Stories of quiet desperation from a once-gilded generation in Meath East
Final weekend push in byelection campain
If the voters of Meath East think they’ve had it bad over the last three weeks – assailed from all angles by people with sympathetic faces and here-to-help smiles, it’s been horrendous for politicians. They have been enduring a doorstep diet of unremitting reality through stories of quiet desperation from a once-gilded generation.
Scales have been falling from innocent Leinster House eyes, apparently. Who would have thought things were so bad?
The politicians should, for starters.
They say that through their work they are more familiar than most with the problems people are experiencing in Ireland today.
So for the purposes of this Meath East byelection we have decided any Government or Opposition politician expressing incredulity at the level of despair they encountered on the canvass is either telling lies or incompetent.
Was Micheál Martin fibbing on Saturday after yet another downbeat encounter at a door in Ashbourne? “Mortgages. It’s the mortgages that keep coming up all the time,” says the Fianna Fáil leader, shaking his head sadly, as if this realisation has come as a bit of a shock.
With the political baggage his party is doggedly trying to lose in the left-luggage area marked “Legacy Issues”, one would assume Micheál is well aware of the effects the mortgage crisis is having on families.
And he is certainly not incompetent.
It might just be that mortgages are on Martin’s mind because Fianna Fáil is launching its Mortgage Resolution Bill tomorrow. Excellent election timing. But that’s probably just us being cynical.
After spending time listening to lots of cheesed-off voters in Meath East, it can’t be helped. We didn’t meet one person in Ashbourne or Ratoath who had a good word to say for the Government parties, and they weren’t overly keen on any of the others either.
The Taoiseach jetted into Dunshaughlin on Saturday morning. Energetic Enda came straight from the aircraft following his overnight flight from the United States, hoping to scatter some Uncle Sam sparkle over Helen McEntee’s election campaign.
Never mind the cuts, feel the width of that transatlantic smile and shake the steady hand of the man who shook the hand of Obama last week.
It brought to mind another March morning, when a different byelection was in full swing and energetic Bertie Ahern impressed everyone by coming directly from his post-White House Washington flight to attend a function in O’Connell Street before haring off for a spot of light canvassing down the country.
Did the Bert leave an operations manual in the drawer when he left Government Buildings? If Brian Cowen didn’t find Bertie’s buke, Enda Kenny appears to have swallowed it whole.
After the photos and a quick few words with the media, the Taoiseach skidaddled. He’s due back today, though.
But there were plenty of big hitters stalking the heavily populated satellite estates at the Dublin end of the constituency. Ashbourne was inundated.
Reaction on the ranged from a straight-faced “very positive” to the less certain “mainly positive”.
The Labour candidate plumped for “engaging” followed by “nobody ran me from the door”.
Eoin Holmes has a name that should come with a question mark for the negative equity generation of Meath East. Eoin Holmes? By God, they wish they didn’t.
He’s a confident and articulate candidate, with the requisite hard neck of a politician. Labour could be facing a pasting in this byelection but the self-assured Holmes goes to each door with a rather touching optimism and an interesting sales line.
He leans in, as if drawing the voter into his confidence and asks: “Help me bring some balance into Government.”
People are polite but cagey. They take the leaflets. In Rataoth, one man indicates he will vote Labour after talking to the candidate. He’s a rarity.
It wasn’t Paul Larkin, who is trying to hold on to his family home after his business went bust. He won’t be choosing Labour “because they done nothing so far and they’re in the Coalition doing what they are told”.
‘Bertie’s number two’
He won’t be voting Fianna Fáil. “Your man Micheál Martin was Bertie’s number two.” He has no time for Independents. “Your man Ming fiddled his way out of penalty points and that fella in the pink shirt, Wallace, owes the exchequer hundreds of thousands.”
It’s a thumbs down for Fine Gael. “They came looking for the sympathy vote. They led with that at the door.”
He thinks he will probably vote Sinn Féin. “They seem to have a plan.”
Back in Ashbourne, Brigid, a history teacher, has been a Fianna Fáil voter “by tradition” but they won’t get her vote this time. She has just been canvassed by Darren O’Rourke, the conservatively suited Sinn Féin candidate who bears a striking resemblance to Prince Albert of Monaco.
Brigid is disgusted with our politicians. “None of them listen. I see nothing good in any of them at the moment” she says, adding “Luke Ming Flanagan – that really upset me. I thought he was different.”
Will she vote? “I think I might vote Sinn Féin” she says, describing this as a protest measure. “The only thing I could do, other than that, is spoil my vote.”
Interestingly, on the posterplastered roundabout into the town, one of the largest features O’Rourke with a smiling Mary Lou McDonald. Party leader Gerry Adams doesn’t figure.
We bump into Micheál Martin in the new town centre. He is not overjoyed to see us. He hasn’t his media man with him yet.
In this byelection, as in all recent elections, the parties are very sparing with their information on the movement of their candidates and party leaders.
They do not want writers turning up unannounced, even though the campaigning process is a highly public exercise.
Micheál wanders past the campaigners for Direct Democracy and into Tesco. His presence provokes indifference, apart from one man at the nuts and crisps section who talks to him at length about his problems.
As Martin took notes in a large hardbacked notebook, two men ran up and roar “Don’t vote for them. They ruined the country. Don’t vote for them,” before running back outside to the Direct Democracy people.
A Fianna Fáil activist identies one as a member of Sinn Féin. “He’s from around the Navan Road. I know, I’m in that constituency.”
Member or not, he runs to greet Mary Lou when she approaches Tesco on her walkabout and tells her Pat Rabbitte was standing inside the door.
‘A good roasting’
“Go in there now and him a good roasting!”
She walks on by, a stoical looking Pat planted in the porch as passing shoppers glare at him.
Three parties were canvassing the Milltown estate at the same time on Saturday – Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Fine Gael had been there earlier.
“We’ve done the Dunshaughlin electoral area twice now” said a party organiser.
Pensioners Eamonn and Trish Newman voted Labour at the general election.
“We’re going back to Fianna Fáil” she says. Their pensions have been reduced, and they look after their grandchildren while their son and his wife work in Dublin.
The Government has done nothing for the workers, they say, and their son is struggling to pay a big mortgage and cope with all the cuts.
Tommy Keating, an unemployed roofer, is also voting Fianna Fáil.
“I said to Micheál Martin: as soon as the other shower got in, there was nothing. There were always jobs in the building trade with Fianna Fáil.”
On Saturday afternoon Helen McEntee (FG) and Thomas Byrne (FF) were canvassing in rural areas. For McEntee in particular, that rural farming vote may prove crucial. The urban vote doesn’t look promising.
Fianna Fáil would have to overturn a huge majority but the party thinks it can win this. And it is very possible.
As for Sinn Féin – they have the most posters up and had more a huge number of people on the ground in Ashbourne on Saturday – you could really sense their zealous drive to push Labour into fourth place.
It was a long cold day for all the canvassers. And there were a lot of dogs to pacify.
One woman emerged with a huge Alsatian.
“Don’t mind Shep. He won’t bite, he’ll only knock you down.”
Nothing like some positivity on the doorstep.