On the campaign trail with Micheál Martin and Mary Fitzpatrick
Harry McGee finds voters engaging with the Fianna Fáil leader in south Dublin
The role of Dublin shopping centres in recent election campaigns is almost worth a minor thesis. Blanchardstown has been a favourite haunt of Fine Gael over the past few years and it is where Enda Kenny pioneered the technique for the rapid-fire high fives while moving at incredible speed across a mezzanine level.
The slightly more staid atmosphere of Dundrum Town Centre has formed the backdrop for a surprisingly high number of Fianna Fáil canvas outings cum photoshoots during that time. You might have understood the logic of it when Tom Kitt and the late Seamus Brennan ruled the roost in Dublin South. But since the recession hit you wonder why they bother. People are very polite in South Dublin buyt you felt that all that was missing in Fianna Fáil canvasses here in the run-up to 2011 were a set of stocks and a pillory.
The last few canvasses I followed here was when Brian Cowen was Taoiseach. He came out to campaign for a Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty (the first one which was defeated) in 2008 on a lovely day around this time of year. Seamus Brennan, then terminally ill, gamely came out to meet the Fianna Fáil entourage. Cowen showed that day how uninspiring and insipid he was on the hustings, uncomfortable with flesh-pressing and small talk. A year later, he returned again for the byelection after Brennan’s death. Fianna Fáil weren’t the flavour of the month but there was no open revolt. It was just dull. George Lee had swept through the centre earlier like a hurricane. Cowen and his candidate swept through the centre like invisible men. After that, it was just downhill. Even in polite middle-class South Dublin Fianna Fáil canvassers took it in the neck. The party was dumped by voters losing all its seats in Dublin, bar Brian Lenihan holding on in Dublin west.
Yesterday Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and the party’s candidate for Dublin in the European elections, Mary Fitzpatrick, spent a good deal of the morning working their way through the labyrinth of the shopping centre.
Back in 2011, some of the commentariat predicted that Fianna Fáil was gone. Another train of thought was that the party could never recover with Micheál Martin (a member of the discredited government) at its helm. Neither was true. The party has recovered ground. Martin looks secure as party leader and seems to be seen as such not just by supporters, but by many voters.
The Cassandras were wrong. But so too were the super-optimists who believed on the strength of a few polls that the party would bounce back. Explaining itself and its role during the lost decade is still tricky. Sinn Féin now presents a clear and present danger. The recovery will always be uneven and may never be a full one.
Still, there’s a marked contrast in the reception Martin and Fitzpatrick get here compared to even two years ago. When the party campaigned for a Yes vote for the fiscal treaty, we followed Martin and Senator Averill Power through middle class Sutton. At about half a dozen doors Martin was barked at and growled at, and not by canines.
This time around, there is none of that. People stop and engage. They wander up to him. The tables have been turned. He and Fitzpatrick rather than taking an earful now bend their ears with the empathy of doctors, as they listen to people complain about the coalition. The whole thing seems geared towards quality of engagement over quantity.
Martin arrives a little late. The reason, he says, is that he was stopped by a woman with a son who has a serious illness who had her discretionary medical card removed. This is a big issue for him. Twice or three times during the morning he reports of other cases like a prospector finding a succession of gold specks in the stream. With each he embarks on a passionate tirade against health cuts by stealth and the injustice of the removal of medical cards from over 35,000 families.
His mood today is confident and buoyant, eager for the fray. He predicts to you at one stage that all the Fianna Fáil votes Phil Hogan asked to borrow in 2011 are coming home. A little later, he is slightly less confident, painting recovery in less colourful terms.
Dundrum is a safe haven - a place where confrontation is rare. Parties tend to take reporters to places where they are well supported. In fairness to Fianna Fáil they were going to start the day canvassing at the Luas stop in less predictable Ranelagh but torrential rain put paid to that.
Fitzpatrick, wearing a striking red coat today, is a slick and quick canvasser. She is a northsider and there were concerns that she might not have purchase south of the Liffey. But her cache here is the stance she took against Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra mafia. A few passers-by tell her they like the fact she stood up to Bertie. She draws maybe too much on the Nyberg report in defending the last government but is convincing when explaining what she will do if elected to Brussels.
Of course, a victory for Fitzpatrick would provide a substantial boost to the party. She’s showing at 12 per cent, two points ahead of Eamon Ryan, according to The Irish Times poll. Those figures suggests that both will vie for the last seat - Fianna Fáil acknowledge that Ryan is strong and that it may be touch-and-go.
Martin is cautious when you ask him if the Fianna Fáil brand is a disadvantage or advantage. Its prospects in all three elections hang on a knifeedge. A little swing of the pendulum either way could spell a big win or a dismal loss. The party might win a byelection but it might lose out on both. It could return three MEPs including Fitzpatrick but it might only return one. And its local election campaign might see a mediocre result with too few new faces.
Martin hedges his bets when asked about his party’s prospects. He says he has always insisted that recovery would be slow, painful and long-term. His formula for success is a little safe, to allow some fresh new talent to emerge in the election, that will bring Fianna Fáil into the future.
Sure the anger has been reduced to vestigial traces. But does that mean that people have returned in sufficient numbers to support the party? Or does it mean that anger has been replaced with indifference? We will know by Sunday.