Underdog candidates at a disavantage faced with the might of party machines

What canvassers lack in resources they make up for in passion and ideas

Independent candidate Diarmaid O’Flynn canvasses for the European elections in Patrick Street, Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Independent candidate Diarmaid O’Flynn canvasses for the European elections in Patrick Street, Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Mon, May 19, 2014, 01:00

Driving through Cork city I see just one poster for a People’s Candidate. It’s dirty yellow, battered and shredded by the weather. “The posters are a bit of a problem,” says Diarmaid Ó Cadhla, who’s running in the Cork City South East ward.

At the People’s Candidates’ office on Douglas Street several candidates and volunteers are seated at a table, putting flyers into pamphlets and drinking tea. The printer is printing. It’s a hive of activity.

People’s Candidates are independents who have signed “the People’s Contract” committing them to continuous consultation of the electorate and the possibility of recall if they go against their promises (“Although that’s not legislated for at the moment,” admits Ó Cadhla). There are 19 People’s Candidates running for local government, most in Cork, but some in Dublin, Limerick and Monaghan. Above the window a sign reads “Representation is for the people, not political parties or vested interests.” They’re not a party. There’s no party whip and they have different views on an array of issues.

Baptism of fire
Ó Cadhla, who ran an IT business until he retired for health reasons, was once a student politician. He says the recession repoliticised him: he and others came up with the People’s Convention, a constituency-based network to foster “citizen participation”. Four People’s Candidates ran in the 2011 elections. “It was a baptism of fire,” he says.

They are proposing that policy be decided by the people. Ó Cadhla believes this could be eventually done through online voting “like on Reddit”; in the short term it would involve public meetings. “So,” explains Thomas Kiely, a young man running in the Cork City South West ward, “though I don’t want to see water meters because we pay for water already, if at public meetings the people wanted them, I’d vote the way they wanted”.

They don’t look like traditional candidates. Nobody is wearing a suit. All say they were politicised in recent years by unemployment or the campaigns against property tax and water charges. “All my life I’ve been ruled over,” says Patrick Bullman, a tattoo artist, “not represented”.

Kiely, who recently fought to get domiciliary allowance for his autistic son, has been to 3,500 doorsteps so far. “I love it,” he says. “When you say you’re not with a party, people are very friendly.”

But it’s difficult. There is no political machine bolstering their efforts. “I had a couple of buddies out with me,” says Terry Hume, running in Ballincollig/Carrigaline. “But they sort of got bored of it.”

And some party competitors aren’t averse to sneaky tricks. Hume was told by a rival candidate he needed a permit to distribute leaflets outside the church. Ó Cadhla shows me a mainstream candidate’s glossy posters, which had been placed on top of People’s Candidate posters. “The big parties just bulldoze their way in,” he says. “They have people to put them up and it’s all paid for with our money.”

These professionally printed posters contrast with those of the People’s Candidates – A3 paper on correx-board. “They start to peel off in bad weather,” sighs Ó Cadhla. “It’s a nightmare.”

Claire Cullinane, running in Cobh, turned down offers to run for an established party (“Run for them? I wouldn’t walk for them”). She has a politician’s knack for spinning a good story out of adversity.