2 June 2005 Edition

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The numbers game

The next major electoral challenge for Sinn Féin, excluding the EU Constitution referendum, will probably be the general election in the 26 Counties. JOANNE CORCORAN recently attended a selection convention in Dublin Northeast to gauge the mood of party activists.

Most of the candidate selection conventions I've attended in the past have been fairly routine affairs. A cumann rents a local venue for a night, a guest speaker is invited, a candidate is selected and praise is heaped on him/her, then it's into the bar for a drink to celebrate and to plan for the forthcoming election. I didn't expect last Wednesday's selection convention in Dublin Northeast to be any different, but I was pleasantly surprised.

For a start, the venue was no ordinary meeting room. Dublin Northeast must have chosen the largest room available in Raheny's Sheiling Hotel, and to be honest, I didn't think they'd fill it. But Brendan Ó Caoláin of the Cole/Colley Cumann in Artane told me they were expecting a large crowd as he assembled some fancy looking computer equipment at the top of the room.

My scepticism did prove to be unfounded as more and more people began to take their seats in the hall. As it turned out, Dublin Northeast now comprises three cumainn, two of which managed to get poll-topping councillors Larry O'Toole (Artane) and Killian Forde (Donaghmede) elected in the locals last year. Pulling off such a coup and raising the Sinn Féin vote in, of all places, the very conservative third part of the constituency, Howth, requires a large activist base, and it was out in force that night.

A4 size maps of the electoral layout of the constituency were handed around the hall. The top table began to fill up.

Former An Phoblacht editor and now Leinster House co-ordinator Mícheál Mac Donncha, Killian Forde, Howth representative Bernie Quinn, Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald and newly-elected MP for Newry/Armagh Conor Murphy, all took their places.

The decision as to who was going to take on the next general election for the area had obviously already been thrashed out. Larry O'Toole, a name known by all republicans for his crucial role in the defeat of Section 31 censorship in the early '90s, was to stand. Having begun my Sinn Féin involvement as Larry's PRO, I thought I knew the man's history, but some of the tributes paid to him were news to me.

For example, I didn't know that he'd gotten involved as early as 1984, that this was his eighth election, or that in the course of his victory in the locals last year he garnered the second highest number of first preferences for an individual candidate in the state. I also didn't know that when he ran for the European elections in Dublin in 1994, he recorded the lowest vote ever for the party in the city (he provided this little gem of information himself). His election to Dublin City Council in 1999 finally put the nail in that embarrassing coffin.

What interested me most on the night was not the many plaudits awarded to Larry — anyone who knows him knows what a genuinely funny, generous, intelligent, remarkable man he is. It was the deadly seriousness with which those present were talking about taking a Dáil seat that caught my attention.

For so long, Dublin Northeast was dominated by a conservative vote — it was, after all, Conor Cruise O'Brien's constituency.

Vast swathes of the area contained some of the most working-class estates in Dublin — Darndale and Belcamp, Coolock, Kilbarrack. Neglected and uninspired by local politicians, very few people in these areas chose to vote in elections.

I stood at the RDS general election count in 2002 when the tellers emptied the Darndale box, the area in which Larry lives and where, to use a cliché, everyone knows his name. Along with the handful of votes that spilled out came some tumbleweed. It was a bitter blow to Larry — every vote had his name on it, but what should have been his core base hadn't come out in the numbers expected. I felt my own bitterness. Late the previous night we had ended our election day operation in Darndale, soaked to the bone from the lashings of rain, cold, hungry, tired, and had been told by most people "we voted earlier".

Larry still managed to put in a serious show in the 2002 election, and his performance in last year's local's was nothing short of outstanding. I guess, having left the cumann late in 2002, I didn't know enough about what was happening in the area to be prepared for Wednesday night's meeting.

Following the generals, Larry's cumann had gone back to the drawing board. Canvassing began again at once in areas like Darndale. People were amazed to see a local politician back so soon. And it became apparent very quickly that the new TDs for the area had as little interest as ever in the people who had elected them.

By the time the locals came around last year, a lot of hard work meant that this time, the Darndale box was not empty.

Míchéal Mac Donncha kicked off the evening by talking about how Dublin Northeast is now a priority seat for the whole country. He and Brendan went through a very impressive computer display of stats, which, to my uninformed eye, had Larry taking the seat at every possible outcome. It was all a numbers game. His massive 58% support in Artane would, unfortunately, be curtailed because of general election boundaries, but he would be picking up an incredible amount of votes in Donaghmede, where Killian has built up his poll-topping base. Even in Howth the sliver of green had grown.

I was thinking up my headline for the general election paper, when Mícheal brought me back to reality.

"There will be four parties contesting three seats," he said. "This contest will be bitterly fought. Larry can do it, but it won't be easy."

Conor Murphy also added some pragmatism, reminding us that the Dublin Government actively started its campaign against Sinn Féin for the next generals as early as last December.

"There's no doubt that it's the Dublin Government that's the driving force behind the campaign of vilification and slurs currently aimed at our party," he said. "It decided before the EU elections that the Peace Process could be advantageous to us, and has been putting the brakes on it ever since. And its current strategy was definitely launched with a view to the next general elections and potential Sinn Féin success."

Murphy was right, of course. Bertie and Co aren't just worried about Sinn Féin taking ten or 20 seats in 2007. They're worried about us holding the balance of power.

"They may start attacking individual candidates they see as a threat," Murphy added, sending a shot across everyone's bow.

But sensing that his audience was fully confident of Larry taking the seat, Murphy ended on a positive note.

"I'm looking forward to the day when we're sitting in Leinster House together," he twinkled.

All this had opened my eyes. I already knew we'd be approaching the next general election with a view to increasing our representation in Leinster House.

That we could be looking at some of that increase coming from the likes of Dublin Northeast, I found astounding — and very, very exciting.

Killian Forde finished the night on the best one-liner I've heard in a while.

"I just want to say that Larry will do it," he offered. "And if anyone starts personally attacking him, my advice is, just shave it off."


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