I’ve spent 10 minutes following Finian McGrath as he canvasses in the Dollymount area of Clontarf on Monday evening, and already I’m taken aback by the pace. It’s the 62-year-old’s fifth canvassing shift in a day that will see him cover 22 kilometres, much of it at a brisk trot. It’s no surprise to learn he loses a stone over every election campaign.
Twelve campaign helpers march along either side of the road, dropping leaflets and knocking on doors. Whenever a door opens, McGrath rushes straight up.
“Hello! How are you! I just wanted to say hello for two seconds – I’m Finian McGrath, the Independent TD.” Further introductions are usually unnecessary: he’s been a TD here since 2002; most people know who he is.
He keeps the conversations short and sweet. “I don’t like winter elections,” he admits. “If this was the summer it would still be bright, people would be out in their gardens, it’s more fun. A lot of the older people here, some of them have four locks, they’re frightened to answer the door in the dark.”
If the person seems chatty, McGrath might spend a few seconds talking up the scale of the electoral challenge.
“I’m in a dogfight. There’s 21 candidates in this constituency. I’m up against two ministers. We’re doing our best but it’s a tough battle. We could really do with your support.”
Actually, McGrath is heavily odds-on to be elected for a fourth term. He’s in friendly territory tonight and most of the people he meets seem to be supporters.
The only awkward interaction is with a man who wants to know where McGrath stands on abortion. From the way he asks, it’s not difficult to guess his own opinion.
“I’m in favour of repealing the Eighth,” McGrath says, trying not to sound too strident about it.
"Well, I'm not," the man says. "Don't you see you're opening the door to these Labour types who want abortion on demand? These mad lefties?"
McGrath is a leftie himself, though maybe not a mad one. His political mentor was Tony Gregory, the former Independent TD from Dublin North-Central. Like Gregory, he's been prepared to support conservative governments in return for investment in the things he holds dear: health, education, disability rights.
“This is Gregoryism at its best,” he says, waving an arm towards his canvassing team. “I love personal politics, to know you’ve helped get things that make a difference to people. And I get a buzz out of taking on the big parties. I’ve never belonged to one, unlike some of the Independents running here.”
One of the people McGrath is talking about is Senator Averil Power, who left Fianna Fáil in the wake of last year's marriage referendum, citing irreconcilable differences.
If McGrath radiates the classic politician’s bonhomie, the 37-year old Power has a more eager and intense demeanour. You can hear the nervous energy in all the sentences she finishes with a laugh. On Tuesday morning in Baldoyle, her five canvassers watch as she drags the leaflets out of the boot.
“My strategy is to out-canvass everybody,” she says. In the course of the marriage equality campaign she knocked on 30,000 doors. Many of the people who answer their doors today are meeting her for the second or third time. She introduces herself and asks if there’s anything she can do to help. “Have a read of that and you’ll see what I’m about.”
Her issues include A&E overcrowding, mental health and childcare. Her questioning approach starts conversations that reveal a lot of the voters are annoyed, although not with her.
“I’ve been doing my duty in God’s house,” says an elderly woman who has just arrived home. “And you’d need it after that debate last night. They were like children.”
She pulls a face and glances at Power’s leaflet. “Well, it couldn’t be worse than what’s in at the moment. Get them out! Bragging they got it back. They got it back on the likes of us. I’m a widow for 20 years, I’m on medication for arthritis. They ripped us.”
“It’s not like the old days, me Daddy voted for such and such,” says an elderly man in the Seagrange area. “That’s finished. I’m from an old Fianna Fáil background. We blindly voted for people who ripped off the country, ripped off the people. It’s time for kids, for Independents, people like you who stood up against the party.”
Disgust and scorn
The people complaining about the establishment are exactly the sort of older people you might expect to be supporting the establishment. Instead, their attitude to the three big parties varies between disgust and scorn.
“It couldn’t get any worse, could it?” says another woman. “Dreadful. If I was 30 or 40 years younger I’d be gone to Australia. I have a son and daughter gone already. My daughter’s getting married to an Australian. She’ll stay there. She was back over Christmas and said to me, Mammy, why is everyone in Ireland really depressed? She thought back to Australia she’d never get.”
