Coppinger hopes track record on Repeal and water charges will repel SF surge
Election 2020 Dublin West canvass: keen competition for four seats
Ruth Coppinger’s predecessor Joe Higgins arrives to give a hand. As shoppers say hello to him, he says: ‘We need to keep a fighter in there. You could have four males elected and no female fighter’. Photograph: Harry McGee
Ongar town centre is so new that it still looks like an architect’s drawing: fresh-looking buildings, a smattering of people, and green areas with sapling trees.
That said, there are precious few fields to be seen around here these days. Once you go beyond Blanchardstown shopping centre on the M3, there is a series of new housing estates on either side, linked together rosary-bead style by a number of roundabouts.
Everything has a new feel to it. And it seems that everybody who lives in this part of Dublin 15 is from somewhere else, many from abroad. You get a sense of the ethnic mix as you watch the shoppers come and go from Dunnes Stores. There are even a few “foreigners” among them, Meath people from across the border wearing the “royal” green and gold tracksuits, here to do their shopping.
Services have not kept pace with the rapid expansion and burgeoning population here. There is a shortage of schools, shortages of sports and community facilities, a shortage of places to worship, huge pressures on housing (both social and private); and hugely frustrating transport bottlenecks – clogged traffic and over-packed trains.
The constituency is divided. There are plenty of middle-class voters and it includes well-to do Castleknock. But there are also sizeable working-class estates, and these have guaranteed at least one (and mostly two) identifiably left-wing seats out of four in recent political history.
There are other issues here. There has been violence associated with gangland crime, and some low-level incidents of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism.
At lunchtime on Saturday, as a sharp wind blustered down the main street of Ongar, a bus of a certain vintage pulled up. The livery is home-made. “Vote Women’s Rights” is emblazoned on the side. “Ruth” and “#Bus” is hand-painted in different colours everywhere, but the overnight rain has caused the paint to run.
The bus has criss-crossed the constituency over two days highlighting Coppinger’s work on Repeal and on women’s issues. The Socialist Party has pulled out all the stops. Over 20 alight from the bus. All but one are women. A few minutes later a further 20 activists arrive. Coppinger, with her distinctive red hair, comes down the steps and issues the instructions. Coppinger is a serious, unshowy and committed politician who has put in the hard yards for a cause that was off-off-off Broadway for many years.
She and her team surround all entrances to the supermarket, and try to canvass busy shoppers as they hurry by. It is hard work but this is the graft that’s required. Shopping areas like this are like honey pots for candidates – where they get the greatest concentration of people. As the Solidarity bus arrives, the next tranche happens to arrive – it’s the team canvassing with Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers.
The working class vote in Dublin will be critical for all parties in this election, but particularly for parties of the left.
Dublin West is a good microcosm of the way that things are going. Some of that vote has been cornered by the Socialist Party/Solidarity for most of the century, firstly by Joe Higgins and since 2014, by Ruth Coppinger. Labour has held a seat here for most of that time but its support also straddles into middle-class areas. For Solidarity, the big threat has always come in the shape of Sinn Féin, where Paul Donnelly just came up short in 2016. Solidarity bested them a bit on water charges back then.
The dynamic has changed since, as the water charges issue lost traction. Not only did Sinn Féin perform poorly in the local elections here, so did Solidarity-People Before Profit. It was Greens and Fianna Fáil which seemed the net beneficiaries, with the latter re-establishing some of its traditional blue-collar support in the capital.
But trends have been as changeable as the campaign weather patterns. Against all expectations (including its own) Sinn Féin has captured the change mood. Suddenly constituencies such as Dublin West, which seemed out of reach only last year, have come into play.
The repercussions for Coppinger are obvious. One of the four seats is held by Leo Varadkar and that is considered safe. As is that of Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil. The Greens’ Roderic O’Gorman may take a seat and that might be from Joan Burton. The fourth seat is seen as a struggle between Donnelly and Coppinger.
“It’s a really tough constituency. I could be squeezed out,” Coppinger says frankly.
“My seat could be at risk. A lot of people don’t realise that. There is a lot of complacency. I want to bring home to people if you are looking for change, Sinn Féin or the Greens will not bring that change.”
