Six try to make capital at party’s election launch ahead of daunting campaign

Full horror of constituencies’ massive size finally dawns

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Fine Gael’s  six MEP candidates at the launch of the party’s European election campaign. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Fine Gael’s six MEP candidates at the launch of the party’s European election campaign. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Tue, Apr 29, 2014, 08:46

Ah, there’s the coffee and an attractive display of cookies, some wince-inducing obstetrical instruments and a sign saying “Do Not Spit.”

Yes, it’s the launch of Fine Gael’s European elections manifesto in the venerable old Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street in Dublin, and the six candidates have the grim air of people dreading exposure to the last two from members of the electorate.

The chatter is of Nessa Childers’s “Queen of the Capital” showing in a Sunday Independent /Millward Brown poll. It is greeted with studied scepticism. “She got the seat handed to her on a plate... Everyone in Labour will hate her.”

Meanwhile, the full horror of the gargantuan constituency sizes is dawning.

“When I was canvassing at the weekend,” says former MEP Mary Banotti, “most of the people had no idea what Deirdre Clune was doing in Bray.”

Or what Simon Harris was doing in Cork.

Or – Banotti again – “if the unfortunate candidate from outer Kerry [Sean Kelly] turns up here and the plain people are asking what’s he doing here?”

She has written to the Government, saying someone will have to come and explain that “there’s a European constituency here”.

Ireland South is geographically almost the size of the Netherlands, adds Harris .

Anyway, tomorrow the FG barrier drops and Harris, Clune and Kelly will be confined to their respective bailiwicks in the constituency. Huge sigh of relief. Possibly.

For now all six candidates are squashed together on one side of a podium in a kind of visual representation of pre-electorate tension.

Alan Shatter, happily reconciled to being snubbed by the GRA, gazes benignly upon them from the front row, while the Taoiseach, his director of elections Big Phil and MC Paschal Donohoe have the other side of the podium all to themselves.

Paschal’s job is to introduce the candidates, which he does by pressing play on their videos, and in fairness, they are quite soothing.

This is because nearly all of them feature dogs, cattle, sheep, water, bridges, mountains, trees, a surprising amount of sunshine and a fair bit of meaningful staring into the middle distance.

Big stick
Mairead McGuinness begins in Strasbourg and ends on what may be the Boyne with a big stick and her dog Sam, intercut with bucolic scenes of her bottle-feeding a lamb, with lots of sheep, cattle, a castle. Even her office is bucolic.

Harris strolls along a sun-dappled beach with his brother amid wide calming shots of the sea, Greystones , a bakery, trees and a dog.

Kelly is driving a tractor and there may be dogs. There are certainly mountains, a GAA stadium, an office, a science lab, Killarney, a castle, lots of lovely rushing water, trees and some cattle.

Jim Higgins is standing on the Great Western Greenway in his native Mayo amid lots of bikes, a ram or two, beaches, Westport, more bikes, cattle.

Clune’s is firmly focused on her Cork city pedigree; boats and water and the English Market, big ripe tomatoes, the obligatory coffee shop and the sign for Prince’s Street, which, as some wag noted, is entirely apt for a scion of the Merchant Princes.

After all that, Brian Hayes’s video is quite startling; no dogs or cattle or even a coffee shop. Just Michael Noonan, eulogising Brian intercut with shots of AJ Chopra, Government Buildings, the Convention Centre and the Hap’penny Bridge under a cloudy sky.

And did we mention Noonan?

So fulsome is the eulogy that you wonder how this man can be spared to Brussels at all. Why, Michael, why?

Meanwhile, the Queen of the Capital herself, Nessa Childers, is standing near the Stephen’s Green Centre on Grafton Street in a pretty flowery dress, looking preternaturally becalmed with two campaign workers, while a busker nearby plays My Way .

She was “encouraged” by the poll, “but I’ve been out on the streets a lot... and I’m an Independent, and people are very angry and disillusioned with the political parties”. So really, she’s not that surprised.

“I’m not sure how accurate that poll is – they say there’s a 4 per cent margin of error which is quite high – but I think people might have the feeling that I belong.”

As we stand unimpeded by fans (apart from one), she is anxious to explain that the city centre is not her “grassroots” territory.

Down the street Paul Murphy – Joe Higgins’s chosen one – is much more at home in the city, armed with a big colourful stall, a megaphone, piles of election literature, and two friendly lads having a bit of fun about seeing Nessa off their patch.

A few yards away from Nessa, Labour’s Emer Costello – fifth in Sunday’s poll – is surrounded by half a dozen canvassers. She is anxious to point out that for the most part their reception has been “by and large positive and by and large polite”.

However, hesitantly, she starts to talk about an incident outside Croke Park on Sunday when half a dozen men and women “encircled” them, wielding cameras uncomfortably close to their faces and screaming abuse.

“They were quite physically threatening... It was very intimidating, it was bullying. I was petrified...That’s not democracy”.

It continued for about 20 minutes. “I had to leave the canvass at that stage and go into the ground.”

It’s clear that her canvassers are still shaken. One young woman gives her name, then changes her mind – “I really don’t want them to know who I am,” she says nervously.

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