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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 2 August, 2014

Larry Donnelly: Do political candidates really enjoy canvassing? I’ll never fully believe that

Recent canvassing has reminded me of my own first foray as a political candidate: I was 22 years old, nomination papers in hand, knees knocking together.

Larry Donnelly

WHEN I LOOK around at the local election posters that are now ubiquitous in the countryside, villages, towns and cities of Ireland, I can’t help but think about Tip O’Neill. The legendary Massachusetts state representative and US Congressman, who went on to serve as Speaker of both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the US House of Representatives, will forever be associated with the famous comment his father made after his son’s first successful election campaign for a seat in the state legislature in 1936: “All politics is local.”

Those of us who closely follow politics, however, will probably agree that O’Neill received an even more prescient piece of advice early in his career from his former teacher, Elizabeth O’Brien.

O’Brien told the ambitious young politician that she would be voting for him even though he didn’t ask her personally. When he reminded her that she had known him since he was a boy and that he had helped her around the house for many years, she replied curtly: “People like to be asked.” In five words, O’Brien summed up what has always been the essence of political campaigning.

Attention-grabbing tactics

Over the past several weeks, local election candidates have been asking people in their communities for their votes. The aforementioned highly-visible, often heavily-airbrushed posters are the most prominent way they’ve been doing so. Advertisements in local newspapers are another. Standouts at churches, supermarkets and other venues sure to attract a high proportion of people from the area are a third. Cars emblazoned with their likenesses and equipped with megaphones are a fourth.

Additionally, a Tipperary County Council candidate, Martin Lonergan, has launched a catchy, albeit kitschy, YouTube video set to the tune of “Courtin’ in the Kitchen”. His “campaign anthem” argues, among other things, that Minister for Health James Reilly should be put on “a (hospital) trolley until he says he’s sorry” and urges people in his Cahir/Clonmel district to “text the fathers and the mothers, the uncles and the aunts, the sisters and the brothers, and when you’re finished texting them, don’t forget to text the others to vote for Martin Lonergan”.

The highs and lows of canvassing

But the most direct and efficacious means of asking for votes is still what’s known here in Ireland as ‘canvassing’ and in Boston as ‘door-knocking’. This time-consuming and labour-intensive practice is something that those of us who grew up in political families will be intimately familiar with and will regard with emotions that range from exhilaration to agony. It is with a cognisance of the highs and lows inherent in disturbing people at home to seek their support that I have answered my own door on a number of occasions lately. No matter how much political candidates and those assisting them say they enjoy it, I’ll never fully believe them. It’s not easy.

Answering the door inevitably brings me back to my own first foray as a political candidate. I was 22 years old and I was gathering signatures for a place on the ballot for election to the lowest level of unpaid office that existed in my home neighbourhood. I went off with a clipboard and sweaty nomination papers in hand, my knees knocking and my father’s joking cry of “welcome to the family business” ringing in my ears. The confidence and enthusiasm with which I’d made the decision to run for local office partly dissipated as I set off on my way to addresses and neighbours I hoped would be sympathetic.

An educating experience

It was certainly an education. From elderly people who were happy to see a young person who was civic-minded, to angry cynics with unverifiable gripes of one kind or other about local government and/or taxes, to parents far too busy with young children to be bothered spending time talking to me, I encountered lots of new people and saw others I knew previously in a different light. On the whole, it was a worthwhile experience. But still, it is incredibly daunting to summon men and women from their daily lives and ask them to place their trust in you. Yet it’s fundamental to maintaining a truly representative democracy.

Given that some particularly egregious examples of Irish politicians’ misfeasance and malfeasance during recent years are well-known to nearly everyone living in this country, local election candidates have been canvassing a very tough crowd since this campaign began. That said, they are quite happy to proclaim how well things are going on Twitter and elsewhere. I don’t doubt that there’s some puffing in their assertions; equally, though, I think most people they meet are supportive, respectful or just too busy to berate those who ring their doorbells.

Local candidates have typically played no part decisions taken at national level

However, it’s a shame that a vocal minority of people derive satisfaction from over-the-top attacks on local politicians and even regard subjecting them to ridicule as something of a patriotic duty. I have seen and heard their sentiments in person, on television and on the internet. Local candidates, whether they are seeking re-election or are newcomers, typically have played no part in the decisions taken at national level that have caused hardship for so many. That’s neither to say that local politicians have all the solutions nor to deny that unethical behaviour persists – nor is it to say that people don’t have a right to be angry.

It is to say that the overwhelming majority of candidates who we’ve met on our doorsteps are good citizens who love their communities. And we as a society are much better off that they are willing to put their names forward for election and serve as city and county councillors than we would be if they weren’t. Good luck to them on Friday.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with IrishCentral.com. He prevailed in that first election many years ago… narrowly.

Read: Fine Gael bottled water, giant floating heads and other strange sights from Election 2014

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