Monday 26 August 2019

Three years of hard slog

Blaine Gaffney on his election defeat: He spent €25k in a bid to get elected for the first time to the County Council running a high profile campaign from which he has learned many lessons

For me the path towards becoming involved in electoral politics in Sligo began in 2015, when I was appointed as a 'Local Area Representative' after the disastrous 2014 Local Election.

Prior to this appointment, I would have had a strong interest in national politics after graduating from Queens University Belfast with a Master's Degree in Irish Politics, as well as from working at the European Parliament in 2014 and at the time of the appointment, I had just commenced a role a as Parliamentary Assistant with Tony McLoughlin TD in Dáil Éireann. 

I was living, eating and sleeping politics, so I was personally delighted to accept this new role. It was a voluntary position which I took on with great pride, passion and commitment.

I quickly got down to work, helping to get local constituent's issues resolved, whilst also promoting the positive policies effecting Co. Sligo, which people often wouldn't hear about amongst all the negative publicity that was out there. Social media was my tool to achieve this.

Be it road or footpath repair, passports, housing applications, local and central Government grants, public lighting provision, planning applications, social welfare applications, residents associations issues, broadband problems, medical cards, immigration issues, Peace Commissioner signatures, job searching, SUSI applications, littering and any other non-routine constituent queries, I built up a very strong record of success for the five hundred individual people who contacted me during this period.

The 'ground work' was difficult, but it opened my eyes up to the demands placed on a County Councillor and also to the limitations when trying to fix simple problems in Sligo. Everything just takes forever to resolve!

Before I knew it, the build up towards the 2019 Local Election's had commenced and things began to get incredibly stressful and busy.

My family life began to suffer trying to balance everything at once and from here, every thought and decision we made began to be focused around the 24th May 2019.

In July 2018, I decided on the last day possible to throw my name into the hat for the Sligo - Leitrim General Election Selection Convention when Deputy Tony McLoughlin announced publicly his intentions to retire from politics. I did so, simply as I felt that it was a great opportunity to get my name more widely known within the party, but also to firmly set out my political ambitions for the future.

Despite never having a possibility to win the convention, I was blown away by the support achieved on that night in front of one thousand delegates in the Clayton Hotel.

As a political nobody, up against former Ministers, TD's, Senators and Councillors, I learned that night just how effective a powerful and passionate speech can be and it gave me great encouragement heading into the Locals.

Difficulties experienced during the campaign.

Some of the difficulties faced during the 2019 Local Election campaign included trying to convince the electorate that young people could be trusted, that people from non-political families were worth listening to and that overall it was time for a generational change in Sligo's politicians.

Looking back on it now, one of the most common things said to my team and I at the doors was that "it was great to see a new face for a change".

Yet ultimately, when the votes were finally counted, it was clear that Sligo didn't want this change. But hey, that's politics. The people spoke and I fully respect that, but you learn very quickly to take everything you hear with a pinch of salt.

Online abuse is another challenging aspect younger candidates face which at times stepped way across the mark.

I actually had to seek legal advice and assistance from the Gardaí in relation to online harassment. This aspect of new politics is disgusting and it needs to be seriously addressed in my opinion.

Free speech is one thing, but bringing peoples families into it, their wives, their careers and possessions is not acceptable!

Anyone trying to do their best for their community should not be held to these levels of often anonymous ridicule and abuse.

Especially when you consider the fact that I was acting in the community on a voluntary basis.

I was not even elected and I was getting more hassle than most of those who had been in office for years. It didn't make sense. I can see why young people would be put off getting involved if I can be honest.

Coming to terms with people hating you, simply because you're a member of a certain political party it also tough to take. I am a very friendly person. I like to get to know people, to chat and to have positive dialogue.

Yet at times, some people refused to talk or said remarks simply because I was associated with a particular political party.

If people are being judged like this without ever even been given an opportunity, then I seriously worry about the future for our country.

