Election 2016: FF hoping to build on signs of forgiveness
Unlike five years ago, Fianna Fáil canvassers getting polite reception in Dublin
On a cold, wet, dark February night five years ago, I drove out to Blanchardstown to meet a young Fianna Fáil councillor, David McGuinness. I was doing a wider piece on how the party was faring in Dublin after the farcical collapse of the coalition. McGuinness was one of a handful of new Fianna Fáil candidates among the under-pressure outgoing TDs.
We were about 10 minutes into the canvass in a local-authority estate when we encountered some unexpected action. A small car screeched to a halt in front of a house facing us about 100 metres away. Three men jumped out, all with baseball bats, and ran towards the door.
Two people in the sittingroom saw what was coming and legged it upstairs to the front bedroom and barricaded the doors. The men smashed in through the front door and tried to force their way into the bedroom, but failed. They left in a hurry, smashing the hall window as they left. Not sure how to react, McGuinness and his canvassers pressed on quickly, making no mention of it.
It was a dramatic moment. For a reporter it was narrative gold, the kind of “colour” you yearn for, which will anchor your entire piece. Yet when I came to write the piece, I left the incident out completely. The decision was made after a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching.
The reason was simple. I didn’t want this isolated incident to distract from the wider story, one just as astonishing and, in its own way, as brutal and grotesque. I had gone around six constituencies with Fianna Fáíl candidates and witnessed political slaughter of a kind I had never seen before. Its candidates were roared at, cursed at and chased away from the doors. It was ugly, raw and in your face. This was more than rejection; it was a shutout.
Five years later I return to the scene of the crime to see how Fianna Fáil candidates are faring in Dublin in 2016. Across four constituencies in the capital, over two days, we encounter no hostility or anger, with the candidates all getting a fair hearing at the door.
And yet, and yet. It’s clear the party will do better, but there will be a ceiling on that. It is evident that many older people, Fianna Fáil by nature, will return. It is also clear that in working-class areas, Fine Gael and Labour are now the villains of the piece over water charges and welfare and service cuts.
The real uphill struggle for the party is in middle-class estates where 30- to 50-year-old voters (with no more than a drop of Civil War politics in their veins) have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Over the two days there were some long and involved conversations on the doorsteps, with inconclusive outcomes, though, to me, they did not look likely to lead to votes for Fianna Fáil. This was reflected by The Irish Times poll last week, putting the party’s support at 11 per cent in Dublin.
Fianna Fáil’s renewal strategy has brought forward a slew of new candidates. Paul McAuliffe is everything you would expect from a gritty Fianna Fáil northsider. Bespectacled and fast-talking, he is full of energy and always focuses on the positive. He has been a Fianna Fáíl councillor since 2009.
McAuliffe is a candidate in three-seat Dublin North-West. He says he is of the negative-equity generation. He bought his house in 2008 and struggles with high childcare costs.
“I have walked the walk; 2011 was horrific,” he says as we walk around Courtlands, a pleasant, well-to-do estate near Griffith Avenue, on a cold, windy night . “But we are in a different place now. People want fairness. They want opportunity but also good services. We can offer them that.”
There is a mix of older people and young families living here. The “ground war” is vital for the party and it’s clear that all its candidates, McAuliffe included, have been busy doing the unglamorous unseen work at the bottom of the ruck.
Róisín Shortall, of the Social Democrats, and Dessie Ellis, of Sinn Féin, are bankers in this constituency, with the third seat being a battle between Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The one message of McAuliffe’s that has most impact here is his warning that Sinn Féin might win a second seat.
When those on the doorsteps ask him what his party stands for, McAuliffe has a good line: “We stand for the shopper but also the shopkeeper.”
Does it work? Everyone is civil, but he doesn’t get it all his own way. There are quite a few people who openly say they are coming back. “Yourself and Noel Rock [of Fine Gael], ye are the new kids on the block,” says one. “I’ll go with you.”
But among that, there are a fair few who are not fans. Joe Lynch, who has two young kids, will be hard to convert.
“You are both very similar, you and Fine Gael,” says to McAuliffe. “I prefer that Ireland has broadened the tax base. I have noticed the extra money.”
At another door, a man says: “I can’t vote for Fianna Fáil because of what happened. Micheál Martin, the leader, look at the bags he made of the country. I’m still too bitter about the whole thing.”
McAuliffe is stopped on the street by a man wearing a quilted jacket who tells him: “You seem a genuine fellow yourself, but you are with the wrong party.”
The man then makes a gesture of a throat being slashed to graphically emphasise his point.
Another hopes the culture of backhanders has ended. McAuliffe says he was never party to that. Helen Brennan, a mother of two children, is not buying the Fianna Fáíl message: “The Government got us out of a hole. I think you lot did a lot of damage.”
