In February last I heard that Ger South of Limerick Parents’ and Friends was setting up a group of Independent candidates to contest the General Election on health issues, to include Disability, Carers, Elderly, waiting lists and accountability.
I thought, ‘Gosh, I’d love to be part of that!’ Little did I know what I was letting myself in for, or what it would involve! Following two meetings in Limerick, the Independents Health Alliance was formed. It was made up of eight candidates, most of whom came from a disability-related background and contested the election in eight constituencies.
I learned an amazing amount during the campaign. As an Independent candidate the process involved in being nominated is more difficult than if one is a member of a political party.
- Once the election is called, collect nomination form from Returning Officer on Aran Quay and lodge form with South Dublin County Council.
- Ask 30 family, friends and neighbours within one’s constituency and also on register of electors to go to South Dublin County Council with photographic identity and sign nomination form within five days of election being called.
- Collect signed nomination form and present it personally to Returning Officer with two colour photos within seven days of election being called.
- ‘Independent’ cannot be on the ballot paper; ‘Non-party’ is the allowed term.
(As a member of a political party all one needs is a certificate of membership and none of the above.)
An independent candidate is not allowed media coverage. Media time is based on how well one has done in the previous election. Therefore Fianna Fáil gets 40%, then Fine Gael and so on and ALL sitting independent candidates get about 5% between them. So a first-time candidate gets no media
coverage. (And they say this is a democracy!)
Even though we were an Alliance, this was in name only as we were all independent candidates who had to fund our own individual campaigns. I asked one of my closest friends, Mary Macadam to be my election agent and she agreed, and what a great election agent she was. Ciaran Goulding (who contested the election in Dublin North) was also a tremendous help. He advised me on posters, leaflets and the election communication leaflet (delivered by An Post to everybody in my constituency on the register). He was always at the end of the phone with advice, ideas or a sympathetic ear.
From an environmental point of view, I was not keen on posters, but I was advised that I had to get my face known and the photo on the posters was the same photo as on the ballot paper. Sixty posters were all I got printed, but after the election only 24 posters were still up. Somebody obviously saw me as a threat and took down my posters during the campaign. I have my ideas on who was to blame. Even the poster at my own housing estate was removed within 24 hours.
Once it was known that I was running in the election, friends and colleagues and people I did not know came forward and said they would help me, some for leaflet drops and others for canvassing. This was a daunting prospect for all of us! Funding should have been a great problem, but I felt in the scheme of things it was the least thing I had to worry about. Family, friends and colleagues were very kind. I did not have a fundraiser, as I have been on fundraising committees in the past and know that there is very little reward from a lot of hard work. I also felt that I did not have the time to put into organising an event and that my time was better spent canvassing.
There are over 92,000 electors in Dublin South and I knew that in three weeks we were not going to get to meet all of them. We concentrated on shopping centres during the day, Masses on Sunday, and door-to-door calls in the evenings.
There was a great buzz to the canvassing. For three solid weeks I was full of adrenaline and enjoyed talking to weird and wonderful people. Most people were lovely to talk to and interested in what I had to say and why I was contesting the election. A small number of people were quite rude, but luckily they were in the minority. Mary MacAodha used to worry whether we were canvassing in the right places—we met the other candidates, all of them returning TD’s, wherever we went, so we must have been getting it right.
I didn’t sleep throughout the campaign and if I did, I canvassed every home in the constituency in my dreams!
Polling day was probably the hardest day of the whole campaign. I could only vote that day and do no more. All the hard work was done and all I could do was wait. The following morning was very difficult. I kept thinking, ‘What have I done? Am I going to make a fool of myself today?’ I was at the polling station at 9am to see the ballot boxes being opened. I found the day fascinating—the counting of ballot papers, and the tallying of votes. By 11.30am I knew how I had done, as all the boxes had been opened and the tallymen are never far out. I received over 2000 first preferences.
The whole experience was fascinating and a huge learning curve for all of us. I just wonder how I would have done if I had had five years to prepare, 100 people to canvass with me and sufficient funding to run a professional party-like campaign?
The mayhem is over now. I did not win a seat. As I write it is one month on from election day and the fatigue has yet to leave my body. Hardly surprising since I cannot recall having expended so much energy and adrenaline on anything. Regrets? None. It has been an enriching learning experience and opened my eyes to so many home truths which are both fascinating and regrettable at the same time. I went into the election full of hope that I could act as the voice of the unheard disabled people who have been treated as second-class citizens for decades. I felt privileged to be part of the democratic process which would finally allow a neglected voice to be heard.
The election was historic in that so many candidates stood on the issues of health and rights for disabled people. It was also historic in that, for the first time, people with disabilities signed the register to affirm the candidacy of a number of independent candidates. Many people with disabilities joined the hustings. I was delighted to be one of the eight members of the Independents Health Alliance participating in this initiative. The intention was for the issues of health and disability to be at the forefront of the campaign, and not the personality. I assumed that organisations representing disabled people would rally around and I, along with the others, would be swept on a tide of their support to victory. After all, 10% of the population have a disability. With the support of their friends, relatives and neighbours I could not fail. I also anticipated unqualified support from all those employed in the disability industry.
How naive I was. The support from across the spectrum of disability organisations was virtually non-existent. It seems that many of the families who are fortunate enough to be receiving adequate support services see no reason to advocate on behalf of those who have none. But as long as disabled people have no right to a service, anybody could be left at home at any time. Those victims of the state who are languishing in the back wards of psychiatric facilities all over Ireland used to have families who probably felt similarly secure at one time. Sadly for them, their parents died before they could see them settled into appropriate residential care.
I am not personally disappointed. Seeking election was never a career move for me, rather it was an attempt to make a stand for those who are being left behind and without a voice. I am disappointed for the marvelous people who did come out to support my campaign-the usual few faces who give their time and energy in support of the plight of all disabled people and not just their own family member. If it were not for these incredible people most would not be enjoying the services in existence today. I am also disappointed for those who must remain on waiting lists as Ireland continues to base its services to disabled people on grace and favour. And I am most disappointed for those who will continue to be treated like animals in institutional care. But the people have spoken. More especially, the disability community has spoken. We have only ourselves to blame.