‘The election? I couldn’t give a f***’: battling voter apathy

Low turnout in inner-city Dublin reflected a lack of faith in politics, but that may be changing

Mopping her porch on Sean O'Casey Avenue near Mountjoy Square in Dublin's north inner-city, Ann Dolan has few hopes for Election 2016: "I don't think it really makes a difference to people around here. People on this side of the fence always get the rough end of it."

The turnout in Dublin Central constituency was, at 52.4 per cent, the country's lowest. Before the election, the Lourdes Youth and Community Services centre on Rutland Street tried hard to get people to register to vote.

Despite her low expectations about the ability of politics to change lives, Dolan, who has lived all of her life on Sean O’Casey Avenue, votes in every election – unlike many in her community.

The water protests politicised people, she believes. However, the big issues are homelessness and unemployment. She has three adult sons living at home. "When employers see Summerhill as their address, they've no chance," she says.


She voted for Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin Central: “I’m still confused about what’s going on now. But the likes of her may make a difference. Sure, we have to give them a try.”

Later, Gerard Davis and his daughter Serena offer a warning on Sean McDermott Street not to check a mobile phone too conspicuously: "Gurriers on bikes zip by and nick phones," says Serena. She does not vote.

Gun and ballot box

Her father votes Sinn Féin. He is incensed that they are not considered real coalition material. “How long have they been telling Sinn Féin to put down the gun and use the ballot paper and now nobody wants to go into government with them?”

Several of the people approached do not vote. However, two older women chatting at a doorway on Rutland Street feel the need to give excuses. “I was sick,” says one. “I had something on,” says her friend.

Kevin Johnson (27), leaning on railings outside a derelict house, says the Government should do something about housing and unemployment. He has never voted. "I was never asked to," he says.

While many who have not voted believe that nothing will change, many of those who actually did vote have equally low hopes: “The election?” says a man walking home with his shopping, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I couldn’t give a f***.”

Actually he does care. In fact, he voted for the first time in years – for Sinn Féin. Most specifically, he voted against the coalition. “I wanted to get that shower out.” He will vote the next time, too, he says. Why? “Maybe I’m getting older and sicker in the head.”

‘Gangsters in suits’

A young man watching a temporary Garda checkpoint on Portland Row has an idea. “They should put me into the Dáil,” he says. “They’ve gangsters in suits. There should be gangsters in tracksuits in there.”

“He’s not really a gangster,” says his friend, rolling his eyes. Issues like homelessness and drug addiction are not abstractions here. Near the derelict IDA Business Centre on Summerhill people are openly selling pills.

There appears to be a shortage and groups gather in huddles whenever a new supply comes in. “What are the biggest issues for you?” I ask a woman I have already seen dealing. “Drugs,” she says sadly. “So many are strung out.”

When someone selling drugs says they are worried about the drug problem, things are bad. Up the street Dennis Gavin is bringing supplies of food and drinks into a pub. Two of his daughters are homeless and living in a nearby hotel.

He is sad that the former Sinn Féin lord mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke, who ran as an Independent this time, did not get a seat. "On Christmas morning he went down to the hotel with a load of toys," he says.

Daniel Moynihan walks along Seán McDermott Street with his baby daughter and his dog. He has been homeless for three years after being made redundant and a rent increase. For a while he stayed with his mother and with friends.

“But they had to get their kids up for school with me on the sofa. So I’d get up at six and wander the streets.” Now he is living in a homeless unit. He has his daughter Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays: “But she can’t stay overnight with me. I’d love to have her overnight.”

He is happy that Mary Lou McDonald and Maureen O’Sullivan were re-elected. Both helped him in recent years, he says. “[Voting is] about hoping for something better in the future. You have to try and get the right people in, don’t you?”

Opinions on who the "right people" are vary, however. Marie and Paddy Murphy are long-time Labour supporters. The notion of "stability" resonated with Marie. "But [the parties] are like kids in the playground.

“I won’t play with you and he won’t play with me. We don’t know what we’re going to get,” she says. Nearby two women are making each other laugh analysing a tattered campaign poster.

Both voted for Social Democrat Gary Gannon, who they know. Neither voted previously, but were urged to do so by a woman they met at a literacy class: "She was saying that if you don't vote, someone else gets the power," says Stephanie.

Leah has been on methadone for 20 years. At the height of her drug use she had several babies who died. She recites their names. Once, she says, she came into money and donated half to the maternity hospital. “They kept my little girl alive for me for a while.”

She used to think politicians did not care about “people like us” in the inner city, or other such places. She now believes some do. “Say a little prayer for us will you?” she says.

Democracy Cafe

The community education centre Lourdes Youth and Community Services (LYCS) helped to register 800 new voters in the weeks and months before the general election.

Last Tuesday, they hosted a “Democracy Cafe” in Wynn’s Hotel. More than 100 people of all ages and nationalities sat around tables discussing politics. People had coloured markers to scribble thoughts on paper tablecloths.

When a bell rang, everyone got up and joined another table. "We planned it 18 months ago because of the 1916 centenary," says LYCS director Sarah Kelleher. "We had no idea the election would be the week before."

The day began with a speech promoting democracy by playwright Peter Sheridan. Quickly, the room was buzzing. At one table, people held an impromptu vote to show democracy in action to a young woman who did not see the point.

It was a vote on whether she could go for a smoking break. They voted that she could not. She got the message. The bell rang again. People moved tables again. Eighteen year-old Kamelia tries to convince her friends to vote.

Politicians, she says, must reach out to young people. “When I was younger my mates used to tell me who to vote for,” says a man called Pat. “Did you listen?” asks Bernie the facilitator. “I did until I had sense,” says Pat.

They discuss how people without a voice – the poor, the disabled, the homeless – might be empowered. Everyone scribbles thoughts on the table cloth, which is now filled with ideas.

The bell rings. “This is a northsiders table!” says the facilitator at my new table to an incoming southsider. There are four younger women here and the conversation again turns to engaging young people.

The younger women talk about the marriage referendum. “I didn’t vote then,” says one. “I wanted to, but I didn’t know how.” Recalling a march by her residents’ group about poor housing, a young woman called Niamh declares, “We felt like a community.”

The discussions come to an end. A representative from each table gets up to make a statement. They talk about the need for ongoing political engagement and about creating a more inclusive society.

“Society advances,” says one woman. “Take a look at your smart phone!” (Our facilitator shows us his ancient phone and we laugh). When it comes to our table Niamh rises and says there needs to be more encouragement for young people.

After the confusing mathematics and melodrama of the election, this more collectivist take on politics is uplifting. Young men taking part in an adult education programme say that they voted, mainly for independents.

"I wasn't political," says Darren Flanagan, "but people need to get involved and have a say in what happens." However, optimism is low. Flanagan sighs. "To be honest I don't think anything's going to change."

"Something struck me," says his friend Darren Cosgrave. "Forty two per cent in one area didn't vote and a particular politician got their seat back. What I see on Facebook is a lot of people angry with that politician, yet 42 per cent didn't vote."

For Flanagan, politics is about humanity: “It’s not human to walk by people lying on the streets or old people lying on trolleys. When you look at the reason why these things are happening it becomes political but it starts with just being a human being.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times