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"I'm going to do much better than people think" - the first-timer running in one of the toughest constituencies

Ian Noel Smyth is a first-time candidate for the Green Party in the political minefield that is Dublin Central. His Dáil run is very much against the odds – not that you’d know from talking to him.

BREAKING INTO IRISH politics is not for the faint-hearted.

But for everyone there has to be a first time.

Ian Noel Smyth is an architect, has been for 20 years. He’s director of a practice on Dublin’s Leeson Street. He has big ideas about Dublin’s housing crisis. And now he’s running for the Green Party in Dublin Central.

Dublin Central is one of the smallest constituencies in the country. It’s also a minefield. 15 candidates are running for three seats (reduced from four for the current election), and there’s some heavy-hitters in there. Mary-Lou McDonald. Paschal Donohoe. Current independent incumbent Maureen O’Sullivan. Labour’s Joe Costello.

20160217_101413 Smyth with campaign manager and friend Tom Duffy (right) and Green volunteer Andrew Worsley (left)

Some marquee names are set for a fall at the hustings on 26 February. Assuming McDonald (in particular) and Donohoe are shoo-ins (according to the latest odds that is), that leaves 13 candidates fighting for one seat.

Ian sits at 66/1 in tenth place in the pecking order according to Paddy Power.

Not that you’d know that from talking to him. TheJournal.ie spent a morning on the canvass with a man for whom positivity seems to be second nature.

The canvass

Our morning on the stump kicks off with a wander down Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra, right next to GAA headquarters Croke Park. We’re with Smyth’s campaign manager Tom Duffy and local volunteer Andrew Worsley. This is Ian’s home territory – he’s originally from Louth, but lives nearby with his wife and four children. He sports an accent that’s a mix of a mid-Louth drawl with a chippy northside Dublin edge.

Over the course of an oh-so-chilly morning the Green Party first-timer interacts with probably 14 people. Only one of those meetings could be said to be not positive. And the woman in question didn’t seem to like politicians in general.

One housewife tells us that Ian has her first preference and that of the three others in her household. She wants something done about the litter and parking in the area, together with housing and rental issues. This is Smyth’s bread and butter. Housing and homelessness is what he truly cares about.

20160217_105814 Ian Smyth with postman friend

A postman cycles by as we near Croke Park and calls out. “Hello there Ian.”

“Sure I was on the internet doing one of those vote things, and whose mug should pop up. It was you!” the man says. It seems he’s talking about SmartVote – the online engine for determining what politicians policies align with your own beliefs. The postman assures us Smyth has his vote and that of his family too.

Next up is Pat from South Leitrim who’s just parking his bike. He assures Smyth that his household is fully behind him also. He’s fed up with the dumping of litter in the area. To be fair, there really does seem to be a lot rubbish about, something your unobservant writer would not necessarily normally notice.

As the morning passes you realise that this is the fourth or fifth time Smyth has met these people, and personally. He has been putting in the hard yards over the last three months.

There are some caveats to be noted here. This area is absolutely his own territory. But then Dublin Central is a tiny constituency. It stretches from Drumcondra to Cabra, up to Smithfield and Stoneybatter and down to the Liffey, probably close to seven kilometres by five kilometres in size. Smyth insists he’s being very-well received in those other areas also.

20160217_112050 The would-be TD and his twin daughters

Another thing to remember is that people saying they’re going to vote a certain way is no guarantee that they will.

Despite all that, you do begin to wonder – could he actually do it?

It should be an exceptionally tall order. He’s up against people with acres of political experience, a government minister in Donohoe and a deputy party leader in McDonald. And realistically there’s one, maybe two seats up for grabs at a stretch.

Currently the Greens sit on 4%, as outlined in the most recent Red C poll. Using very basic maths that’s about 6 seats nationwide. The party is running 40 candidates.

“I’m going to do so much better than people expect,” Smyth insists.

“I should be able to tap into Ciaran Cuffe’s (local Green councillor and former TD, not running in the general election) Green support. He’s done great things for the area. And on transfers I expect to do a lot better than people might think.”

I’ve learned from what happened at the locals (he ran unsuccessfully in the same area in 2014). I was spending too much time in shopping centres and not meeting people. Not this time. I’ve been hard on this for three months since I won the nomination. I’m meeting people, and they’re responding to me.

He has a warm manner and that seems to serve him well when talking on the doorsteps. Generally speaking he declines to take aim at his competition in the race. His thing is housing – he cares about it and wants to do something about it, as you might expect from an architect. And housing is on a lot of people’s minds on Clonliffe Road judging by this morning – how to pay for it, how to afford it. And what to do about the dereliction in the area.

local Smith and a local outside a derelict house on Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra

“I’ve got eight first preferences from those three houses I think,” he says at one stage. It’s true, he does. Assuming they’re telling the truth. And assuming that they vote.

