Very strange… very strange to be honest with you.
HE MAY HAVE topped the poll in one of the country’s most unpredictable constituencies five years ago – but as he pounds the streets of Dublin South-West weeks out from the next vote, Pat Rabbitte’s gradually coming to terms with the fact that he’s not on the ballot this time around.
“The people in this constituency, they did it for more than 30 years for me – so I have a responsibility to do it for them,” the veteran TD explains, hauling an armful of Labour leaflets from house to house on a stormy Monday night.
The ex-minister’s been asking for votes in the area since 1982 under a variety of political guises – Worker’s Party, Democratic Left, latterly the Labour Party.
The junior coalition party claimed two of the four available seats back in 2011. Eamonn Moloney, who swept in on his higher profile colleague’s coat-tails, has since turned independent.
A Labour poll showed Rabbitte would most likely take the third seat if he postponed his retirement. But in a constituency renowned for its volatility, it’s now, as one local puts it, “anybody’s guess” what will happen on 26 February.
Who’s in the mix?
The constituency’s expanded to a five-seater this time around and the boundary’s been changed to bring in a large swathe of estates from the middle-class suburbs of Rathfarnham and Knocklyon – in theory (at least) providing a boost for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
However, MEP-turned-perpetual-fly-in-the-government’s-ointment Paul Murphy topped the poll in a by-election just under a year-and-a-half ago.
Murphy’s AAA, along with Sinn Féin, will be hoping to capitalise on the strong anti-government sentiment in the poorer areas of the constituency – which was most clearly demonstrated in the November 2014 Jobstown protest that saw Joan Burton trapped in her car.
Where are we now?
So fourteen months on – are people still talking about ‘Jobstown’ in Dublin South-West?
Do voters still care about water charges, or have government efforts to change the focus to jobs and the economy gained any traction?
Indeed, does the received wisdom from some local observers that “Labour are finished” stack up?
TheJournal.ie spent a night on the doorsteps trying to find out…
‘I could throttle Phil Hogan’
Our first stop, with Rabbitte and one of two Labour candidates, is in Kingswood Heights – a middle class suburb close to the Luas Red Line and M50.
Councillor Mick Duff, a former mayor of South Dublin and a local addiction counsellor, isn’t having much luck as he rings on doorbells and hands over leaflets: it’s still before six and most houses are empty – commuters stuck on trams or still sitting in traffic in the Ballymount bottleneck.
In the living room of one neat bungalow, though, the head of the resident’s association gives the 66-year-old a warm welcome – while her son shouts in from the next room that Duff’s “the only one doing anything” in the area.
Drug crime is the number one priority for voters in Kingswood, Doreen McCarthy says.
It’s a surprising answer, given the quiet appearance of her estate – but there’s been a number of shootings nearby in recent months, she explains.
Along with the tax burden, crime turns out to be a key talking point throughout the constituency.
Meeting voters face to face is key, Duff says. People still want to talk about water – but the issue’s not blotting out the sun the way it did at the end of 2014.
“I do believe we can’t be the only country in Europe not paying for water,” he says – noting the local authority went through a “severe crisis” during the freezing cold winters of 2009 and 2010.
However, he admits the government made a hames of bringing in charging.
I would like to personally throttle Phil Hogan for the way – the cack-handed and absolutely appalling way Irish Water was set up, and the way the whole thing was delivered.
He insists Alan Kelly, Hogan’s successor as environment minister and now Labour’s deputy leader, “genuinely tried to ease the burden” – adding:
“I would like to see a waiver. I would like to see a waiver for somebody where there is an absolute inability to pay – but I believe that we’re trying our best.
I do genuinely believe that in cases of hardship, there has to be a waiver and we must bring in a waiver system for them. I would defend that to the bitter end.
Straight into Jobstown
You don’t have spend long with anyone in Dublin South-West to get them talking about ‘Jobstown’: politicians or voters, everyone has an opinion on the day of the protest, and on what happened afterwards.
Rabbitte says he’s regularly topped the poll in the West Tallaght community.
“It’s a handful of people hanging around Murphy and hanging around Sinn Féin,” he says of the Jobstown protesters.
All they’re interested in is making mayhem – and they did that very well.
“I’ll never not canvass there,” Duff adds.
A ten minute drive to the southwest, we meet up with Paul Murphy in a leisure centre car-park as he prepares to canvass with his running mate, Sandra Fay, and their Anti-Austerity Alliance supporters on the edge of Jobstown.
The area’s newest Dáil representative is shivering in the cold – “I should have worn a heavier jacket” – but the reception on the doorsteps is uniformly warm.
One resident of the Kilclare estate demands a hug, telling the TD she hopes he gets rid of “that awful woman” (Burton). Another, unwittingly echoing one of his campaign slogans, insists “we need a political revolution”.
Fay – a first-time candidate – also gets a welcome from residents. A local schoolteacher, she puts in an assured performance on the doorsteps – capably taking on a voter who complains that refugees may be getting housing places ahead of Irish families.
“That’s what they want us to think,” Fay argues (‘they’, in this case, referring to the establishment parties).
They want us fighting so they can divide and conquer.
To a large extent the pair are preaching to the converted – this is their base. Even so, the number of votes promised is surprising.
For the left-wing party to spring an upset and score two of the five seats, however, turnout will be key. Figures in the poorer areas of Tallaght aren’t great, historically – and from the Kilclare residents there are as many questions about registration and polling stations as there are about water charges.
“That will be a big challenge. In the by-election you would have had turnout of around 30% in West Tallaght. That’s where we have some of our strongest bases now.
“But actually I think it can be done. I think the Marriage Equality referendum and the by-election combined means that people are a fair bit more likely to turn out than they were previously.” (There was an 87% vote in favour of gay marriage in Jobstown in last year’s referendum – one of the strongest Yes votes in the country).
