#ge11 – The roadtrip analysed

I spent election day 2011 in the company of Mick Fealty from Slugger taking a roadtrip around Ireland as part of RTE’s election coverage. Here’s what we found:

As former US Senator Tip O’Neill once quipped: ‘All politics is local’. The election campaign was dominated by national issues – jobs, emigration, the economy – but what were the big concerns for voters in their local areas? On polling day, Peter Geoghegan and Mick Fealty hit the road to meet voters and find out what were the main issues in three very different constituencies: Cavan Monaghan, Roscommon South Leitrim and Carlow Kilkenny.

2011 was Ireland’s first bona fide internet election – and what better way to get the pulse of the nation than to combine new media and old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism in a cross-country Election Day road-trip. Three Facebook pages, thirty tweets, fourteen audio boos, nineteen hours and 433km later, we understood a lot more about what motivated voters in Cavan, Roscommon and Kilkenny on 25 February.

Even on polling day, Cavan was still waking up when we rolled into town just after 8am. Luckily the group of candidates, voters and activists, convened online and in person, were anything but sleepy: with unemployment and emigration rising sharply, the local economy and jobs dominated the lively Cavan meet-up.

Northern Ireland is barely 15km away; many wondered whether politicians in Dublin understood the reality of living on the border. The planned 2% hike in VAT, which could damage the already fragile job market in the constituency, was cited as evidence of the government’s failure to understand the border region’s economic needs. There are also some acid feelings about the Government’s clunky job creation strategy in the small business sector.

Next stop Roscommon – though not before lunch on the go whilst driving through Co Longford. If you think the ghost estates are a media myth, take the winding, dyspepsia-inducing road from Cavan to Longford. Here bleak, empty housing estates are all too real, and are just one reason why local people in rural Ireland did not take Fianna Fáil’s line that the country’s woes were all caused by Lehman Bros.

All politics is local – but in Ireland campaigning can even be hyper local. On the Roscommon side of Athlone, failed Fianna Fáil candidate Ivan Connaughton even had a special election poster made up for local GAA club St Brigids, who play Crossmaglen on St Patrick’s Day in the All Ireland Senior Club Championship. The importance of local issues was lost on few candidates, even if showing concern for them was no guarantee of success.

Ten years ago a road-trip around Ireland would have lots of bumpy roads, traffic jams and long journey times, but this around it was all, well, bumpy roads, traffic jams, and long journey times. Ireland’s new motorways don’t help you much if you’re traveling between Cavan, Roscommon and Kilkenny – and these poor travel times are one of the main reasons why local folk would rather be treated in a community hospital, like in Roscommon, than take their chances on the road to a centre of excellence in Galway.

With the good ship Fianna Fáil punctured well below the waterline, the best survival strategy for many candidates in General Election 2011 was to pretend you hadn’t been part of the Government. Only two out of six Fianna Fáil TDs whose patches we traveled through survived polling day. John McGuinness did so by resigning from Cowen’s cabinet, stripping out all traces of Fianna green. Don’t knock it because it seems to have worked!

The primacy of the county boundary in Ireland’s electoral system was a recurring theme. TDs are expected to fight their county’s corner in Dublin, to bring benefits back home for local voters even at the expense of the wider national interest. Leitrim, for example, was sliced in two after 1997 and now has no TDs in the 31st Dail – a fact predicted, and greatly resented, by the populous of that county. Even in prosperous Kilkenny there were complaints about public jobs going to Carlow, and dismay that the new road was simply enabling communities further to the south.

Traveling through Ireland on polling day 2011, we found a strong degree of skepticism regarding the capacity of Government to deal with the macro issues facing it. Unfortunately, many voters were equally uncertain about the possibilities of local-level issues improving in the near future, too.

Online conversations about local politics are still few and far between, those that there are tend to focus largely on national rather than local issues. However, Twitter and Facebook did enable us to organise three groups of ten to twenty people in each constituency in just three days. Thanks to these groups we learned much about the issues affecting local voters – as well as the perils of trying to drive over 400km across Ireland in a single day!

-Mick Fealty & Peter Geoghegan