they know how to fix the hole in the hull.

Some of the old politics rears its traditional head when the time comes to answer questions from the floor. One woman asks where he stands on legislating for the X case in light of recent abortion rulings from the European courts -- which is a bit like going to a Youth Defence rally and asking about interest rates. Mr Donnelly cobbles together an answer, but makes no bones that what he's about is the economy.

Unsurprisingly, that's what most of the people in the hall want to talk about as well. They may be tired and disillusioned by events, but they're still hungry for understanding.

Some scepticism remains. "What's the point of voting for just one man?" asks a woman outside after the meeting has broken up.

She wasn't hostile to his message, just worried about the practicalities of Dail politics when arithmetic usually counts for much more than either principle or passion.

There's certainly no appetite in the room for the discredited pork-barrel politics of the previous generation of independents, like Jackie Healy-Rae. People want change.

Stephen Donnelly knows that better than anyone and he wants to give it to them -- not least because the Opposition in the Dail has singularly failed in its own duty to hold the Government to account.

But will the voters listen? He says he senses anger on the doorstep against the bailout and the political system, but people don't seem like that to me. Dispirited, rather. Resigned. Or maybe that's just what I'm seeing because that's how I feel.

People like Stephen Donnelly make me a little ashamed of my own personal sense of defeatism because he remains focussed and tireless against some serious odds. Their energy is a much-needed antidote to cynicism, if nothing else.

And afterwards, he tells me, a third of the audience in Bray did indeed come forward and volunteer to help with the campaign, mostly people who had never been directly involved in politics before.

The same happened in Greystones and Wicklow town. There's definitely a mood out there. People are listening and responding to what he and other critics of the bailout standing in the election have to say.

A couple of nights later, Stephen Donnelly is sitting in a car park in Kilcoole, waiting to go canvassing. The weather has got even worse. The wind is wild and sharp with rain. He doesn't have to be here. He has another life. A job he enjoys. A wife and young children with whom he could be spending the evening instead.

It's partly this which convinces people that he's in earnest. He's not some ladder-climbing careerist politician. He doesn't have to put himself though it. Does he ever wonder why he's doing it?

He wouldn't be human if he didn't. Like everyone else, he has bills to pay. Running an election campaign means eating up all his savings, every precious moment of time.

Then he remembers the people he meets on the doorstep who talk of unemployment and emigration.

"The level of despair is overwhelming," he says. People feel disempowered. He talks heartfeltedly about how draining it is, tapping into so much unhappiness, with voters visibly upset about what's happening to their families.

"It's an awful lot of emotion to be exposed to, but you hear people's stories and think, 'This is why I'm doing this'."

He's equally committed to making things easier for small businesses that are still crippled by high energy costs, upward-only rent reviews and infrastructural chaos.

They need to be able to start hiring people again, and we need to improve education and innovation in a world where the Chinese and Indians are growing ever smarter and we risk being left behind.

Donnelly's certainly under no illusions about the task ahead. Getting elected is a big enough job. He reckons he needs 10,000 votes.

For someone who never stood for election before and has no party behind him, that would be a Herculean task even in easier times.

Right now, with the IMF in town and the threat of ever-deeper austerity measures being imposed from outside, asking voters to put their trust in the unknown becomes more daunting still.

He persists because "the scale of the situation we're in can't be overstated" and because he obviously believes it's possible to make a difference. As he puts it: "In Wicklow, we get to elect five people. We should elect the five best".

It's early days, but if the independents are to be the story of this election, as the polls suggest, then it's on miserable, windswept evenings like this that it all begins.

Sunday Independent