When you chat to people in Ongar, that is obvious. A lot of people mention the need for change and also mention Sinn Féin without conclusively committing to the party. Coupling one party to the concept of change is a powerful combination. While Solidarity-People Before Profit had a relatively dismal campaign last year, it does not seem to be enjoying the same uplift as Sinn Féin this time round.
Coppinger’s predecessor Joe Higgins arrives to give a hand. As shoppers say hello to him, he says: “We need to keep a fighter in there. You could have four males elected and no female fighter.”
Srinivasa Karpe, is a stalwart of Tyrellstown Cricket Club which was founded in 2011 by locals and immigrants mainly from the Indian sub-continent. After years of effort, they now have a home ground. “The reason we opened a club is that for the immigrants it’s a great way to integrate. We lack basic facilities [in the club] and are looking for those. Immigrants are ready to integrate but it needs to be brought home.”
On anti-immigration sentiment, he says: “We have a few incidents here and there which is common. But on the whole Dublin 15 is a tolerant and easy-going place.”
The issues and views are mixed. A man, originally from Rwanda, has a long chat with Coppinger about autism services and then mentions another candidate. “He has done little on this issue,” Coppinger informs him. A woman who give her first name, Emer, says her vote will be based on which party is greenest and argues for more electric vehicles. Coppinger contends Solidarity-People Before Profit policies do more for climate change than even the Green Party’s.
Echoing Higgins’s key word, she tells those she meets: “We have to make sure we have fighters in there. If you can give me your No 1, I can raise your issues.”
Higgins gives his overview: “We have a very hard battle on our hands because of the nature of the constituency. There’s a sitting Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil and then we have Sinn Féin and the Greens who are doing well in the polls.
“I lost a seat in 2007 because many people thought I was safe. They gave their votes to others, even supporters and friends, and were shocked when I lost. We are imploring people not to do the same.”
The focus for Solidarity is Sinn Féin. Higgins says Sinn Féin is willing to go into coalition with Fianna Fáil, the “party of developers and big landlords”.
“Sinn Féin going into government with Fianna Fáil will not be able to carry out the promises they are making and will disappoint their followers and won’t be able to implement the radical policies needed to resolve housing.”
It’s not had to see why the focus is on Sinn Féin. While Donnelly was not available to meet The Irish Times, his posters out-number those of all his rivals and the party has mounted a huge campaign in the newer towns and estates of Dublin 15.
Coppinger is hoping her track record on Repeal and water charges will repel this massive Sinn Féin surge.
“Sinn Féin were behind the curve on water charges, on repeal, very much behind the curve, whereas we were there organising movements on the ground where a lot of change comes from. It does not come just from people in government,” she says.
She argues she has done more locally on housing than Sinn Féin. “The housing crisis is the biggest single issue, bar none. We have an acute homeless problem, we have a lot of evictions, and there is a lot of demoralisation because it has been hitting Dublin West for six years.”
“I was involved in occupations with homeless women, where they were doing little.”
But her past record might not be enough in working class areas. Fianna Fáil looked like it had recovered its working-class vote last year, but the latest Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll suggests its support has dropped 6 percentage points here.
However, there is little doubt its sole candidate, Chambers, will hold his seat. He talks about change, pointing to problems with healthcare, housing, crime, childcare, transport, schools, and the cost of living.
“People are not seeing the fruits of any growth. They are not seeing reciprocity for the taxes they are paying.”
“We are holding our own in working-class communities here, and across the board,” he claims, referring to latent Fianna Fáíl support.
“Sinn Féin is trying to play this Trump-style politics of telling everyone what they want to hear. Not everybody will believe it.
“Fianna Fáíl offers a constructive centre-ground alternative that seeks to deliver on health, housing and cost of living.”
All parties need working class votes including the Greens, where O’Gorman has a chance of winning, and Labour, where former tánaiste Joan Burton is fighting a rearguard action.
The most likely result here looks like one seat each for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáíl, Sinn Féin and the Greens. But it could be a close call. Neither Coppinger nor Burton will be willing to go down without a fight to the end.