The big issue of 2019’s local elections? ‘Housing, housing and housing’
On the canvass with six parties, climate change and broadband also dominate talk
Sinn Féin councillor Malachy Quinn and TD Louise O’Reilly talk to Siobhán Mulligan in Balbriggan. Photograph: Tom Honan
With the local and European elections just days away, candidates around the country are preparing for one last round of canvassing.
About 2,000 contenders have put themselves forward for election, with 949 seats up for grabs.
The Irish Times went on the campaign trail with six of the main parties. Housing stood out as the single biggest issue on the doorsteps but there were plenty of other issues raised: litter, roads, infrastructure, Garda visibility and much more besides.
TD Colm Brophy is standing outside a row of houses near Cabinteely village watching his wife, Maeve O’Connell, a first-time candidate, dart from door to door.
“The first time I met Maeve, I was standing to be the head of young Fine Gael. She was helping to run the campaign of the person opposing me,” he recalls.
“It’s a really weird feeling canvassing for her, and I have canvassed for so many people in my life. There is something very lovely and different about canvassing for your wife. For so many years I have been the beneficiary.”
O’Connell is a first-time candidate who teaches company law and corporate governance at DIT.
She sprints from house to house when she sees that someone has answered the door to one of her many canvassers. Keeping up with her is a challenge.
“It is the first time that I am on this side of the equation,” she says.
On the first successful knock, she has a lengthy conversation with a resident about a nursing home that may be built in a green space. Congestion in the area is also a hot topic among residents.
On the third door she is tackled on housing.
The woman says her daughter was renting for six years and was suddenly given four weeks’ notice to leave on her kids’ first day back at school.
“So, they moved in with us. And we are not the only ones. I know four or five other people around here whose children have moved back in because of the rents. Around here they are starting at €3,000. It is not sustainable. It is nuts.”
O’Connell acknowledges the situation is a challenge and promises to advocate for more affordable housing. Brophy interjects to say schemes are being rolled out to provide “step-down” accommodation for older people who want to sell up.
A man out pushing his grandchild in a buggy stops the team. He says he is trying to build a house next to his own home for his son, but the council turned the application down despite the fact no one objected.
“They are a young couple with a baby paying €2,400 a month in rent,” he says.
He is disgusted with the council, and it has turned him off voting for politicians. He adds that he has four votes in his household that would normally be for Fine Gael.
During the canvass, Brophy contends that across different areas, the reaction to Fine Gael is positive.
“There is no real issue that is biting in the way there was five years ago,” he says. “In the last local election the water meters were being installed, water charges were firing at you and there was the centralisation of the medical cards. That combination made for a very tough local election. You don’t get that vibe now.”
Asked about the issue of housing, he says: “Yes, you get housing, but you get it in a cross-section of ways. The people recognise there is a problem with housing but they realise we are doing our best to fix it.
“We have a very traditional view of housing in Ireland. It is changing – there are generations now that will accept the idea of renting for life.”
The most recent poll in The Irish Times showed support for the Greens in Dublin up to 10 per cent, while Fine Gael stood at 24 per cent.
On the doors a number of people reference climate change.
“I’ve been Fine Gael my whole life,” O’Connell tells one man, who responds: “Don’t worry, you have my vote. My wife, however, is very much into the Greens at this stage, so it looks like they will get her vote.”
She counters: “Well, my view is that this is something that all parties should be looking at. One of the things that I am advocating for is that we have a carbon-neutral council.”
There are six seats in the Stillorgan area, where O’Connell is running, and 11 candidates contesting them.
A number of doors in the area professed themselves to be Fine Gael households, but much like other candidates, she is taking nothing for granted: she says she won’t rest until all 12,000 doors in the area have been knocked on.
Inside the small Greystones cottage that is Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly’s campaign office, volunteers and candidates mill around a small “war room”, where the walls are adorned with graphs, grids and canvassing plans.
Elaine Willis has been working as Donnelly’s constituency manager since 2012, and this time around she is throwing her own hat into the ring.
Two weeks before polling day, she says she has canvassed at least 7,000 houses. Just as she embarks on another round of door-knocks, the rain begins to pelt down.
The first door opens and she introduces herself to a man in his 30s. He gets straight into it.
“My major concern is the housing situation. It affects a lot of people I know,” he says. He directs his next comment to Donnelly.
“I know Fianna Fáil have reasons to hold the Government together, but I think you are going to need to kick a few people up the backside now and make a move. You can cling together for a while, but I don’t think you will get any credit in the end.”
Donnelly agrees: “I hear you loud and clear.”
On the second house, David Lowen answers. He works with the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
“I see a lot of problems with increased rents and pressure on tenants in the town. It is putting a huge burden on us now, more and more.”
He says in one case he dealt with the previous week, a woman and her family had to move from nearby to Cavan to try and find somewhere to live, placing her far from her family.
Willis agrees there is a need for more affordable housing before the talk turns to broadband.
Donnelly says Fine Gael were “almost goading us in the background, sort of: ‘I dare you to oppose us. You go off into rural Ireland and tell them you are cancelling their broadband.’ ”
Lowen also voices concern about the warning from senior departmental official Robert Watt about the cost of the plan.
The third door is voting Fine Gael, and by the fourth the team are already drenched from the downpour. It is clear some people aren’t in the mood for talking, although other issues do surface including the availability of school places and childcare.
In Greystones, 12 candidates are vying for six seats. Seven of those candidates are women.
With the weather turning treacherous, the canvass is cut short.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan ferries a team of party organisers into an old minivan, which was once the campaign bus for Trevor Sargent. The destination is Clondalkin, where the party is hoping to secure a seat for Peter Kavanagh, who joined the Greens in 2016.
