The doorstep challenge


For all the trepidation of canvassers, constituents are angry but surprisingly polite when they finally come face to face with a candidate from a party they abhor

Trep i da tion, noun:A state of fear or anxiety; a condition of quaking or palpitation, especially one caused by anxiety; an expression commonly used by Fianna Fáil canvassers – usually preceded by the expletive “f**king” – to describe an emotion immediately before hitting the doorsteps

‘ARE WE not human, too?” asks a trepidatious volunteer assembling his candidate’s bumf before the anticipated onslaught. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

“Ah God, Jim, will ye give over?” sighs a woman. “It’s not all that bad. Really. No. Seriously. It’s not.”

The disconsolate James drones on, his hangdog Shakespearean musings obviously a kind of comforting mantra: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Just a quote too far, Jim: too close to the bone. The woman snaps. “For f**k’s sake, Jim. Who needs that? Stop! Now!”

So this is it. At last. After several years of storm and fury, grief and utter impotence, the great Irish voter has a chance to sting, to wound, to punish, to banish. The airwaves and the web are alive with rancour, threats and graphic descriptions of what canvassees might perpetrate on certain political anatomies. Quaking, literate, red-nosed Jim, the Victor Meldrew of the team, is in dire need of a large brandy. He may not be too familiar with the online threats of GBH, but he hears enough of Liveline to get the picture.

The Fianna Fáil canvassers’ guide, aka Mary O’Rourke’s catechism, offers 36 well-designed pages of rebuttal material to what it calls “the deeply cynical campaign of constant criticism” engaged in by the opposition, but little in the way of martial-arts defence techniques. Wear a good pair of shoes, it advises. Be courteous and polite at all times. Be aware of good and bad times to call to a house. Don’t spend too long at any one door and don’t get into arguments with voters about issues. Always ask for the voter’s No 1 vote.

Jim whispers: “D’you think it’s wise to ask for a No 1 while a large man in a string vest is threatening to set a pit bull on you?” Ah, there probably won’t be any string vests due to the weather, Jim, says a nerdy young pup.

But an elderly canvasser in Dublin West had to take to his heels in the local elections a couple of years ago when a dog was set on him, says one young canvasser sadly. Memories of the “locals” are a recurring theme from canvassers: there’s nothing startling about the atmosphere in this election, they claim, because they’ve already had a substantial, scorching taster.

“That election was very rough, nearly as rough as this one,” says Conor Lenihan, preparing to board his battle bus at the nearly-deserted Spawell shopping centre in Tallaght on Thursday night. But no, he’s not quaking, he swears. “I would have been much more in trepidation in that week when the Government nearly fell apart. On the doorsteps now, I’m getting a certain warmth towards me individually. A lot of people are saying they won’t vote for me but they like me. They know my record locally.”

Mary McManus, a checkout supervisor at Dunnes Stores, where Lenihan is doing a decent job of wooing the shoppers and checkout operators, watches and says she is a socialist by inclination. It’s certainly clear she is no Fianna Fáiler. “But I’d believe Conor did the best he could locally. As a local politician, people would see him as someone who has done some work, but they would hate the party. And it’s people like Conor who will be the victims.”

She says she is angry, but she looks remarkably sanguine. “I think everybody deserves a minimum of respect. The proactive way is to get the right people in to set a new way forward.”

For Lenihan and his ilk, it must be cold comfort to know people like you as a person, even while preparing to dump you out of a job. Or are they?

He quotes surveys that suggest 30 per cent of a vote is attributable to the party leader, 30 per cent to policy and upwards of 40 per cent to the candidate’s local effort and recognition among voters. In which case, Albert Reynolds’s famous dictum that an Irish general election is in fact 43 by-elections is about to be tested. But on the face of it, despite the anger and threats, that native courtesy and reluctance to strike when confronted with a winsome, supplicant human being prevails.