Then of course, there was the difficulties internally within the local Fine Gael organisation. Going up against a strong sitting Councillor, with all the resources of a General Election Candidate was always going to be tough for me.

I only realised late on just how much the party officials in Dublin favoured one candidate over the other in this election in terms of finances and administrative support provided. This was hard to understand given the years of commitment and time as a volunteer I had given the party since joining in 2010.

Now, this had nothing to do with whatsoever with Cllr. Maguire, who fought a great and fair campaign.

It was instead just the state of play we found ourselves in with a General Election looming. Which of course is something I understand and have empathy for the parties reasoning for this. However, the biggest difficulty faced by far, was seeing my family members and team visibly upset because of the election result.

It was heart-breaking watching your wife and family crying leaving the count centre as it became clear we would just be beaten to a seat on the last count by a swing of 33 votes..

It was all just so public and not being able to do anything about this, left me feeling worthless for days!

I always had a special place in my heart for Summerhill College. But that day will haunt me for the rest of my life! Nonetheless, it is something I hope one day will become a long forgotten memory in a positive story.

There are many lifelong lessons learned during this bruising experience. Firstly, the most prominent thing I will take from it is that you can't depend on anyone except those in your team.

Secondly, you always need to be yourself. Don't be the person that people are telling you to be.

This was one of my biggest regrets. At times more experienced people than I in politics, felt I needed to adapt my approach to things or to tone down my arguments and to change the way I do things.

I made my name by being outspoken and calling it as it is and fighting for what I believed in. I foolishly changed this approach during the election to be more measured and reserved. I wish now I had stayed on this original path.

Finally, I learned to never give up. We had many stumbling blocks put in our way during the campaign.

We took them on and got on with it when at times it would have been easier to walk away.

But defeat is only that, if you don't learn from it and we most definitely learned from this campaign.

When I look back at the level of personal investment and time I put into this campaign I'd be lying if at times I didn't question was it all worth it. I am out of pocket to the tune of over €25,000 since 2016 chasing this dream and it has also put a serious strain on my work-life balance, my family time and my relationship.


'I'm putting family first from now on'

However, despite this, it was an experience definitely worth fighting for.

I say this because every time I helped someone out and every occasion my work achieved a positive result in Sligo that was not going to occur before I got involved, gave me a real sense of civic pride.

The chance to fight to improve Sligo has been worth it all. I love Sligo with all my heart and will keep trying to develop it from the outside in whatever limited way I can.

Looking back now, despite how difficult it was at the time, I am very proud of the result of 921 First Preference votes. Especially when one takes into consideration that in the history of County Council Elections In Sligo - Strandhill, going back to 1920, no election candidate with a first preference vote of 10.8% has ever missed out on a seat.

I am unfortunately the first in this regard. Nonetheless, I beat the long standing Cllr. Declan Bree in one of my home boxes in town and I was the second highest of all eleven candidates in Strandhill's four boxes and I was the leading Fine Gael Candidate on First Preferences. These are great achievements to cherish and build upon in the future. My team was exceptional and committed throughout. We simply could not have done any more and this makes me proud and happy in equal measure as we were all political newcomers to the field.

From now on, no matter what happens, my family comes first. I let this side suffer during the last three years. Danielle and I have just bought a new house in Strandhill and I am looking forward to settling in out there. I am also looking for my next career opportunity for when after Deputy McLoughlin retires.

Will I get involved in another election? Who knows maybe in five years' time I will still have a long political career ahead of me. I am still very young in political terms and I remain a committed party activist. However, I do hope that loyalty will still stand for something within our party and that someday, the fact I took one for the team in Sligo on this occasion will be paid back.

Finally, as a young first time candidate, my message to anyone out there who feels that they can make a positive change in Sligo, who has that bug for getting things done and who feels that they can be a positive public representative, would be to go for it! Sligo needs new voices and the time will come when we will make our breakthrough.

Sligo Champion