Seanad referendum canvassers paddling across an ocean of public indifference
Campaigns bring out big hitters but they struggle to engage shoppers
Senator Fergal Quinn of Democracy Matters in Dublin’s Henry Street on Saturday campaigning for a No vote in the Seanad referendum. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
No matter how each side sells its referendum campaign – a nationwide blitz, a monster canvass, bombarding the big urban centres – you sense it has an impact similar to that of a single canoe paddling across a vast ocean of indifference.
It is only in general elections – or when there’s a huge existential issue in question – that sufficient troops are mobilised or more than a handful of citizens are motivated to engage with your argument.
And though the future of the Seanad should rank high among people’s priorities, it’s clear that for most people it does not.
So here we were at an entrance to The Square in Tallaght, Dublin, on Saturday, with small but dedicated teams from both sides trying very hard just to persuade shoppers to stop, before even trying to woo them to the Yes or No side.
For Democracy Matters, the event was part of a nationwide canvass in which its leading personalities hit all the big cities.
With them was a team of five volunteers, most of whom were students or graduates. They were handing out a very detailed four-page pamphlet, titled “Say No To the Power Grab”.
Tuffy stationed herself near the cinema entrance. Five paces away stood the beaming figure of local Fine Gael Minister of State Brian Hayes cheerfully handing out Yes brochures. Unfortunately, there was nothing to report except pleasantries from both side.
The days when rival candidates would try to drown each other out at church gates is long gone. “The most useful thing for you to do, Joanna,” pipes up Hayes, “is to mention my name as often as possible.”
Among the volunteers is a bearded young man, Joe Byrne, a chemistry student at TCD. He’s involved with a splinter youth group, Future Matters. He says that despite the poll findings he is getting a real sense it is going their way.
Tiernan Reilly, who worked on the Obama re-election campaign in the US in 2011, is the movement’s “grassroots” organiser’. He says there are 700 active supporters in the campaign, with about 150 out on the simultaneous canvass.
“The feeling on the ground is the opinion polls are slightly off,” he says, echoing Byrne. His job is to get as many people as possible to canvass, to call into local radio stations or to attend local meetings. And this is the group’s biggest day, with simultaneous canvasses in eight centres.
Tuffy is one of a small number of Labour TDs who disagree with the Government’s stance. It raises a few eyebrows among those who stop but most listen patiently as she sets out her argument: “We are saying keep and reform the Seanad. That will make our democracy much better than scrapping it.”
Elites and cliques
Paul Speight, a slim, well-tattooed and talkative man, says he is in favour of the Seanad being retained but it needs to be opened more. “We cannot have any more elites and cliques. Let’s give the ordinary people a chance.”
Tom Kelly, a white-bearded man in his sixties, has an opening salvo. “If I had a vote for the Seanad I would support it but I don’t and so I won’t.” But then he’s also very critical of the Government. While saying he is going to vote Yes, after a long conversation with Tuffy he said he would not like the see the Government getting a landslide and might think about it.
A definite conversion is John Honan from Saggart. Bespectacled and wearing fashionable sneakers, he said his initial reaction had been to vote Yes.
“It seemed like a no-brainer, get rid of it and we will save €20 million. When you look deeper there’s the question of power, and there are no checks and balances like you get in the House of Lords. It’s one of those things that you think about and wonder what the real motives and issues are.”
He’s shifted from Yes to No, to the delight of Tuffy and Byrne. But it will need a lot more to persuade others and that takes time and resources that Democracy Matters may not have.
Meanwhile, Brian Hayes’s departing tongue-in-cheek quip is that he’s off to a “mass rally in the National Arena”.