No vanity protest from Independent emboldened by arrival of the IMF


ON THE CANVASS:Having learned how to deal with the IMF, Stephen Donnelly felt it was time to stand

JUST A couple of weeks into the canvass and the name Stephen Donnelly already trails a certain youthful West Wing-style glamour. MIT, Harvard, the Kennedy School of Government, global consultancy expertise, not to mention a knowledge of the mysterious workings of the IMF.

So what’s this 35 year old apparently full-blown capitalist dynamo doing in the sadly dilapidated village of Rathdrum of a wet Friday afternoon with this quiet canvass team of his nice, self-effacing mother-in-law from Longford, Deirdre Leavy, and self-described campaign virgin, art teacher Aran McMahon?

For one thing, he’s chasing votes for a job that – we may infer – would begin with a hefty income dive. He has taken unpaid leave from McKinsey management consultants for the duration. So presumably he has hefty sums stashed somewhere clever in the event it doesn’t work out, or he will have to subsidise a meagre TD’s income? Apparently not, to judge by his surprised reaction.

It’s all gone on the election, he says. “Susan [his wife] and I have already used up the tiny amount of savings we’d managed to put by.” How much? “I’d rather not say.” Well, that’s not very transparent, is it? “Is it not?” he says mildly. “That’s a fair challenge. OK, I’ll ring Bart [Storan, his campaign manager]”.

A quick conversation with Bart yields an “unscientific” figure of €16,000 to €18,000, about two-thirds of which is down to posters. To put that in context, the Greens are spending €30,000 on their entire campaign, but they already have brand recognition and a well-documented raison d’etre. It’s never easy taking the Independent route, even with Bart (a 26 year old who led the high-profile Generation Yes campaign for Lisbon II), David McWilliams and a couple of Obama campaign veterans onside.

One thing is clear: this is no empty vanity protest. Donnelly is deeply serious about it, and is a good deal more complex than his academic glory trail would suggest.  His upbringing was a combination of the rearing of a public-spirited mother, who was a teacher in Ballinteer, and a retail ethos grounded in the family business, Hickey’s fabrics, where as a 12-year-old he was already rolling out bolts of cloth for discerning female customers.

A mechanical engineering degree from UCD followed by a sponsored stint at MIT saw him return to Ireland in 1999, where he promptly broke his back while sailing. He makes light of it now, but for a man who had led a “very, very physical life” – as a lifeguard, Tae-Kwon-Do black belt and whitewater canoeist – it was life-changing.

He applied to McKinsey’s at a recruitment fair, and later “almost bankrupted” himself and Susan to go to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Not to be confused with Harvard Business School, he stresses, lest he be viewed as some kind of capitalist wrecking ball: “The idealism was always there.”

Having worked on consultancies with private equity firms, vast energy companies and multinational retailers, he moved towards sustainable ways of doing business. At the Kennedy school in 2006, he recalls a professor presenting Ireland as a case study of a country that dragged itself up to become a huge success.

“But I was looking at the Forfás reports and knew the OECD was screaming that it had to stop . . . The more I learned about developmental economics and what makes economies collapse, the more incredulous I became.”

He told the professor that far from being exemplary, Ireland “was about to fall off a cliff”, then watched in “disbelief” as the bank guarantee was imposed.

“An act of economic lunacy . . . no other country in the world has done this,” he says with a mirthless laugh, before listing the ways, McWilliams-style, that the €67 billion already emptied into the banks – “money that is gone, dead” – could have been used. “It could have eradicated poverty forever in Ireland; funded 10 world-class hospitals – including running costs – forever; bought four Harvards . . .”

Settled in Ireland again with Susan [a PhD candidate combining her two master’s degrees in artificial intelligence and gender studies], and two small children, the final trigger for his candidacy was the arrival of the IMF here. “It never needed to be like this,” he says repeatedly.

“You can’t almost bankrupt yourself and your wife to go to Harvard Kennedy School to learn how to deal with the IMF and when they walk into your country, not stand up . . . This is a national emergency, and at times of national emergency, people stand up . . . This is our country. I love it, and we’ve been sold down the river – and it’s going to get worse. Do you know what the IMF did to Latvia? . . .”

Right now, he says, “We are standing on a beautiful, old sinking ship – but I and a few people like me have some of the skills to fix the holes.”

There is no boastfulness or arrogance. Around Rathdrum – a classic remnant of the boom, with a devastated square complete with unfinished buildings – his canvassing style is low-key and engaging, even breezy.

It’s evident that some of the personal stories have moved and distressed him; smiling people opening doors, then suddenly dissolving into tears amid awful stories of emigration, suicide and mortgage default. “Maybe you get used to it, but I’m finding it really very hard not to get so angry. You really try to remain calm and considered and positive – but all of this was avoidable . . .”

He admits it “takes some getting used to – walking in on people and introducing yourself, getting a call to do the Vincent Browne show opposite Mary Lou McDonald and Alan Shatter, with a few hours’ notice. And seeing your face up on posters is really very weird and disconcerting. But no one is rude. I’ve only met one person who said ‘Politicians are all the same’. I’ve noticed the ones who keep their heads down are almost exclusively men aged under 30.”

But he has a way of getting disengaged people to look at him. “Do you know who you’re voting for?” he asks a butcher. No, says the butcher. “Good,” he says, handing over a leaflet and giving a spiel about going to school in Greystones and living in the constituency with his wife and children, and what he would like to do with Wicklow’s potential as a tourist magnet.

Wicklow, he pronounces, is a brand waiting to happen. And there’s €100 billion lying in deposits in Irish banks, waiting to be spent. When two young men look a bit sceptically at him, he says: “Yes, it’s going to take a while, but this is how we start . . .”

He’s not averse to mentioning McWilliams when people look blankly at him – and it works. A woman suddenly looks interested when he says McWilliams has been at some of his town hall meetings.

The odds of winning are closing from 20/1 to a current 4/1. But it must be dispiriting at times. A woman agrees the country needs people like Donnelly – “young, educated in all the proper areas, not solicitors turned accountants” – and makes positive noises, before concluding: “I’ll probably vote for our local Independent . . . He’s good on local things, he’s on the ground . . .”

Donnelly ideally would like a place on the team negotiating with the IMF. Or a brief in education reform. “We could be so good,” he says, gathering up all his calm and positivity in the wet evening and heading for Arklow to do it all again.