Not an expletive in sight as Biffo takes to canvass in flying form

Sat, May 24, 2008, 01:00

When the boss comes to town, everyone, from lowly leaflet pusher to Cabinet grandee, plays second fiddle, writes  MIRIAM LORD.

"HOWAYA. BRIAN Cowen. Doin' a bit of a canvass for the referendum." If that was a bit of a canvass, you'd hate to see the unexpurgated version.

Yesterday, after the excitement of B*?!*gate, Taoiseach Cowen took to the towns of Meath and Kildare to test the referendum water and spread the Yes to Lisbon message.

With his yellow-shirted youth wing volunteers travelling behind on the official FF "Yes Bus" (known to party workers as the "Yes Boss"), he struck out for the big shopping centres of the Pale and prepared to press some flesh.

How would it go? Would he find himself mired in the middle of a post-Bertie ennui and pre-Lisbon apathy? Would people know him, or want to know him? Brian may not be new to canvassing, but he is new to canvassing as a party leader. That's a different proposition: when the boss comes to town, everyone, from lowly leaflet pusher to cabinet grandee, plays second fiddle to the main man. Their job is to make him look good, snagging the willing from the crowd for a handshake and propelling him into those establishments where a welcome is guaranteed.

Big fishes in constituency ponds know their place when head office descends. Just a year ago, Brian Cowen was snagger-in-chief when Bertie came to his constituency. This time, he was in charge.

The Biffobus stopped first in Navan, then moved on to Maynooth before hitting Naas, Newbridge and Kildare.

It was a humid lazy day, matched by the laid-back nature of the leader's canvass and the people he met. Noel Dempsey, delighted to see his Cabinet friend in his neck of the words, produced a pocket camera to record the event.

Dinner in Noel's house will be fascinating for guests in the months to come, when he takes out his piles of Biffo snaps after the cheese and biscuits.

In terms of campaigning style, the new man differs in some ways from his predecessor, although he matches him in the pace-setting department. It's de rigueur these days for leaders to burn the concrete on walkabouts, without a thought to the puffing retinue walking backwards into lampposts and falling over dogs.

Navan set the tone - there was little dissent all day, and nearly as little engagement on the Lisbon Treaty. It was enough for Biffo to smile and pose for photographs, while getting in his low-key message: "Doin' a bit of a canvass for the referendum." At least he was setting out his stall, albeit in a rather diffident manner. Bertie rarely bothered mentioning such bothersome stuff as elections, preferring hearty greetings, flirty squeezes and manly backslapping.

One man at a supermarket check-out was up to date with the latest controversy. "When are you going to do something about the price of this stuff?" he shouted.

But there was no bad language.

On the road to Naas, EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy and Minister of State for Europe Dick Roche boarded the Biffobus. Charlie was in flying form, having already informed the media earlier that he was never really "arsed" about the Galway Races.

In a surprise move on Thursday night, the Taoiseach brought the curtains down on the famous Ballybrit "tint". As a result, he was followed about yesterday by a highly appreciative and good-humoured posse of colour writers, buoyed by the news that they will no longer have to brave the annual endurance event that is the Galway Races.

A temporary condition, to be sure, but it was a happy day.

Apart from shopping centres and supermarkets, politicians have a thing about pharmacies. Yesterday, Cowen was no exception. He couldn't pass one without calling in and announcing his presence.

Perhaps sick people are less likely to start a row.

The expression on the faces of many of the passersby he met signalled that B*?!*gate had not passed them by. The men, in particular, shook Biffo's hand with a knowing, approving look in their eyes.

If yesterday's experience is anything to go by, the Taoiseach did himself no harm by uttering an expletive in the Dáil chamber on Wednesday.

In Superquinn in Naas, a woman cornered him by the digestive biscuits and asked if accepting the treaty meant the introduction of abortion. "That's the sort of misinformation we've got to talk about," Brian told her, before moving on.

Up and down an aisle later, and Dick Roche had the lady in an armlock by the paper towels, earnestly explaining the situation. Two students from Maynooth waylaid Biffo on his way out and presented him with a dirty-looking, chipped mug. It said "I love New York." The Taoiseach held it up and they took his picture.

"This mug has been everywhere," said the lads afterwards, delighted. "We swiped it years ago off our friend Lar, and it's been photographed at landmarks all over the world. It has its own webpage. Dirty Sanchez from MTV signed it for us. We have a picture of Enda Kenny holding it."

As the FF contingent departed, the lads left the carpark chanting "cup power" and headed off for a celebratory burger in McDonalds.

Biffo was flying. In Newbridge, he kissed the first of many babies. But when four-week-old Niall Callaghan saw him looming into view, he started to roar. Sensibly, the Taoiseach withdrew.

"Easily upset," said his dad, sympathetically.

You could say the same for Brian after last Wednesday in the Dáil.

A few pharmacies later, and the happy crew pitched up in the enormous White Water centre. More babies, and more approving glances from the lads.

Two schoolgirls stood and watched the Taoiseach in action.

"Oooh, he's soooo cute!" they cooed. You what? They meant the laughing baby that Biffo was prodding.

Sinead Fitzgibbon (16) and Layla Ravanparvar (16) thought Charlie McCreevy was the Taoiseach. They eventually shook hands with Brian. "He's not really cute," said Sinead. "But he has a very firm handshake," said Layla, in mitigation.

A group of children watched him in the coffee shop, fascinated by the fuss and all the policemen. They told a nearby garda they knew what was going on.

"No, nobody's robbing anything," he told them.

"He looks better in real life than on the telly," Colette Daly told us.

There was a conversation in Irish with a couple of Gaelscoil tots, who understood the Taoiseach, although hadn't a clue who he was. No matter, their parents were hooked.

One he went, in his heavy navy suit, face lathered with sweat and hair sticking to his head.

Charlie McCreevy was delighted. "I hate canvassing. I won a bet in 1992 when I didn't canvass at all. I'm only doing this because it's Brian Cowen, and he's a pal of mine."

Dick Roche looked like he'd died and gone to heaven. But then, he always does.

If Biffo keeps up the pace, he'll need to get a summer suit.