On the campaign trail with Micheál Martin and Mary Fitzpatrick
Harry McGee finds voters engaging with the Fianna Fáil leader in south Dublin
The role of Dublin shopping centres in recent election campaigns is almost worth a minor thesis. Blanchardstown has been a favourite haunt of Fine Gael over the past few years and it is where Enda Kenny pioneered the technique for the rapid-fire high fives while moving at incredible speed across a mezzanine level.
The slightly more staid atmosphere of Dundrum Town Centre has formed the backdrop for a surprisingly high number of Fianna Fáil canvas outings cum photoshoots during that time. You might have understood the logic of it when Tom Kitt and the late Seamus Brennan ruled the roost in Dublin South. But since the recession hit you wonder why they bother. People are very polite in South Dublin buyt you felt that all that was missing in Fianna Fáil canvasses here in the run-up to 2011 were a set of stocks and a pillory.
The last few canvasses I followed here was when Brian Cowen was Taoiseach. He came out to campaign for a Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty (the first one which was defeated) in 2008 on a lovely day around this time of year. Seamus Brennan, then terminally ill, gamely came out to meet the Fianna Fáil entourage. Cowen showed that day how uninspiring and insipid he was on the hustings, uncomfortable with flesh-pressing and small talk. A year later, he returned again for the byelection after Brennan’s death. Fianna Fáil weren’t the flavour of the month but there was no open revolt. It was just dull. George Lee had swept through the centre earlier like a hurricane. Cowen and his candidate swept through the centre like invisible men. After that, it was just downhill. Even in polite middle-class South Dublin Fianna Fáil canvassers took it in the neck. The party was dumped by voters losing all its seats in Dublin, bar Brian Lenihan holding on in Dublin west.
Yesterday Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and the party’s candidate for Dublin in the European elections, Mary Fitzpatrick, spent a good deal of the morning working their way through the labyrinth of the shopping centre.
Back in 2011, some of the commentariat predicted that Fianna Fáil was gone. Another train of thought was that the party could never recover with Micheál Martin (a member of the discredited government) at its helm. Neither was true. The party has recovered ground. Martin looks secure as party leader and seems to be seen as such not just by supporters, but by many voters.
The Cassandras were wrong. But so too were the super-optimists who believed on the strength of a few polls that the party would bounce back. Explaining itself and its role during the lost decade is still tricky. Sinn Féin now presents a clear and present danger. The recovery will always be uneven and may never be a full one.
Still, there’s a marked contrast in the reception Martin and Fitzpatrick get here compared to even two years ago. When the party campaigned for a Yes vote for the fiscal treaty, we followed Martin and Senator Averill Power through middle class Sutton. At about half a dozen doors Martin was barked at and growled at, and not by canines.
This time around, there is none of that. People stop and engage. They wander up to him. The tables have been turned. He and Fitzpatrick rather than taking an earful now bend their ears with the empathy of doctors, as they listen to people complain about the coalition. The whole thing seems geared towards quality of engagement over quantity.