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Lise Hand: Reckoning day as 531 candidates put themselves at the mercy of democracy

Lise Hand looks back at the four-week campaign and towards a bloody count.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

ON FRIDAY MORNING in the cavernous CHQ building on Dublin’s north quays a cross-party group of candidates running in various Dublin constituencies was swapping tales from the trail as they waited to debate each other live on Sky TV.

One of the candidates was recounting how he had been canvassing at a particularly busy junction during the morning rush-hour when a car screeched to a halt in the yellow junction box as the driver unleashed a stream of invective and a flurry of furious finger-jabbing through the window.

As the traffic piled up the candidate – all-too-aware of the captive audience – smiled, pointed back and loudly thanked the irate individual for his support: “THANK YOU FOR YOUR NUMBER ONE,” he shouted cheerfully, gesturing at the jabbing digit.

Momentarily united by this vignette from the campaign coal-face, the other candidates nodded in sympathy.

“When you see a waving hand, you look to see if it’s a thumb that’s up, or a middle finger,” concluded the battle-scarred canvasser.

Today as the country goes to the polls, the electorate looks poised to deliver an unprecedented thumbs-up to Sinn Féin and a resounding middle finger to Fine Gael.

And it was the sudden and meteoric rise of the former which has accounted for an elevated level of interest among the international media such as Sky News in Ireland’s general election. Head-scratching in several languages broke out with the release of the dramatic Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll which placed Sinn Féin on top with 25%, Fianna Fáil on 23% and Fine Gael trailing in with 20%.

Why, wondered the international journalists, are Irish voters so gung-ho to reject the party of government, given that CSO figures show a record number of people in employment, a flourishing economy buoyed by billions in tax revenue from multinationals and a successful conclusion to the crucial first part of Brexit negotiations?

Moreover, why is a nation of europhiles setting its collective cap at a party with long history of euro-skepticism and why are so many citizens unconcerned with Sinn Féin’s alleged historical links with the IRA?

Why indeed, echoed many people in Ireland also – including members of the party at the centre of what may be a seismic shift in the country’s political topography.

Disheartened by a string of poor results in the 2018 presidential election and last year’s European and local elections, the party stayed its hand when it came to fielding candidates in the general election and chose to run a relatively modest 42 contenders across the 39 constituencies.

Even the unexpected success of Mark Ward in November’s by-election was largely attributed to the hard work and high profile of sitting Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó’Broin rather than an overall rise in the party’s popularity.

Therefore the campaign ended up being very different to the one envisaged by the Taoiseach when he brought an end to the tottering 32nd Dáil on 16 January.

The election didn’t come as much of a surprise – changes to the Dáil arithmetic had rendered the precarious Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil confidence and supply arrangement as unstable as a two-legged barstool.

But as it transpired, selecting the day of the election was the last time that Leo Varadkar and his party were in control of events. Almost immediately Fine Gael’s strategy to run its campaign on the back of its Brexit achievements was derailed by events.

Even as several senior ministers attended the opening launch close to the border in Monaghan, the news cycle was dominated by the dreadful story of a homeless man suffering life-changing injuries after he and his tent were inadvertently scooped up by an industrial vehicle during a clean-up of the canal by Dublin City Council.

The horrific incident placed homelessness front and centre of the campaign, and this issue was swiftly joined by the twin scourges of gangland crime and drugs when news broke of the savage murder and dismemberment of a 17-year old boy, Keane Mulready Woods in Drogheda.

And the focus on drug use led to one of the more memorable moments of the campaign when during the first televised debate on Virgin Media One between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders, moderator Pat Kenny asked both men had they ever tried illegal drugs.

Martin, a health fanatic who inhales green tea in industrial quantities, offered a robust negative. But Varadkar appeared bamboozled, and an excruciatingly long pause ensured until he eventually replied, “You know, I answered that question in a Hot Press interview about 12 or 13 years ago and I answered it truthfully.”

Upon further prompting from Kenny and a gleeful Martin, he muttered, “Yes … but it was obviously a long time ago.”

Uproar and headlines in some excitable quarters. But no wave of outrage gripped the public over his admission that he had smoked cannabis during his college years. And, as it turned out, the voter’s attention was already elsewhere.

