'I don’t know much about it' - European hopefuls struggle to engage Dublin electorate

Candidates frame vote as a choice between pro-European stance and Eurosceptic populism

If being an MEP for Dublin means something it’s lost on most voters.With barely a week to go until polling in the European elections, The Irish Times discovered a shockingly low level of engagement and candidate recognition among the constituency’s electorate.

You would think Dublin would be easier for voters to identify with than the other, sprawling Euro constituencies where random counties are just thrown together in a way that gives no sense of place or belonging. “I will fight for the people of Midlands North West.” Indeed.

But it’s not as simple as that. There may not be a big geographical distance from Rathcoole in west Dublin to Donnybrook on the southside, or Artane on the northside, but in their own way they are as different as Donegal is from Cork or Kildare.

On a sunny day this week, The Irish Times spoke to candidates as they canvassed across the city, most in safe places which would provide rich pickings for votes.


For example, Fine Gael front-runner Frances Fitzgerald's canvass was in Donnybrook; that of Fianna Fáil's Barry Andrews in Artane; that of Sinn Féin's Lynn Boylan in Mulhuddart, where her party has polled well in the past.

Two big issues stood out from discussions on the streets: housing and climate change. You could see all candidates have triangulated on green issues. It was clear too from speaking to voters that these elections are failing to excite. “I have not thought about it” was the most common reaction followed by “I don’t know much about it.” It was surprising, too, how often people conflated local election candidates with the European ones.

But certainly for the candidates and for the parties, there are clear lines of demarcations. The centrist and centre-left parties present it as a battle against Eurosceptics and populists.

“The European project is at risk in terms of populism and nationalism from both the left and the right. I’m absolutely pro-European,” says Fitzgerald.

But the parties and candidates of the left, who will take at least one seat here, argue they are not against the European project at all.

“We are still Euro-critical and proud to say that. We are not nodding dogs, we are watchdogs,” says Boylan.

She acknowledges some people say “we shifted our position on the EU because we backed the Remain vote” but “there is nobody who can say that Brexit was good for the island of Ireland”.

Similarly Clare Daly rejects the eurosceptic tag: "I love the travelling, I love the euro, I love the free movement. The fact there are different cultures here - my daughter studies abroad - that's what people mean when they are pro European.

“They don’t say they are pro the austerity policies, the gutting of public services, the commodification of public services, and the military industrial complex which is particularly concerning for Irish people.”

Daly is the disrupter in the race. She came in late and hasn’t done posters on lamp-posts, going instead for billboards and ads on the side of buses that you’d expect to see for the opening of a new blockbuster, complete with catchy slogan “Daly is Different”.

Rathcoole might be the fastest growing village in Dublin but today it’s as taciturn as the time when all there was here was the thatched tavern and the quaint courthouse for “petty sessions”. This is far outside her own patch but Daly is getting some recognition from the odd shopper, or parent picking up young children.

People were surprised that she opted for Europe, given her impact in the Dáil: “It’s a genuine scary concern about he future of Europe, that’s why I have taken the plunge. Pesco (the EU defence cooperation strategy) was a game changer on that,” she says.

So what’s her stance? Is she a supporter of what’s called leftexit? “That’s too simplistic. The narrative is bigger than that. There has been an overestimation of the benefits of leaving and an underestimation of the benefits of staying.

“The reality is more complex. We need maximum cooperation. I am a believer in the ideals of the EU… Peace, equality, internationalism, solidarity, all of that good stuff. But that’s not the EU that is there now. Unless it changes tack and drops the neoliberalism, that’s the root cause of the trouble we have.”

She says people told her before entering the Dáil she would make no difference and believes she can also prove the doubters wrong in Brussels. Referring to herself and Mick Wallace, who is standing in South, she says: “We are, if anything else, different and maybe use the platform in a more creative way than others have as well as being incredibly diligent legislators.”

On a crowded junction near the canal at Baggot Street, Green Party candidate Ciaran Cuffe tries to interest passing office workers in his party's policy. There are bits of engagement, mostly they take leaflets. When you talk to voters here and elsewhere, climate change is often first mentioned.

Cuffe, a councillor and former TD, is understated and policy-oriented. He rejects the suggestion that Green policies are unrealistic. “A lot of the solutions are a good news story. We can get rid of fuel poverty. If you are stuck in traffic every day and then move to safe cycling lanes, that is also good news. That’s where the government need to be.”

What are his chances? “As the frog said, it is never easy being green and you have to compete for every vote. In a party like the Greens you are down in the margins of error and get your message and appeal to a wider audience.”

