On the canvass with Joe Higgins:The candidate is no grip 'n' grinner, in fact he prefers his presence to speak for itself, writes KATHY SHERIDAN
FOR ANYONE who has suffered near asphyxiation in the galloping grip ’n’ grin of a Bertie-style canvass, Joe Higgins is a worrying spectacle.
He answers his own phone and has no lackeys to do his bidding or set up media opportunities. He does it all himself. He decides where to locate, helps set up a trestle table with a couple of activists and then he sort of loiters around the St Stephen’s Green entrance with a pile of “Punish Fianna Fáil and the Greens” leaflets.
Most of the passersby in their shorts and singlets are firmly focused on the women’s marathon and have nowhere to stuff a leaflet anyway. All in all, it has the makings of a calamity of a canvass.
Joe Higgins is no grip ‘n’ grinner. The notion appears to repel him. “Politicians go round grabbing people’s hands and imposing themselves on reluctant bystanders,” he says with droll distaste. Furthermore, “babies also have a civil right not to be kissed by every passing politician”.
He likes to let his presence speak for itself. “You let people who wish to engage with you come and talk to you.” All very live and let live, until you spot the slogan – “The best fighter money can’t buy” – on the huge Higgins poster being shifted close to a trader’s cowboy hat and shades stall. “Lads, lads, don’t, you’ll alienate those people there,” he implores, demonstrating precisely where his sympathies lie.
It’s obvious that no fat-cat slush funds have gone into producing the flat, dated black and white posters. The party has budgeted €28,000 for the entire local (with 11 candidates) and European election campaign. Since he lost his Dáil seat, the 60-year-old former school teacher has been surviving on the “small pension” from his 10 year Dáil tenure, supplemented by the fee for his Daily Mail column.
He lives on less than the average industrial wage, he says, and his mortgage – taken out in 1995 – has another six years to run. MEP pay should be something akin to the average industrial wage, he reckons, and if elected, he vows to be a “workers’ MEP on a worker’s wage”.
The fact that the last Irish Times/TNSmrbi poll puts him on "level pegging with the main right-wing candidate in the country" for the last MEP seat in Dublin, doesn't appear to have induced any lather of excitement, possibly because where he really wants to be is in the Dáil. "I'm committed to going back to the Dáil in three years time . . . " he says, offering no apology for it.
“Fianna Fáil has three TDs who are standing for Europe . . . I don’t see a Chinese wall between those positions. They’re all a platform to fight for the ordinary people. Different venue, one mission.”
Anyway, he regards the newspapers who commission the polls as “establishment mouthpieces”. “We rely on going directly to the people . . . But the poll is an indication of how things are changing,” he concedes.
“Insofar as it’s an indication of a mood in society at a particular time, it certainly blends in with the mood on the streets and housing estates . . . People are disgusted that a cabal of speculators, big developers and big bankers were given such power . . . A child socialist would have told them that it would crash but they didn’t see it because they were blinded by greed.”
Meanwhile, the loitering-not-looking strategy is working, well-wishers approach the candidate in a steady trickle.
A Tyrellstown woman actually asks for a leaflet (is this a record?). “Please spread the word among your family and friends . . . ”, says Higgins to them all. Frank, a taxi driver, says afterwards that Higgins “has principle – he’s more action than words and he’s not afraid to speak out. But tell me, what do MEPs actually DO?”.
Nick Robinson, a 35-year-old school teacher with plans to emigrate in the absence of a full-time job sums up the views of several : “I’m middle-class with two third-level qualifications and though I wouldn’t necessarily support his policies in full . . . it really comes down to integrity. And he has it”.
Between times, Higgins tries to work up some outrage at Mary Harney’s public intervention on behalf of FF’s Eoin Ryan – “the cheek of her . . . the arrogance of her really” – before producing his own press statement.
Calling Harney’s endorsement the “kiss of death” for Ryan, he reads on with obvious enjoyment: “The hapless Eoin must have felt his political lifeblood chill . . . She also says Dublin voters must ‘not shoot themselves in the foot’ . . . Can she not see that virtually the whole of Dublin have their ‘political guns’ pointed in the same direction and it is not at their feet!”
Has anyone hurled abuse at him so far today? “I rarely get abuse and where I do, it’s from a right-winger”, says the man who has never knowingly passed up the chance of a lash himself.