Towards the end of the canvass we meet a hard-smoking man outside a huge derelict site on the same road, which has been that way “for the past fifteen years” according to both Smyth and his acquaintance.

“I don’t think I have your first do I?” says Smyth. “But maybe your second or third?”

“Haven’t made my mind up Ian, I like the looks of Cieran Perry too,” the man replies.

This man wants something done about the demolition of derelict houses near Croke Park. And he wants the owners of the derelict site we’re looking at brought to book.

“So do I,” says Smyth.

20160217_104121 Discarded litter on Clonliffe Road. According to the locals rubbish is a big problem in the area

Self-funded campaign

Ian first joined with the Greens in 2011, after their annihilation in the general election that year, in which their list of TDs was completely wiped out:

I’d have green opinions generally, and when they were taken out it got me involved. Because their point of view is too important not to have them represented at all. They need representation in the Dáil.

This is a help on the canvass-trail – when brought to task over the fact the Greens were in government when the recession began, he can say that he had nothing to do with that.

Likewise he plays up that he’s both a local and a family man.

As mentioned before Smyth’s big thing is housing. It’s his area of expertise and he has firm ideas about it – more on that anon.

Specific detail is less clear on other policies. Health, the eighth amendment, water charges, security (it’s less than two weeks since Eddie Hutch was shot dead in his apartment on nearby Poplar Row) – he can quote the party line but the conversation is steered clear of personal opinion. He ties everything back to his area of expertise – sort out housing and drainage and you’ve got employment, then better health, that kind of thing – which seems quite a political move.

In fact, it’s when he’s talking like a politician that Ian is at his least convincing, which he does for the first half hour or so of our meeting. When that fades he comes across as a genuine, likeable sort who’s positive about everything, and sees opportunities for himself to make a contribution. But he does know housing. And he cares about it, and that’s when he’s at his most winning.

“I’m funding this entire campaign myself,” he says. “I’m doing it because I believe in it.”

I think we’re going to get multiple TDs in. And if we don’t those who run will raise their profiles and get us back into contention.

Dereliction

The morning is bookended by a series of visits to derelict sites, in the Drumcondra area and in nearby Ballybough.

In true Green fashion, we visit the sites on our bikes.

20160217_120044 Sealed-up houses on a blocked road leading to Croke Park

20160217_114257 An abandoned site on Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra

As mentioned before this is Smyth’s bread and butter. Housing, homelessness, drainage (many houses between Ballybough and Clonliffe Road can’t get flood insurance because of their proximity to the nearby River Tolka), litter – they’re the subjects that bring out the passion in him.

“The current government has really taken its eye off the ball when it comes to housing,” Smyth says.

It’s crazy, we’ve got people being put up in hotels for €1,000 a week. We had 28 social houses built in the last year. People can’t afford to live in Dublin. And we have sites like this just sitting here.

He’s talking about an array of terraced houses in Ballybough that are boarded up. Similarly, at a four-storeyed social housing building near Croke Park, two of the floors appear derelict.

Other buildings we see include a terraced cottage off Clonliffe Road and a trio of giant redbricks that we mentioned previously. These are properly impressive houses.

20160217_115206 Abandoned house off Clonliffe Road

20160217_115604 A section of boarded-up, abandoned houses in Ballybough

“It’s ridiculous, most of these houses will be demolished. Why put someone up in a hotel when the houses are already there?” Smyth say regarding the block of houses in Ballybough.

Are you telling me that a homeless person couldn’t live in these houses? Are you telling me that it makes more sense for them to be staying in emergency accommodation?

“Think ahead, act now, that’s our slogan for the election. You look at this and that really makes sense. You need long-term thinking to counter problems like this.”

Smyth wants to “bring the owners out of the woodwork” by imposing a dereliction levy on houses that are left to go to seed. He’s also a big fan of co-operative housing.

“These are things I know about – I’m an architect after all. You sort out a housing situation, you create a vibrancy in an area, that’s how you bring employment back,” he says.

“Ballybough could be like Ranelagh on the south side,” agrees Duffy, his campaign manager.

There’s nothing stopping it, apart from the government has washed its hands of the north inner city.

Our final stop takes us to Aldborough House near the Five Lamps district close to Connolly Rail Station. You may not have heard of it.

20160217_120732 Aldborough House, near Five Lamps

“That,” says Smyth pointing, “that is the second most important building in Dublin, after Leinster House.”

It really is impressive, and true to form your writer had never heard of it before.

That building has just been left to fester (the Georgian style mansion, built in 1793, was sold by the Irish Music Rights Organisation in 2005). Think of what could be done with it, if the will was there.
You fix that up, you fix up the area, you bring jobs back.

Only time will tell whether Ian can overcome the odds and take a seat in the next Dáil.

One thing is certain though, it won’t be for the want of trying.

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