Another of those who will be in the margin of error like him is Alex White of Labour, who is out meeting walkers on Sandymount Strand in early afternoon. The party is above 10 per cent in Dublin, according to polls, but he is a little bit behind.

“There are definitely signs that people are looking at us again. We have retained a loyal core vote and they have stuck with us, and others are also coming to us,” he says.

Like other candidates, White identifies housing as the “issue on everybody’s lips” and argues it could be an EU issue.

“That renting and housing crisis is common all over Europe and the EU parliament will have to taken an interest in it.”

He says the future of Europe question is not being raised so much in Ireland where there is “almost universal support” for our membership.

“Some of the candidates on the left are ambivalent. Yes, be critical but stand up for Europe,” he says.

A difficulty for Labour has been the candidacy of Senator Alice Mary Higgins, who also happens to be the daughter of former Labour minister and now President Michael D Higgins. Some Labour activist were annoyed at the move, believing it scotched any hope of White winning a seat.

“There are candidates from the Labour family,” says White diplomatically. “They might undermine your chance as the lead candidate in the centre left to get a first preference vote.”

For her part, Higgins refuses to be drawn into a battle with Labour.

“I ran as independent senator and set up the civil engagement group in the Seanad. I have been doing politics in a different way and making sure that civil society groups feel very connected.”

She says the next five years are crucial for a sustainable Europe. “We need to prioritise peace-building over militarisation. There are new challenges in the shape of Brexit, the rise of the far right and climate change. We want next EU parliament to be much better at talking to civil society,” she says.

She has been involved in many campaigns and has been active in the Seanad. But she came into the race late and might not be widely known enough to draw enough votes. You might have said the same for the Social Democrats councillor, Garry Gannon. He has a high profile in Dublin Central and could win a Dáíl seat there but is not yet a household name in the capital.

Why run for Europe then? “I’m of generation that considers themselves European,” he replies. “It’s going to be the most important parliament in the world over the next decade.

“I want to bring a voice forward that say we can lead on climate, on changes in technology and automation that displaces people from work.”

His message if firmly geared towards a younger demographic and he believes he can do well if they come out to vote.

“Sure it’s a crowded field on the left. I have been utilising a lot of social media. One of our videos has gone viral. We have dropped 110,000 leaflets. For this election I wanted to test myself. I think we are distinguishing ourselves from the pack,” he says.

For the second Fine Gael candidate, Mark Durkan, the challenge seemed the same. It was always going to be a long shot for a second seat, and Fitzgerald was always to be the front-runner. He was, as he says himself, a "Nordie" coming into the race.

“When I was approached earlier this year by Leo Varadkar I did not say ‘Yes’ straight away. But then I said if I say ‘No’ because it’s outside my comfort zone, that meant I did not want to take the risk and defend the Good Friday Agreement. It was something that I helped deliver and we need to protect it especially with the threat of Brexit.”

Durkan is widely respected and has pledged to move to Dublin. But in a crowded field he would really have to dislodge Andrews to take a second seat for Fine Gael.

The Irish Times caught up with the former Fianna Fáil minister canvassing in Artane Grove, with all the Haugheys, local TD Sean, his brother Ciaran, and their brother Conor’s son, Cathal, who is a local election candidates.

Andrews comes from an established Fianna Fáil family but he dismisses the tag of elite, pointing out he was the only candidate who had to contest a convention.

“One of the things you hear a lot of from the right in Britain is the idea of elite and establishment, and using slogans to undermine people’s faith in multilateralism,” he said.

“You hear it on the left. They use that populist slogan quite regularly. And in that sense they have a lot in common.

“One third of MEPs elected will be sceptics to the right and and to the left. The very fabric of the EU is at stake.”

In Drumheath in Dublin 15, Lynn Boylan canvasses alongside Paul Donnelly, a local councillor.Boylan was unknown before the election five years ago but has come to prominence since for her work on climate change and on the campaign to release Ibrahim Halawa from a Cairo jail.

She’s not going to repeat her lofty 23 per cent of 2014. “It is a very different election. The anger not there any more. People are frustrated because they have had elections and they are not seeing changes in the lives,” she says.

“If you want change you have to return progressive MEPs. It would be a disaster if two of the four MEPs came from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.”

Some say it’s going to be a battle between her and Clare Daly for the one left-wing seat. Boylan’s response has clearly been thought out: “Clare is an excellent TD. The best way to avoid fragmentation of the left vote is to vote for Sinn Féin and then to vote progressively down the ballot sheet and not give Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael a preference.”

But as of now, it looks like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will take a seat each, with a very close battle for the other two seats. Those likely to be in the shake-up are Daly, Boylan, Cuffe and White but with 19 candidates in the race there is potential for some surprises.