Initially it seemed as if Sinn Féin was off to a rocky start when deeply offensive comments made by one of their councillors, Paddy Holohan on his podcast. The former UFC fighter said that he would prefer “a family man” to be taoiseach, questioned Leo Varadkar’s links to Ireland because of his Indian heritage.

The following day another quote emerged, as reported by Joe.ie, in which he had unleashed a grotesque barrage of misogyny, claiming there were “some f***ing scum women out there” alleging he had heard of “loads of” under-age girls pursuing men and later blackmailing them for money.

After initially accepting his apology, Mary Lou McDonald blasted his statements as “beyond offensive” and Holohan was suspended from the party pending an investigation.

The furore looked as if it had overshadowed a key policy launch by Sinn Féin highlighting the ‘pension gap’ – the lacuna between the official retirement age of 65 and the age when entitlement to the state pension kicks in at 66 – it’s due to rise to 67 next year and 68 in 2028.

But almost overnight the pension gap became a hot election issue, with disgruntled people lighting up the airwaves as the two main parties scrambled to cobble together crowd-pleasing solutions.

Sinn Féin had stolen a march on the big two – and suddenly it became clear that the party was stealing votes from them also. Two opinion polls tracked a massive surge in support, with the party pulling in voters in hitherto untrod territory, across new demographics.

As the campaign entered its final phase, the word ‘Change’ was everywhere. It was clear to an increasingly concerned Fine Gael in particular that the voters didn’t relish a third spin on the merry-go-round for the party and that they hankered for change.

But it also became clear that while Fine Gael was immersed in Brexit, it was domestic matters which had soured the national mood. People were distressed at the homeless figures breaching 10,000 souls with no roof to call their own; demoralised by the too-slow trickle of available public and affordable houses and enraged by spiralling rents.

Then there were the hospital waiting-lists and overflowing A&E departments, inadequate public transport and unhappy farmers. And it all added up to a growing sense that Fine Gael had fallen into the trap of viewing the country as an economy rather than a society.

No matter how often and loudly Fine Gael pointed to Brexit and a stable economy, it seemed to fall on dear ears. And Fianna Fáil, having wedded itself to confidence and supply, now struggled to divorce itself from Fine Gael.

It was supposed to be a Green election centred on climate change. But the change sought by the electorate was to what it perceived as a stagnant status quo. And the Green it drifted towards was the emerald of the Republican Sinn Féin.

And yet the opinion poll which placed it as the most popular party also contained a paradox – for it also identified Sinn Fein as the party that the highest number of voters do not want to see in government.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael whaled on the interlopers, pointing to what they decried as a fantasy populist manifesto crammed with spending and cuts totalling an eye-watering €22 billion over five years. And they warned that Sinn Féin’s past associations with the dark days of the Troubles were not to be dismissed lightly.

And in the dying days of the campaign, Sinn Féin’s past did rise to haunt them, in the shape of the family of 21-year old Armagh man, Paul Quinn who was savagely beaten to death in 2007.

Over the course of a tv interview and during a subsequent leader’s debate, Mary Lou McDonald became entangled in a furore over previous remarks made about Paul Quinn by Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy, now finance minister in Stormont.

The storm broke over her head and raged for several days. The dead man’s mother Breege told her harrowing tale to Sean O’Rourke. Murphy offered a public apology, but the controversy wouldn’t abate.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could only watch and wonder if the ugly events would halt the Shinner Surge. Many thought not – the younger voters, in particular, were focused on their futures rather than on the party’s past. But others reckoned the large number of still-undecideds might drift away and towards other options.

The truth is that as the polling stations open, nobody knows for sure what will happen. Nobody is sure whether the Saturday date will bring out more or fewer voters, or whether the arrival of stormy weather or the rugby international in Dublin will have a discernible effect on turnout.

And what about the 78,908 new voters who rushed to join the supplementary register in the nine days following the election being called? Whither goeth their Number Ones?

What we do know is that all around Ireland tomorrow, over 500 candidates will be holding anxious vigil as the contents of the ballot-boxes pour onto trestle-tables.

It is a magic time, that moment when every ballot is equal and every name on it, from outgoing ministers to first-time novices is at the mercy of democracy, hoping for raised thumb, and fearing a raised middle digit.

See more of Lise Hand’s columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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