Kavanagh says the two biggest issues on the doorsteps are – no surprises – housing and climate change.
“It is a big issue, not just 10,000 people in emergency accommodation but also the locked-out generation who cannot afford to get a start in life.” A growing awareness about climate change is bolstering the party’s chances, he adds.
“People love when they get a Green to the door to be able to talk about how they are conscious of climate change and how they want to do something about it. The fact that people are now seeing climate change in front of them, they know it can’t be pushed away to another generation any more.”
Ryan and Kavanagh take time on every door to ask the residents about themselves, whether it is about their travel plans or their gardens, in an effort to give their canvassing more of a personal touch.
Most people are willing to listen to the Greens, and many say they are undecided but open to “something new”. Some say they no longer want to go with either of the two major parties. Other issues on the door include crime, the state of the local area and the need for a third-level institution locally.
With recent polls showing promising signs, Ryan is buoyant about the party’s chances. He wants to secure 25 seats in the locals.
“We are going to win in places where we haven’t won before,” he says.
The backseat of Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly’s car is covered in leaflets and election paraphernalia, and she uses any spare hour to hit the pavements with the party’s candidates.
In between speaking in the Dáil about the party’s proposal to enshrine housing as a human right in the Constitution and an appearance on RTÉ’s The Late Debate, she pops out to Balbriggan to get an hour in with Cllr Malachy Quinn.
He carries a notebook and writes down all the individual complaints he hears along the way about the lack of lighting, Garda visibility, and the need to clean up Balbriggan.
One household has a Fine Gael leaflet pinned to the window with “No junk mail” written across it in black pen.
At 7pm on a Tuesday evening, the majority of doors go unanswered.
Many people pledge to read the election literature but make no outright commitment to Sinn Féin.
“Around here, the biggest issue is housing,” says local resident Siobhán Mulligan.
“I know more than two handfuls of people who are crying out for houses and there is just no help. Rents are too high, and the landlords are wanting to sell up. People are fighting for houses. I know people in emergency accommodation, including a girl with four kids in a hotel. She has been there six to seven months.”
There are 13 candidates for five seats in Balbriggan. Quinn is quietly hopeful of retaining his seat, but with support for Sinn Féin at 14 per cent in the capital, he will most likely be canvassing until the final hours of the campaign.
In the housing estates around Ringsend Library, the mood music for Labour has vastly improved. During the last local outing in 2014, hopeful candidates encountered hostility on the doorsteps.
It would prove to be a disastrous election, with the party losing 81 seats, prompting the former leader Eamon Gilmore to resign.
Two years later Labour would go on to suffer one of its worst ever general election results, going from 37 TDs to just seven.
In the South East Inner City, Kevin Donoghue is hoping to be part of a Labour comeback. Alongside Senator Kevin Humphreys he is knocking doors and spreading leaflets.
He is buoyed by the positive reception, with the first few doors knocked promising him a No 1 vote on Friday.
Catherine Gorman tells Humphreys and Donoghue that the anger has dissipated.
“I think with the recession and everything else, politics went out the door. People were just angry. It was an angry vote. I think now people are taking a bit more time to think. Personally, I would have voted for the person rather than the party anyway.”
Asked what the big issue for the local area is, she says “housing, housing and housing”.
“There are families of two and three generations living together. None of our young people can afford to live around here, which means all of our local clubs and schools are not being supported. It’s the big business who can afford to pay and they are buying up the big blocks of land.”
Flitting from house to house on a quiet Friday morning, Donoghue agrees that this is the biggest problem for the area.
“Housing is first and foremost the biggest issue. Then a lot of people want to talk about climate change. The state of the streets is a big one, too – it comes up in every canvass.”
In the course of half an hour, Donoghue receives one “I don’t know” and four yeses.
In the South East Inner City, 12 candidates are vying for five seats. Despite the overwhelmingly good reception – and he admits it is unusual not to have received some form of negativity in a canvass – he is not taking anything for granted.
“If I get elected, it will be the last seat that I take.”
According to a recent Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI local election poll, Labour has grown to 14 per cent support in Dublin.
“We almost dare to believe,” says Humphreys after the canvass.
Many voters may have only noticed political canvassing in recent weeks but Anne-Marie McNally, who also serves as the Social Democrats’ political director, began touring her constituency of Lucan before January.
In the area, 14 candidates will battle it out for five seats.
Along with her team, she has covered 90 per cent of the constituency.
McNally is accompanied by party co-leader Catherine Murphy on a bright Wednesday morning.
Residents in Lucan have been promised a swimming pool for years, and this comes up frequently, as does the issue of traffic. Some of those who answer are aware of the Social Democrats but not completely aware of their policies. One woman says she is happy to be educated on it and promises to look into the party before voting.
Health issues come up frequently here: a lack of local doctors and wider issues in the health service. One man speaks of his experience of being left on a trolley with pneumonia.
“The country is in a complete and utter mess,” he sighs.
Catherine Murphy says she has spent time around the country with nearly all of the party’s 58 candidates and is optimistic that it will do better than critics are predicting.
The party, according to the most recent poll in the Irish Times, are at just 2 per cent in Dublin, the same as Independents for Change. Solidarity/People Before Profit are at 4 per cent.
A newcomer to the political landscape is Aontú, the party set up by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín.
His town hall meetings have attracted large gatherings, and the recent launch of Aontú’s local election manifesto was attended by many of the party’s 53 candidates. At that event, Tóibín hailed the party’s performance in the recent elections in Northern Ireland, where he said Aontú took 7 per cent of the vote in constituencies where it stood a candidate.
Each of these smaller parties will be hoping to be the beneficiaries of any loss of support for the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, over their handling of national issues.