After several days in the company of candidates of various hues, including three Fianna Fáilers around Dublin city and county, civility – albeit of a cold kind – ruled. No one produced a rabid dog or hurled a missile. On a door-to-door with Mary Fitzpatrick, a Dublin city councillor for Fianna Fáil and a veteran of two general elections, not to mention Bertie Ahern’s dark, dawn manoeuvrings in favour of Cyprian Brady, it is obvious most people recognise and respect her. Of maybe 100 houses canvassed around Phibsborough, only a handful of residents raise their voices. Even then, there is no angry tirade but genuine distress. People are polite. They take the literature and say “I’ll think about it”, “grand” or “no problem”.

“The woman who says ‘no problem’ – is she sincere? I don’t know,” says Fitzpatrick, a realist. Chances are they just want to be left alone.

A quiet-spoken, old-time Fianna Fáiler, who knew Fitzpatrick’s father, greets her sadly: “Ah Mary, didn’t we make a right hames of it? They let us down. I never liked that Bertie fella, but no one would listen to me.”

Many people say regretfully they would vote for her if she was an independent. A health-service worker says: “We are so over-represented by people who don’t represent us. It’s like the mafia. ‘Dear Don: sort us out and our little potholes . . .’ That’s what Fianna Fáil has presided over.” But it is said calmly, with a sigh. Not far down the road, though, an older woman tells her: “I’ll be voting for people who did work for me. You’re the proof of it. But there won’t be anything else for Fianna Fáil.”

So civil are the exchanges that when a door is opened by an angry voter, it is almost shocking. In this case, a tall, well-spoken woman declares that she is “very upset”, which is obvious from her demeanour. “My pension has been decimated. I know you weren’t in there, but you were part of it. The country has been reduced to poverty and begging.”

When Fitzpatrick in her measured way tries to explain her stance, the woman suddenly dissolves into sobs. “No matter what you say, you were part of it. I can’t talk about it,” she says, closing the door. The team tiptoes away, chastened far more by her distress than any pit bull on the loose.

Equally moving is a younger woman who tells Fitzpatrick sadly that she recently walked over to Glasnevin Cemetery to visit the grave of Michael Collins. “And I thought about what he did as our first minister for finance; all that honest, sincere contribution he made to this country and he never took a penny for it. Now look at what has happened to his country.”

Who will she vote for? “I don’t know. I just hope that in the Dáil you will stay true to yourself and what you think you are. If I vote for you, it will not be a vote for Fianna Fáil, it will be for you.”

Is Fitzpatrick surprised at the low incidence of tirades and slammed doors?

She points out with commendable honesty that this end of the constituency is where she is known, but she adds: “Most people are rational. I haven’t been savaged yet, that’s the truth. A lot of the negativity is amplified online and in the media generally. It’s much easier to have a rant on the web or over the airwaves than face to face.”

OVER IN MALAHIDE,Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien also gets a mainly polite response, though, again, in territory where he is well known. “We’re not getting killed anywhere,” he says. “If you listened to what’s being said on the web and the airwaves, you’d think that every door was being slammed in your face and you were repeatedly being dragged over garden walls. It’s not happening.”

Ann McEvoy, a hospitable 74-year-old, and her husband, Barney, live happily on their old-age pensions, although “way back” they could see clearly that it was “too much” for the national budget to absorb.

Who will they vote for? “We were undecided but when Darragh was put on the front bench we decided we’d vote for him, because he’ll have some kind of power,” she says, confirming the view that changing the faces on the front bench was not a futile exercise.

“But tell me, Darragh, if Micheál Martin’s new plan is really going to save us all, why didn’t he come out with it before – wasn’t he in there all the time?” The question is asked with genuine curiosity, without cynicism or rancour. As such, it’s an accurate reflection of informed doorstep exchanges in this election.

