Saturday 15 December 2018

Voters show deep and visceral fury

Celia Larkin goes on the canvass with Mary Fitzpatrick in her old stomping ground of Dublin Central

AS I pulled up outside the Navan Road school, I was impressed to see that Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick had observed the first rule for any candidate: be visible. There she was, in bright orange jacket, strawberry blonde hair flying in the wind, giving instructions to her small band of canvassers: two local ladies; one young man; and her dad -- former councillor, senator and TD for Dublin Central, Dermot Fitzpatrick.

I arranged to go out on the hustings in my old stomping ground of Dublin Central with the new spokeswoman on Housing and Urban Development, to see if her appointment had made any impact on the doorsteps.

Our first port of call was canvassing parents as they collected their children from school. I stood back to observe the reaction of people as they walked away after having been canvassed by herself and her team.

It's early in the election, so the electorate aren't yet sick of being accosted in the street and at their doors and are still polite, at least to the candidate's face. But there is no doubt that when the element of surprise at the approach by this good-looking, articulate woman had worn off and they had a chance to look at her literature, the realisation that she was standing for Fianna Fail did provoke an adverse reaction among some as they chatted to their buddies.

I was a little disappointed to find no stickers available to give to wide-eyed kids who, lucky for them, haven't a clue what's going on but love plastering themselves and their belongings in stickers from any party.

Of course, the added benefit to a candidate is having their name plastered all over the child's house, keeping that name alive in the parents' mind. That reminder could possibly be the difference between receiving a preference vote or not. Even a 10th preference becomes a number one on the 10th count.

Next up was Dunmanus Court, a senior citizens' complex in the heart of Cabra. It was lashing rain, and Mary had decided that the structure of the complex would provide some shelter for the canvassers as they worked.

I sincerely hope her people get themselves some decent rain gear. This is a winter election, and an aversion to getting wet will not be conducive to comprehensively canvassing a constituency comprising 30,000 dwellings.

She moved slowly through the complex, spending time with each person at the door. The reaction here was positive. People knew her, liked her, and congratulated her on her appointment. From what I could gather, she had worked the area well and was respected for it.

I hadn't realised how deeply embedded was my own instinct to canvass. On one occasion, when an elderly lady had taken a long time to answer the door, the canvasser had moved on and the resident opened the door to an empty doorstep. What did I do? I just couldn't help myself. The urge to canvass was just too great. I canvassed her. Constituent, candidate, canvass: I'm programmed.

As we shifted to the neatly kept houses of Mulroy Road, the extent of the uphill battle for FF became apparent. People are angry and worried. Those working are angry at the reduction in take-home pay. Those on benefits are angry at the cut in their money. But above all, people are worried and frightened by the loss of employment prospects for themselves and their families.

The electorate are, however, extremely politically astute.

"Mary's a lovely girl, it's a pity she's FF," one woman told me. The anger at FF is deep and visceral. But there is also a realisation that, no matter who is in power, the financial hardship will continue. As a result, this campaign is different to any of the campaigns I've been involved in, down the years. Right now, people want answers. They want to know exactly what the parties are offering and they know there is very little room for manoeuvre. This is definitely not an election of promises.

Dublin Central is a four- seater constituency with a diverse socio-economic spread and an impressive line-up of candidates. There seems little doubt that Joe Costello of Labour will top the poll, followed by Fine Gael's Pascal Donohue. The third seat will go to Maureen O'Sullivan, independent, winner of the by-election in 2009 and former member of Tony Gregory's team. The final seat is the one to play for. At this point in the campaign, it seems to be a dog fight between Sinn Fein and FF.

Running two candidates for FF was a big gamble. Outgoing TD Cyprian Brady and Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick are both pulling from the same base. They could well split the FF vote and end up gifting the seat to Sinn Fein.

There has been much talk of Brady's poor first-preference showing at the last election, but then he was running with Bertie Ahern, a jealous vote-gatherer who received substantial first-preference votes that then transferred to his running mate. This time Brady doesn't have Ahern to content with. In fact, the Drumcondra Mafia are actively canvassing Ahern's vote for Brady. Can they deliver?

Fitzpatrick received a substantial first-preference vote in the local elections, bucking the trend for FF and burying Ahern's brother Maurice, who lost his seat. The question is, has she built on that foundation or has it slipped?

At this point in time it's anybody's guess which of the two FF candidates will receive the most first-preference votes. Brady must surely have built up some personal vote during his years of working in the constituency to add to whatever Ahern vote he can muster. And Fitzpatrick may well find out that the electorate view council and general elections very differently.

My assessment is that FF would have been better served running just one candidate. As it stands, any slippage on transfers between the two will cost FF the seat.

Sunday Independent

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