I heard Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan sounding very upbeat, in advance of the party’s Ard Fheis this weekend, on Morning Ireland today and it reminded me of this colour piece I wrote after shadowing him, while he spent a day canvassing in his Laois constituency, in advance of the 2007 election.
This was published in the Laois Nationalist, where I worked briefly, in May of that year.
DESPITE an enforced absence of five years, Charlie Flanagan decided he didn’t need an Ego Boost before re-entering Leinster House last week. He bypassed the trendy hair-dressers and strode into the aptly named clothes shop while out canvassing in Abbeyleix on Thursday.
“I’m hoping to get back into another Leinster House in a couple of weeks,” he told the proprietor, Julia Bergin. “Ah, you’ll be back alright,” she said confidently before cutting Mr Flanagan’s reverie short by adding: “Can the council do anything about those weeds outside?”
There was widespread political shock, presumably felt most sharply by Mr Flanagan, when he lost his seat in 2002. This time he is leaving no stone unturned and seems to be determined to knock on every door in Laois by May 24. He has done his homework. “We have calculated that 70% of people are out during the day and 50% at night. We are trying to visit towns and villages during the day, and I am visiting rural areas every second night. I am in Portlaoise every second evening and also on Saturdays.”
Mr Flanagan next met Anita Bonham: “My son has told me that everyone in his class is after turning to Fine Gael. They’re sick of Fianna Fáil,” she said. The Fine Gael canvassers beamed in unison until she added an addendum; that her son is 13.
Siblings Michael and Mary Dunne are definitely registered to vote and assured Mr Flanagan that he would get their number one. “Laois has definitely lost out to Offaly since 2002. It’s high time for a change,” Michael commented.
Iris Fyffe was busy serving a customer when the Fine Gael election team stormed her shop, proffering handshakes and party literature. “I lost out the last time and I’m anxious to get back in,” Mr Flanagan told her. “You’re fighting fit this time,” she called after him as he disappeared back onto the street, his loyal team of canvassers hurrying to keep up with his frenetic pace.
Out on the street Denis Rohan told Mr Flanagan that even though he thought his father, Oliver J, was “a great man” he couldn’t possibly vote for him: “That Pat Rabbitte wants to introduce abortion into Ireland. You want to go into government with him.” A baffled Mr Flanagan was momentarily lost for words before reassuring him. “I promise that if Fine Gael are in government abortion will not be introduced.” Mr Rohan did not look convinced and began speaking about the controversial “D Case” as the Fine Gael team cut their losses and moved off up the road.
Coincidentally, the next person to meet Mr Flanagan had a completely different opinion of the Labour leader. Mary White told Mr Flanagan that the only politician who cares about childcare is Pat Rabbitte: “I am involved with Jellytots, a crèche in the town. Our funding is due to run out this December. 44 children use the facility and we can’t put up our prices if our funding dries up. Childcare is a huge issue and the people in the department who are supposed to help us haven’t a bull’s notion about what they’re doing.”
Mr Flanagan told her that the right wing agenda favoured by the PDs was the reason that childcare wasn’t adequately funded. “The PDs want to privatise and deregulate everything. Market forces can divide society. We hope to be in government with Labour and if we are we will address the childcare issue as a matter of urgency.”
The next stop in the whirlwind tour of Abbeyleix was the dry cleaners where Helen Campion told the election hopeful that a good deed done by his father meant that he would be getting her all-important number one: “God, it must be 40 years ago now but I was hitching up to Dublin when your father passed in the car. He pulled over and gave me a lift. I’ve voted for Fine Gael ever since.” Although hitchhikers on the M7 are few and far between in Celtic Tiger Ireland, it seems that canny politicians should keep their eyes peeled when travelling up to the capital.
Jennifer Moran and Emma Kilbain, second-year students, were walking home at 4 o’clock clutching copies of Kiss magazine when they met Mr Flanagan and his entourage. Their date with the celebrity gossip bible was postponed as they were asked if they wanted to see a change in government. The teenagers smiled sheepishly, trying not to say the wrong thing. In the end, they muttered a quick “don’t know”, laughed nervously and looked at the ground. It would appear that election fever hasn’t quite gripped the entire nation.
Pensioner Helen Ryan smiled when she came to the door and told a delighted Mr Flanagan that: “I never voted for Fine Gael before but I will this time. We need a change.” Mr Flanagan promised that his clinic door would always be open if she ever had an issue in the future. “My main concern is equity release. Elderly people are being sucked in and ripped off. Living on a pension is tough so I looked into it but they just want to get your money. It’s a disgrace,” she said.
As the buoyed up election team walked to the next house Mr Flanagan gave some insight into the public mood at the moment: “It’s amazing. I’ve never met so many people who don’t know how they are going to vote. People are really thinking about it. In 2002 I got 12,000 second preference votes and being everyone’s second favourite is not a good place to be. People think they are doing you a favour when in actual fact it’s a vote of very little consequence.”
He then went on to list the phrases that he dreads hearing when canvassing: “You know that you’ve no hope when you hear people saying; I’ll look after you; I’ll give you a scratch; I’ll give you the nearest thing to a number one that you can get; or, I won’t do you any harm.” It may not do any physical harm, but hearing words like that from the electorate can inflict serious mental anguish.
Thankfully Trisha McKenna did not mention any of these phrases when she opened her door. She is a biker and said that VAT being applied to safety gear like helmets and leather gloves was a serious issue: “Some shops treat helmets as if they are leisure equipment and add VAT to the price. Tax should not be added to safety gear. Road safety is a huge issue at the moment and something should be done about this. If young men spend nine or ten grand on a bike, they are not going to want to pay any extra for good safety gear. It could save their lives.”
Mr Flanagan admitted he had never heard of this and said that he would look into it. It must have been a slip of the tongue when he said that he would raise the issue with the party’s finance spokesman – Brian Cowen.