30 April 2009 Edition
THE JULIA CARNEY COLUMN
Voting for the dinner party
I WAS having dinner with my friend Ruth last week. Ruth and I were at school together and, despite having little in common, have stayed in touch. It’s one of those relationships you’re almost surprised has lasted as long as it did while what you’d thought were firmer friendships had drifted apart.
Anyway, last week out of nowhere Ruth explodes into a tirade about Fianna Fáil. She’d heard something on the radio in the taxi on the way over and she really laid into them. Swear words were used. Unflattering comments on physical appearance were made and a general plague on the house of Fianna Fáil was the running theme.
All great stuff. I just sat there waiting to plug the Shinners, chuckling at the notion of Willie O’Dea being physically able to do that and, when she’d paused for breath, I asked a fairly straightforward question.
“So, assuming you’re not voting for them in the elections, who are you going to vote for?”
She made a face. “I don’t know,” she eventually admitted. “To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to vote at all. I really don’t see the point. They’re all the same really.”
I nodded quietly and then did the only thing I could do. I broke the side of my wine glass against the side of the table, clutched the broken stem in my fist and threw myself across the lasagne with murder in my eyes.
I UNDERSTAND, from talking to Sinn Féin and Labour canvassers it’s a bit of a recurring theme. Not the biggest, or even one of the bigger, but every now and again the door being answered by a woman (they’re generally women) who just looks depressed when she sees a canvasser. “It’s the face,” a Shinner said to me, “of someone who’s been beaten on so many times they’ve just given up. They just feel they can’t vote again.”
The men tend to have a different reaction: a kind of winking, grinning, “Sure, I know you’re all the same and it’s just a game and amn’t I the cunning one for figuring it out?” kind of thing. “You won’t be catching me out voting. I’m wise to the trickery, me.”
More than a million registered voters didn’t vote in 2007. That’s more than actually did vote for Fianna Fáil by a couple of hundred thousand. It’s more than double as many as voted for Sinn Féin, Labour and the Greens combined.
Looking at the 2006 Census figures, and assuming no one anywhere is registered twice (a fairly big assumption, I grant you), there’s at least another hundred thousand men and women not registered to vote. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t twice that.
I know two of them. My brother and his partner have never registered to vote and have no real desire to do so. They’re a young couple who have just bought a house and my brother is having serious difficulties with his employer. They’re having trouble with the mortgage. So, of course, politics is absolutely irrevelant to them.
OF COURSE, I didn’t attack Ruth. For one thing, she was taking me out to dinner and I figured brutally stabbing her to death would see me saddled with the bill. Instead, once the momentary rage had passed I answered it the same way I always answer this kind of statement.
“So, you’re voting Fianna Fáil then?”
Ruth paused. “Ahh, no, hello...!” (Yeah, she does that.) “Were you listening to me? Not a chance.”
“Well, they’re in power, what they’re most scared of is people voting them out of power, and by staying at home and not voting for their opponents you’re a source of relief to them because even if you’re not with them, at least you’re not against them,” I pointed out.
I’m not sure if it worked. But here’s the thing: the overwhelming majority of people who don’t vote are the kind most open to Sinn Féin politics. The people who were left behind by the economic boom and are convinced the Celtic Tiger is an inside joke they just don’t get. In a way, I suppose it is.
And we need to find a way to get them to the polls. Not just to vote for us, but to vote for themselves. To take their country and their community back. We need to find a way to make politics relevant to people again, to make them realise they can have an impact, they can bring about change.
It might be a truth so obvious that Americans put it on bumper stickers: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” And right now, it’s the wrong way round.