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
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.
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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.
“Our posters may not be as professional as some of the others,” she says. “But when you drive into Cobh and see the big colour posters banging you in the face, 15 from one councillor alone, and then you come to the one, yellow poster ‘the People’s Candidate’ and it’s a little bit weatherbeaten, it says it all. The people of this country feel weatherbeaten. And we’re going to represent them.”
Over in Limerick, Independent MEP candidate Diarmuid O’Flynn doesn’t really even have posters. But he does hand me a leaflet. “My son took the photo,” he says. “So it’s not photoshopped. There’s nothing fake about my campaign.”
O’Flynn’s efforts are funded through small donations and his credit card. “It’s melting!” he exclaims. He reckons he’ll spend some €20,000. But candidates are allowed spend up to €230,000 and he believes some are spending this. “I drive into town with my family in my 2006 car with a couple of A4 sheets pasted to the windows to see a fleet of branded vans.”
We’re in a hotel outside the city, where O’Flynn is forgoing a rushed mid-canvass dinner in order to talk to me. He’s remarkably good-humoured about being an underdog.
A sports journalist with the Irish Examiner, he came to prominence spearheading the weekly ‘Ballyhea Says No’ protest marches against the imposition of banking debt on the people. They walk from the church to the speed limit sign and back every Sunday.
They’ve been doing this since March 2011, when it became clear the new Government was not going to burn bondholders.
“North Africa was aflame at the time,” he says. “I had worked in Benghazi so I knew the risks these people were taking. All I was risking was maybe being mocked a bit, so I got my former teammates from the Ballyhea hurling team and 14 or 15 of us marched. ”
He has also taken his group to Europe where they’ve had audiences with political heavy-hitters and where he blue-tacked his theses to the door of the ECB “like Martin Luther”. The technical group in the Dáil also allotted time to a one-paragraph motion the Ballyhea group wrote, asking the ECB for permission to burn the promissory bonds.
O’Flynn is going to Europe to look for, among other things, a debt write-down, a financial transaction tax and stricter banking regulation. He’s not naive: he knows these things will not be easily achieved. On his website he is endorsed by an impressive array of economists and thinkers (including this paper’s Fintan O’Toole).
It had never occurred to O’Flynn to run for office before this campaign but now he thinks it’s something everyone should consider. He believes we need to fundamentally rethink politics. Voters ask him what he’ll do for Cork or for Limerick, “but that’s the old potholes mentality”. He tells them he’ll be representing all of Ireland and Europe.
He doesn’t believe in parties and will stay independent, even of groups like the People’s Candidates. “I tell my kids ‘think for yourself’.”
He’s fighting powerful vested interests, he says, “but we’re like a pebble in the shoe of the ECB, and at some stage they’re going to have to stop and deal with us”.