How to drink your way to the top in local politics

It started as a joke, a throwaway line over a late night Lenten jar by Vinny Fitzpatrick about having a public house representative for Clontarf, but it had gathered momentum to the point of no return.

Unlike Vinny’s aborted attempt in the 2011 general election, which was pulled at the 11th hour, the “Joe Public” campaign was in full spate, like a high tide in Dublin Bay.

Joe Byrne had been the agreed candidate, as there was no better man to represent the five main pubs in the area: The Schooner, Foley's, Shingles, The Holyrood and Vernon Castle.

Regular as clockwork, Joe rolled up in each hostelry once a week. Unlike Vinny and the lads, who drank like there was no tomorrow, he was restrained. His tipple of choice was MacArdles by the pint bottle, which he supped while reading the newspaper of record from cover to cover at a funereal pace.

He averaged an hour over a bottle which, according to Vinny, meant he often left the pub more sober than when he arrived. Always smartly dressed in a crisp shirt, bright tie and blazer, Joe, whose real surname was Bernsteyn, was a retired dentist from Oulton Road. He was a bachelor, had no immediate relatives, and had time on his steady hands to take all day over a jar, which he generally did.

Crucially, Joe possessed a wry sense of humour and had required little persuasion to buy into the jolly jape.

It helped that he had been promised €20 worth of free gargle every week from each of the five pubs whose interests he would represent in City Hall, if elected. “Hey, for €100 a week, I’d give myself a filling, left-handed, without an injection,” smiled Joe.

The Joe Public campaign was unique in Dublin in that it didn’t involve a single poster, leaflet drop or door-stepping.

Even the offer of a live radio debate with the other candidates on CLR (Clontarf Local Radio) was turned down by Joe’s director of elections, Vinny. One snotty researcher even claimed there was no such person as Joe Public.

At that, Vinny took umbrage. “Joe is a real person, like you and me. He’s got the same issues with medical cards, property tax, water tax and will protect the sea wall in Clontarf until his last breath. It’s just that he likes to keep the profile of a limbo dancer.”

On the face of it, the Joe Public crusade was doomed. He had no political affiliations, no profile and nothing to stand for.

“What’s my platform?” he asked Vinny one night over a slow pint in Foley’s.

“Platform one for Howth, platform two for Bray,” replied the deadpan bus driver.

Yet there was a cunning plan at work which, if successful, could catapult the dapper dentist into Dublin Castle from a competitive electoral area headlined by Seán Haughey, son of Charles J.

By Vinny's calculations, it would require 1,000 first preference votes for Joe to win one of the seven seats. Five pubs "Here's what we do," said Vinny, rubbing his hands together. "We need 200 guaranteed votes for Joe from each of the five pubs. It should be a cinch. Sure, every Tuesday to Saturday, without fail, he's in one of them.

“All we need to do is spread the word through the various managers and bar staff to tell their punters to vote for Joe, the covert Clontarf candidate. They can offer ‘Happy Hour’ promotions if he makes it.”

As polling day approached, Vinny fended off requests from the Clontarf Courier, Clontarf Radio and the Evening Herald to talk to Joe. Each time, he shook his head . 'Sorry, Joe prefers anonymity,' he said. By saying nothing and doing nothing apart from taking an age between bottles of MacArdles, Joe was building up a profile. People were talking about him.

On voting day a knot of journalists gathered at Belgrove BNS to see Joe Public vote. Others high-tailed it to Oulton Road as the voting papers carried the first picture of the unknown Independent candidate and his address.

Joe chose not to exercise his constitutional right, but spent four hours in The Schooner over a fine lunch and three pint bottles of MacArdles, where he watched the racing.

For Vinny, the day was frenetic. He was on constant tic-tac duty with the managers of the five pubs, reminding them not to serve anyone a jar unless they had given a first preference for Joe.

By the close of play, exit polls of Vinny’s crew at the stations closest to the five pubs indicated that Joe Public was in with a chance of a seat.

As boxes were opened for the Clontarf ward at the RDS, the major players, including Haughey, were all figuring strongly.

A little off the pace, but in the mix, was Joe Public. Vinny darted from one table to the next; there were 20 first prefs here, 30 there. As the first count was called out, Joe Public, who was then enjoying a walk on the promenade between Shingles and Foley's and contemplating a bottle of beer, had polled 919 votes. Exultant Vinny and his crew were exultant. "If this comes off, it'll be the greatest stroke since Yellow Sam in Bellewstown," grinned Fran.

At nine o’clock, the returning officer took to the plinth, cleared his throat and solemnly declared Joe Public elected to the Dublin City Council for the ward of Clontarf, claiming the seventh and final seat.

As Vinny and the lads let out a roar and punched the air, there was a scrum around them, as the heavyweights of TV and radio moved in.

“Tell the nation, who is Joe Public?” demanded one, thrusting a furry microphone under Vinny’s nose.

Vinny composed himself. “Joe is like you and me; he’s like everyone in this room today. He has deep concerns about the way things are being run and he’s going into City Hall to try and improve the lot of the people of Clontarf, and of Dublin.”

“But why isn’t he here?” he shouted the RTÉ man.

Vinny smiled. “But he is here. Look around you. He’s counting votes, engaged in chat, making a cup of tea, reading a paper, watching TV. Every person here, man and woman, is Joe Public. And now, they have a voice.”