Debauchery and depravity in Dublin
The drunk and the powerful came together, they came with their wives and their fans, they slapped backs and winked at each other for they knew what so many had denied for so long – that Fianna Fail was going to win the 2007 general election. They gathered in groups of two and three, these Fianna Failers, and they had many things in common.
The men had a look about them. They’d made an effort, scrubbed up well, shaved with a new razor and made sure their shirt was washed and ironed. They were middle aged, 40 or 50, and had the distinct appearance of Irishmen; faintly flushed red faces, cheeky puppy fat straying over the waistline and a strut, an air, a palpable confidence that found much of its vibrancy in the releasing of some major anxiety. They had been written off, their failures were well known, they looked washed up and worn out and distinctly past it but they recovered. Rope a dope. Just when you thought they were out, they pulled themselves back in.
In the count centre in Dublin West – a sports hall with sports hall floors, sports hall walls and sports hall stuffiness – they were giving oxygen to the old timer. This old Fianna Fail fox, the one you thought was beaten, had a new tune for us all to hear. It was the only show in town, they sang. The chorus called out that they and they alone were to be trusted. And the sight of Brian Lenihan tearing past the quota on the first count was a guitar solo that the great Jimi Hendrix himself would have thought igloo cool.
Lenihan’s victory had never been in doubt. When I arrived late morning he looked assured. He jumped every fence and won at a canter. But in his dust lay some Trojan mares. The newcomer, Leo Varadkar from Fine Gael. The lady of some class and genuine tenderness, Joan Burton of Labour. And the tough old orator, the man they want to label but can’t hold down, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party.
They trampled all over the competition. Mags Murray of the PDs got 500 votes and a pat on the head: Mags Murray in the Dail – no thanks! Roderic O’Gorman of the Greens, with his fresher than organic parsley face and his clunkier than tonycascarino name (why not Roddy?) could never make much of a mark in an area dominated by voters who value down to earth people rather than politics. Felix Gallagher of Sinn Fein came nowhere and really didn’t lay a glove on the main contenders. Gerry Lynam, the number two Fianna Fail man, did what was expected – ate into Higgins’ vote and claimed Lenihan’s surplus. It must be funny being the number two – there were rosettes for Brian Lenihan and stickers for Gerry Lynam.
For Fianna Fail and Fine Gael there were no young people and no accents you would recognise as Dublin born and bred. There were young people for Greens, Labour, SF and Socialist parties. For the PDs there was just Mags God love her.
Varadkar looked confident. He led the race and was close to the quota. Fianna Fail and Labour whispered about him. Where does he get his money. How much has he spent. How did he afford those posters on bustops. If Fianna Fail were jealous, Labour sounded frustrated. Varadkar came from nowhere, he’s a doctor with a weedy voice and an easy affable manner, but who is he? What’s he about? What does he represent? Beside Burton and Higgins he looked like a nobody. But he’s a somebody, he certainly is, whether people like it or not, he represents thousands of people – reliable, genuine, nice, of good stock, all these things a father looks for when a daughter brings her boyfriend home – Varadkar has them.
He also has a Dail seat, he took it in a constituency where the weak are swallowed without need for chewing. There are some serious operators out here. We get the government we deserve? In Dublin West we feel pretty good about ourselves on that basis. Or we did until Leo took Joes seat.
Joe was gutted, really shaken. He came to the count centre with his mother. He stood all day with supporters, rifling through the numbers. He slapped no backs and didn’t laugh to catch attention. He’s not on first name terms with the wheelers and dealers of the other parties. He’s his own man, a serious man, but he looked rattled when he saw the figures that pointed to Burton taking the last seat.
When Varadkar won and Burton won there were huge cheers but with those announcements came the death notice for Joe Higgins TD. The man who got up Bertie’s nose more than the media and the tribunals put together – he made him crack, and it’s rare to get a rise our of this most calm and composed Taoiseach. Joe Higgins did a number of remarkable things for a man whose party had one seat in the Dail. Who in the opposition parties could match him for intellect, decency, sincerity, wit and principle? The truth is we need more Joes. We don’t need more Leos. Everybody knew it. Everybody said they’d miss Joe. Celebrations were muted by his loss. It seemed rather tasteless for people of the Left – if that’s what Labour are – to celebrate the loss of the purest expression of their ideals.
Those who voted, who came out and did the business for Fianna Fail, they won’t miss him. He’s everything they fear. They are conservative, that is the nature of the people who vote in this country – that is clear. Joe will be back, Dublin West is due another seat. But his extreme views of social solidity send shivers through those who vote Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Not only does he represent equality – for them he represents inequality; they would have to give up more than the average earner for his ideas – and that’s never going to happen. It’s hard to see how things will ever be much different in Ireland. But at least he keeps trying. The struggle in itself to reach the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.