Saturday 19 January 2019

Con Houlihan: The fine art of canvassing

The story has often been told and no doubt will be again. The setting is at a roadside in the fair county of Clare. The principals are Daniel O'Connell and a man breaking stones.

It is the day of an election and as The Liberator passes by, the stonebreaker says: "Mr O'Connell, how is the voting going?" And Daniel says: "No matter how the voting is going, it will be all the same to you. You will still be breaking stones."

This may have sounded a nugget of wisdom but of course it wasn't: the voting mightn't have counted for the stonebreaker but it could for his children and his grandchildren.

Among the legacies left by Charlie Haughey is an indifference to voting. This is seen mainly in the young people. They were turned away by his cynical behaviour, especially the way he ousted Jack Lynch and eased out Garrett FitzGerald. And the young people couldn't see why a man on a modest income could live like a lord and better than most lords. If you go through the non-voters in any election in recent years, you will find that most of them were young people and that most of the elderly cast their votes.

The Brains Trust haven't helped matters by the ridiculous law which prohibits election workers from being within a certain distance of the polling booths. The argument is that canvassers near the polling booths might intimidate people. The opposite is true: they help people to cast their vote.

Canvassing, as I well know, is almost soul-destroying and certainly sole-destroying. By the end of the first day you feel that you can go no further but of course you do, even though there are many more days to come. By the end of the last day, that is the day before the election, the weary foot soldiers assemble in the backroom of some congenial pub and take refuge in some anodyne such as beer or spirits and do not indulge in any celebration because they are so worried about the next day.

The day of voting was like a carnival in my local town. The women dressed in their very best and looked on the occasion as a kind of holiday. When they had cast their votes, they were fancy free and they went off to celebrate with tea and sticky buns or perhaps something stronger. The canvassers were still on duty outside the polling booths. Their day didn't end until about nine o'clock.

By this time all the boxes had been seen and the canvassers could adjourn to their favourite pub. They had done all they could -- democracy had been served. Somebody would break into a song. The tradition of Noble Call would be observed. The singer would ask somebody to succeed him and thus it went on until well after closing time.

Canvassing followed the same pattern for election after election. When you came to some houses, the woman would say: "Sure there was no need of ye to call. How we vote is well known and we haven't changed. You might as well come in. There are a few bottles left over from Christmas." And you went away sure that every vote in that house was a number one.

Then there were the houses where the woman said: "It was good of ye to call and we will do the best we can. You might as well come in and have a drop of something." You went away content that you would get number twos or number threes. Then there were those houses you knew were diehard Fianna Fail. You would be told that they were glad that you called and that you might as well have a drop of something. You went away knowing all too well that from that household you wouldn't get twos or threes or even fours.

Canvassing is a terrible business but there is one golden rule: if you don't canvass, you won't win elections. And the great thing about Proportional Representation is that people can give you their number twos or number threes without harming their own party. You could say Proportional Representation did a great deal to lessen the terrible climate bequeathed by The Civil War.

There should be a clause in our Constitution declaring that Proportional Representation is absolute and forever. Fianna Fail made two attempts to abolish it. The attempts were backed up by weird logic and thank heaven they didn't succeed. The Labour Party would be left with only a few seats. Industrial turmoil would cast the country back for generations. And I believe that every citizen should be obliged to vote. That is the rule in Australia and it works.

I might as well tell you my favourite election story. The central figure was a man called Bill Cronin. He was a hero of World War I and depended on a miserable pension and wasn't averse to gathering the odd loose ball. One day, after an election, he met a local candidate who had succeeded, a man called Champion Brosnan, and said, "Champion, I voted for you". And Champion said, "You couldn't, Bill, because I wasn't in your constituency". And Bill said, "Champion, I voted for you all the same".

Daniel O'Connell was profoundly wrong in his comment to the stonebreaker but, of course, he knew well that he was only being smart.

Fogra: It is good to learn that an Industrial Estate has been started in Farranfore -- I have sampled some delicious breakfast marmalade from there and send my best wishes. Their bravery deserves to be rewarded

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