It has been tough work. Donncha Maguire, who has done a tot-up, says that of the 79 people canvassed, 19 were Fianna Fáíl supporters; 15 were “positive”; 13 said no; 25 were indifferent; and seven were unknown.
Earlier that day, on the other side of the city, Mary Hanafin worked her way through the Park in Cabinteely. This is a prosperous suburbof more than 700 houses, with a mixture of old and young.
Moving with the briskness of a hard-shoulder speed walker, Hanafin summarises her challenge.
“Attitudes have hardened,” she says. “Fine Gael people are declaring themselves openly now. People are indicating that they are coming back to us. There are a lot of people who have not make the journey yet, and I am hoping to convince them. “
Maybe they are polite here, but references to Fianna Fáil’s great unpleasantness are few. Most voters seem more interested in current issues. Catherine Kelleher, a teacher of German and French, and a Gaeilgeoir to boot, is concerned about the salaries of new teachers coming in, who, she says, have “been rightly done over”.
A lot of the conversations revolve around local issues such as green space, schools, playgrounds, public transport and housing. A single parent, who is trying to do a master’s degree to upscale, is deflated by her low place on the housing list and cuts in her lone parents’ allowance.
“I’m very stressed. I’m trying to be positive, but I’m a little disillusioned about it. Nobody wants handouts,” she says.
It’s routine, but even that discourse would not have been possible on the doorsteps five years ago.
“It important for our voters to realise it’s okay to vote for Fianna Fáil,” says Hanafin. “Older people are doing that, but we need to bring more borrowed voters back. We need to push up the vote in Dublin.”
There is resistance, though. “Get rid of your leader,” advises one man, who is opposed to water charges. “If you had someone else, you would be in business.”
The weather remains fickle the next morning, as undecided as the voters. In Greenhills in Dublin South-West, John Lahart works the doorways of St James Road, build half a century ago. The population is older here, therefore more likely to be in during the day.
Lahart, a psychotherapist, is a pleasant, low-key operator who has been a councillor for 16 years. He again focuses a lot on local issues: health, housing and pension cuts. He is considered one of the party’s strongest hopes. He has a strong base in Rathfarnham and is very involved with the successful Ballyboden St Enda’s GAA club.
“The mood is positive,” he says. “The tide is out for the Labour Party here. I’d categorise our target voter in three ways: people who lent their vote last time and are coming back; people who have seen us do the work on the ground; and people who won’t vote for the Government.”
In stark contrast with five years ago, there is not a syllable of anger. With some, you know their vote will go elsewhere, but their ire is reserved for the Coalition.
“My only concern is not to put the people back in government who are there,” says John McCormack, who is 80. He is upset that he and his wife lost their medical cards.
There are a lot of “No Water Charges” signs in windows.
“Are you going to replace that with some other charge?” asks a man who is also concerned about dog fouling. Lahore explains the policy: scrap Irish Water and charges for five years and then bring in an authority, which will charge.
Down the road, Grace Condon is not enamoured of Enda Kenny. “I’m annoyed with the Taoiseach. He thinks we are stupid,” she says. “I heard him on radio saying he will not have Michael Lowry and he is not going to have any one else either. Where is he going to get the numbers?”
Unsurprisingly, she adds: “We have always been Fianna Fáil, and we are going to stay with them.”
And back to Dublin West, where it all began. Inglewood is a solid estate in Clonsilla, built more than 40 years ago.
This four-seat constituency is a tricky one for Fianna Fáil. Joan Burton and Leo Varadkar are TDs. Sinn Féin now has a strong footprint here, as has the Socialist Party, represented by Ruth Coppinger.
But, in Jack Chambers, it might have found the crowbar to prise the race open. The 25-year old is from solidly middle-class Castleknock, and has a medical background. Tall, dark-haired and red-cheeked, the 25-year-old is to Fianna Fáil what Varadkar and Lucinda Creighton were in 2007, with a pleasant personality, lots of energy and political nous.
“I am passionate about politics and public service. I am trying to make a difference. We need a new generation. People are not feeling the recovery,” he tells a younger couple.
Chambers is another ground-war operator. We encounter half a dozen houses where he has done something before for the residents, including a cancer patient for whom he made “reps”.
“You are getting three number ones in this house, Jack,” she says, taking off her wig to show that the chemo has started.
He is of his generation. The smartphone comes out at every turn, to take down details. He thumbs in the details of a woman who has waited more than two years for speech therapy for her child, promising Fianna Fáíl in government would make primary care a priority.
A few people remind Chambers of Fianna Fáil’s past, of a lack of honesty. One man tells him that Fianna Fáil is the reason his son is in Australia.
Mostly, though, it’s relatively positive. There’s no antipathy any more, just indifference. Some of the borrowed votes are coming back. But will it be enough to deliver more than a handful of TDs in the capital? Not right now, but there are still almost three weeks left.