A door is opened by an elderly couple. A little girl of about four or five peeps out from behind them.
“This is what we get,” says Grandad. “The creche is so dear they can’t put them in.”
Power sympathises. "I'm actually gonna be on Prime Time tonight, talking about childcare . . ."
But Grandad has moved on to another complaint. “Why don’t they shut down the Dáil bar? It’s a disgrace. I couldn’t drink and go into work, I’d be thrown out.” He’s oblivious to Granny’s withering look.
The reaction to Power is mostly positive. Sometimes extremely positive. "Well, it'll be between you and Terence Flanagan, " says an elderly woman who's come to the door in her dressing-gown. "He's hot and sexy anyway. But you – I love your different colour posters, you're for everyone! Isn't she gorgeous? You always look like you're straight out of a beauty parlour. I think you'd make a very good president. Beautiful! I'd love you for a daughter," the woman shouts as Power retreats down the driveway.
I realise that I’ve heard maybe 50 voters talking to McGrath and Power, and only two of them have said they’ll be voting for one of the three traditional big parties. When people say they’re voting for a party, the party is usually Sinn Féin.
"This is what's at stake," Sinn Féin's Mícheál Mac Donncha says as he strolls down a street near his home in Kilbarrack. "Do we go down the road of Toryism? Fine Gael is taking election advice from the British Tories. Economically, they're going the same direction.
“If they get a mandate we’ll have widespread privatisation. The trucks will start rolling again with the water meters. We’ll have privatisation of health. Their USC proposal benefits highest earners most. A massive increase in inequality. The choice is between that or a progressive alternative, where you use tax to fund public services that benefit everybody.”
Canvassing with Mac Donncha is different to canvassing with McGrath and Power. The two Independents zipped from door to door in a series of testing sprints. Mac Donncha sets a statelier pace. He leaves it to his team of 12 to knock on the doors. It’s half three in the afternoon and not many people seem to be home. I can see the volunteers fanning out ahead. Are they screening out potentially awkward interactions? I can’t say for sure, but these streets are Mac Donncha’s home turf. Probably not.
I ask him what he likes about being a politician. “Well, I’d regard myself as a political activist rather than a politician.”
That’s your face on those posters, I say. You are a politician.
“Yeah. Well. Public representative. It’s based on ideas, belief. It’s not based on careerism. It’s about working with other people in the party, comradeship. And working in the community. Not something that is accepted in this cynical world . . . but there you go.”
Careerism is a theme with Mac Donncha. “This is the problem the left in Ireland has had, because the right has dominated for so long. You could join Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in latter years and have no politics. If you do what you’re told, get elected – it’s a career. And conservatives, people in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, they’re not trying to change anything. You’re happy enough with things the way they are.”
I ask how he thought Gerry Adams got on in the leaders' debate. He thinks Adams performed very well. What about the moment when Micheál Martin alleged Adams has been lying all along about not being a member of the IRA?
“Look, they’re always going to do that. If they think it has a big impact on the doors, it doesn’t. The water campaign around here was very strong. That opened people’s eyes. They saw the negative attacks on the campaign, from certain media, the Independent group in particular. People are more media-savvy now. They see this negative stuff against Sinn Féin. And they say: this bringing up the past, it just doesn’t wash.”
You don’t think the IRA link is relevant?
“The issue of the conflict of the past has been . . . the others have tried to bring this up in a negative way. But people are very aware that there were many sides to the conflict. It doesn’t work.”
We’re directly across the road from MacDonncha’s house, where everyone is going back for a cup of tea. The traffic lights are well down the road. We make a collective decision to jaywalk. A van slows down to let us cross the road. “I can see the headlines now,” someone says, “Sinn Féin thugs stop traffic.”
The truth is that, for many people around here, Sinn Féin’s relationship with political violence is no big deal. Some don’t remember the Troubles, some believe the IRA’s campaign was justified, and some say it’s in the past and it’s time to move on.
Some have more immediate things to worry about. When people are about to be made homeless, as one man tells Mac Donncha, who can blame them for turning to the only party that appears to be listening? The established parties might do better to offer practical alternatives rather than moral injunctions.