The worst that happens on a blustery afternoon canvass is a young woman who opens the door, looks a canvasser up and down and says contemptuously: “Fianna Fáil? I’m voting Labour.” And she is unusual. Not for by-passing Fianna Fáil but for stating her preference so emphatically. It’s a feature of the election that nourishes a tiny seed of hope in bruised Fianna Fáil hearts. While they can’t help but notice the savaging of the brand, they’ve also been struck by the lack of wild enthusiasm for anyone else’s.

“I’d be encouraged by that,” says Conor Lenihan. “What you see is a reserve about Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.” In short, they suspect the floating vote is higher than the polls suggest.

“You do get a lot of people closing the door in your face – a little more than in the local elections. They were very hostile then and the attitude was, ‘We’re sick of the lot of you.’ A lot of people are saying they won’t be voting at all.” But maybe, just maybe . . .

IN HIS CO LAOIShome territory of Mountmellick, Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan is acutely aware of this. In the sadly depleted town, from which youth emigration is rife, people are keeping their counsel. “They are angry, they want change, but they’re ultimately non-committal,” he says.

“But dedication to Fianna Fáil is almost cult-like. This constituency was 56 per cent for them on the last occasion. So it’s quite likely that most of the people you meet will have voted Fianna Fáil and are maybe looking back with regret on their own actions. People won’t tell you they’re going to change because there’s a certain amount of pride . . . A mass movement like Fianna Fail doesn’t turn over easily.”

Sinead Boyd, a separated mother of three, runs Ó Horain’s, the family newsagent and gift shop, where turnover is down by 30-40 per cent since last July. She says the biggest sellers are lottery tickets and cigarettes. “And people are coming back in every day to check their tickets. You see the desperation in them.”

Down the street, Martin Morris, a 44-year-old butcher running the 45-year-old business with his father, echoes a frequently asked question, born of a sense of powerlessness: “Is there much that a new government really can do?” Afterwards, he tells The Irish Times he is not hopeful. “They might be able to tweak a few things here and there, but they have to come up with the same result for the IMF.”

And who did he vote for before? “I would have voted Fianna Fáil. We thought we were doing the right thing at the time,” he says. He is “considering a change now”, but “certainly won’t be voting left. If voting anything, I’d vote Fine Gael.” He finishes, saying, “At the moment I’m just a bit angry,” while sounding perfectly calm and cordial.

IN MAYNOOTH, CO KILDARE, the Independent candidate Catherine Murphy is canvassing the Kingsbry estate in her stand-out amethyst purple coat and being welcomed as a kind of mother confessor almost everywhere.

“People are almost grieving,” she says. When asked if the issues being raised are local or national, she points out that most local issues are a manifestation of national policy.

A woman says she is “choking with fear” about her pension and her children’s prospects. Another, Kathleen O’Leary, a retired teacher who uses a wheelchair, is outraged at the targeting of the disadvantaged. “They were the first to be targeted and the reason is they were the easiest.” Jean Gahan says she is “absolutely furious” (though in a calm, smiling way). She would have voted “for the big two before, but now I don’t know. We need a huge, huge change.”

Several ask if the EU-IMF deal can “really” be renegotiated and listen carefully for answers. Murphy’s, for the record, is that “an alliance of countries in the same boat as ourselves might prove more fruitful” in any such negotiations.

The last call is to a woman who opens the door, takes the literature politely and turns away, saying, “No, I don’t want to talk about it. It’s all just ridiculous.” What does she mean? “It’s all been blown so much out of proportion. Nearly everyone I know is still employed. I don’t know anyone who’s left the country.” Yet she admits that her full-time accounting job with a builder is now just 10 hours a week and her two brothers are out of work. But the woman is desperate for some positivity.

She is not the first to suggest the relentless negativity is making people mentally ill and causing other good people to leave the country. “Friends of mine, both in good jobs, with no financial problems, two houses – and no problem with them – still say they’re going to leave. For what? ‘Because this is a shite country.’ We need to be positive. We have to look forward,” she says, closing the door, unwilling to give her name.