Too close to call
On the basis of tonight’s feedback, things aren’t looking great for Joan Burton’s party in the constituency. Back at Tallaght Leisure Centre, a local Sinn Féin member is adamant Labour hasn’t a hope of a seat.
“It’s a very fickle area – and when you add in Rathfarnham it’s going from a very working class area to a very mixed area,” Tony Groom says.
I still think it will be Sean Crowe [of Sinn Féin], Paul Murphy… no Labour. Maybe an independent after that, really – I could call it last time, but I can’t really call it this time.
Some seasoned observers reckon the addition of the wealthier areas will be good news for Fine Gael – but on our next stop of the night, a canvass of the suburban semi-ds in Bancroft, off the N81, a significant number of householders echo the anti-government sentiment evident in Jobstown.
At three houses in a row, residents complain about the increasing burden of taxes and charges.
“The same pool of people have given enough,” Aisling Campbell insists.
You have people who have never worked, and they go from the sick to the dole to the pension.
Her mother Patricia, who works part-time, says money’s a constant concern.
We would have paid for everything all our lives and never got anything.
Both maintain more needs to be done to reduce pressure on working families.
Just a few doors down their neighbour, Paul Cunningham, says the constant pressure of additional taxes and other living expenses is “getting ridiculous”.
“Everything we seem to be paying. Three kids, and we pay for everything whether it’s dentists, doctors… we have to.
“I’m lucky. I’m not complaining, you know… It’s no problem.
“Three kids I’ve had to get braces for. You’re talking about four grand each.
“And yet I’m hearing people in work – their girlfriends don’t work, I’m hearing… everything’s paid for – doctors, dentists, they seem to be having just as good a life as we are. Yet me and my wife are slogging our guts out.
My wife is still at work at this hour. I sometimes think you’re better off not working, I really do.
Brian Hayes’ decision to head for Europe did Fine Gael no favours in the area, Cunningham says – and the results of the subsequent by-election may have stemmed from local anger at the move.
We touch on the Jobstown protest briefly too…
“I quite like Paul Murphy. I think the way he’s been treated… He was probably a bit naive coming from Goatstown and misread where he was going. In Goatstown he’d probably have got away with it.
He should have apologised. But I think the way they’ve gone after him is just ridiculous.
Declan Burke, the 22-year-old independent candidate whose Bancroft canvass we’ve hijacked, says people are receptive to his message – and often impressed that someone of such relatively tender years is trying for the Dáil.
Burke came sixth in the 2014 by-election, and with five seats up for grabs this time around he insists there’s everything to play for.
“I don’t put a left or right label on it. I listen to people and I fight for what I think is right,” the journalism graduate says.
On the doorsteps his promise to fight for under-pressure residents is well-received – as is his standard pitch that “I got sick of shouting at the TV and decided to do something”.
That said, there’s no answer at more than half of the doors we call to.
It’s getting late, sure – but Burke says concern about crime is a major factor too, with older residents particularly worried and reluctant to answer their doorbell after dark.
Crime and taxes
It’s well past nine by the time we catch up with the last candidate on our schedule. His team have called it a night, so Fianna Fáil councillor John Lahart suggests a cup of tea at the Old Mill – a landmark pub on the Old Bawn Road.
Again, crime is one of the first things people bring up on the trail, the Knocklyon resident says.
“I’m 25 years living where I’m living, and there has never been the spike in burglaries that there has been in the last 18 months.
Burglaries are up 66% in the Rathfarnham garda district which covers Knocklyon, Rathfarnham and Firhouse. Tallaght is up not so much – but it’s really significant.
Childcare and housing are also key issues for people, Lahart says.
Fianna Fáil held two seats in the constituency up till five years ago – and the 51-year-old psychotherapist is hoping the party’s “reputation for getting things done and for hard work” will help them gain a Dáil place again this time out.
A clear policy on water should help, Lahart says – they didn’t have one nailed down heading into the by-election.
We’re abolishing Irish Water and we’re abolishing water charges. You won’t pay water charges if Fianna Fáil are in power for the lifetime of the next government.
Plenty of locals are adamant they won’t be voting Fine Gael or Labour back in, he maintains (as well you’d expect he might).
The vibe on the doorsteps is getting better.
The final countdown
After returning home from our night on the trail, it emerged posters for the second Labour hopeful in Dublin South-West had been illegally erected that evening, as Pamela Kearns’ supporters attempted to steal a march on her rivals ahead of the election being announced.
Other candidates said they had teams on standby with ladders and zip ties, ready to go at a moment’s notice, once the Taoiseach went to the Park.
We remarked at the start of this article that the area has a reputation for volatility and unpredictability. A glance at the results of the last three general elections underscores that fact: since 2002, the candidate who topped the poll has been turfed out of the Dáil at the next election.
With 19 hopefuls in the 2016 race, there won’t be a doorbell left unrung between Terenure and Tallaght in the next three weeks.
The full list of candidates in Dublin South-West: Colm Brophy (FG), Declan Burke (Ind), Sean Crowe (SF), Anne Marie Dermody (FG), Mick Duff (Lab), Francis Duffy (Green), Sandra Fay (AAA-PBP), Peter Fitzpatrick (Ind), Sarah Holland (SF), Pamela Kearns (Lab), John Lahart (FF), Eamonn Maloney (Ind), Ronan McMahon (Renua), Paul Murphy (AAA-PBP), Deirdre O’Donovan (Ind), Kieran Adam Quigley (Ind), Stephen Sinclair (Direct Democracy), Karen Warren (FG) and Katherine Zappone (Ind). (Need more details on candidates?)