'Politics is about winning votes - it's not about how you perform in Dail Eireann

 

Clocking up miles along the west coast with Fine Gael candidate MichaelRing, Kathy Sheridan is all but swept off her feet.

Stay alert. No one is going to babysit you in this game.

You're perched against the range in a west Mayo kitchen, chatting with the voters, when you cop that the main man and his team have vanished. Yikes. They point you to the nearest exit. Out you run, fearing abandonment, only to be nearly crushed by the main man and team hurtling back in again.

What happened?

"You never go out a different door to the one you came in," says the poll-topping TD, in the way you might say the weather is nice. Eh? "I'm a bit superstitious."

No one blinks.

This is the electoral area of Erris-Achill, the strip of coastline that is the key to Michael Ring's supernatural, poll-topping, organisation-smashing feats. Everywhere - Ballina, Westport - is at least 50 miles away. Dublin is a conservative four hours on a quiet day.

You'll see a few Michael Ring posters on the long and winding road between Ballina and Belmullet. Not as many as for Tom Moffatt, or for Beverley Cooper-Flynn, who has the big fat No 1 graphic on her posters and not even a small-print mention of Fianna Fáil.

But everyone knows this is the Ring road, though he's 50 miles from home.

Down the coast, the people are the kind that city folk imagine disappeared into a black hole around the time the Pope came to Ireland. Padre Pio pictures and Sacred Heart lamps, blazing turf fires, and at least three generations gathered together in welcoming, modest homes on a Sunday, a few rough fields away from the Atlantic shimmering in the evening sun.

"How're ya doin'? You know the aul job I'm on . . ."

That's one approach.

The second is more formal. "I'd appreciate all the support you can give me. All I can say is I've done the best job possible. People can't say they haven't seen me since the last election."

There's a third. That's when he doesn't get to open his mouth at all. Instead, he is yanked off the doorstep and landed in the kitchen without his feet touching the ground, to be plied with hugs and tea, open adoration and prayerful good wishes.

A few hours canvassing with Michael Ring, and being left at the door feels like rejection.

It means that his wiry little frame - already streaking ahead and clearing walls like a mountain goat - has to move all the faster. He is tired, very tired, and it's no wonder.

He works 17-hour days when there is no election. His 16-month-old Passat has 65,000 miles on the clock - "and I drove every one of those miles myself."

Even the Sinn Féin activist nods sympathetically when he calls. She stops short of inviting him in and hesitates when asked for a No 2 but looks pained about it. "I don't like your leader . . . but I know how hard you work, Michael."

Down the road, a quiet-spoken man tells the TD that they had to bring their 17-year-old mentally handicapped son all the way to Dublin, by train, to have his teeth seen to. Ring swallows hard; his compassion is no pose.

The only sour note is when someone adverts to his place near the top of the expenses claims. "It's good to keep at the top anyway," he replies brightly. But four bloody hours from Dublin, it grates . . .

Our driver is Henry Coyle, a young local boxer with bright, darting eyes, who shrugs that, sure, he has nothing better to do today. "Ah, but Michael is sound. He comes to all the boxing matches." (NB: "sound" is as good as it gets in this age group.)

Henry's father is Cllr Gerry Coyle, who nearly triggers a mutiny in the packed car when he starts to sing (ah come on lads, the non-smoking, non-drinking Ring was out canvassing a disco at 2 a.m. last night) but, like his senior colleague, is deadly serious about an issue that is both national and intensely local. Planning.

The higgledy-piggledy arrangement of houses on this stunning coastline speaks for itself. But Gerry says Dublin people haven't a clue, don't know or don't care about the money sent home from Scotland by 14-year-old potato pickers to fund the new roof or the indoor toilet, and the sites left by grateful parents for when their children finally came home.

"In Dublin they think we're all lunatics . . . We have two Blue Flag beaches here because people were protecting the environment long before An Taisce was heard of."

Michael Ring is standing in front of a disputed field leading down to the shoreline. Any objective person would want to protect that view, says The Irish Times. "Well, go up and tell that to the son and daughter of the people in that house beside it who want to live where they belong," he says.

He is fiercely, unashamedly, a man of the people. It's a mutual thing. Supporters like Ian McAndrew, a Bellmullet member of Udarás na Gaeltachta, are astonished when outsiders don't get it. "If Fine Gael only had 10 Michael Rings . . ." says Ian, hopelessly.

"Politics is about winning votes," says Ring, who, by the way, has won ringing endorsements for his Dáil performances from Vincent Browne and several acerbic commentators. "It's not about how you perform in Dáil Éireann. The votes are in Mayo."

And the issues are no surprise: headage, social welfare, roads, orthodontics, medical cards . . .

But never, ever make the mistake of dismissing him as a parishpump politician or as merely "colourful". He knows he has risen way above that. "If Fine Gael forms a government, the least I expect is a junior ministry. And if it's the Western Development job, I think I'd be the man for that senior ministry." But as a man of the people, how would he find the time?

Simple. There would be a decree. Ministerial business Monday to Thursday. Constituency work Friday to Sunday.

Ring's biggest problem now, he says, is that "every candidate is saying that I'm home and dry. It's the most dangerous thing in politics. I'm not happy with the way people are trying to take votes away from me on that basis. I've paid a price already in the organisation in conceding a lot of ground to the other candidates. And they're still saying I'm OK." Who is saying that? "All of them."

Watch out, ye snakes of Mayo. There's only so far you can go with guys like Henry around.