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Eco warrior has impeccable green credentials

European election candidate Grace O’Sullivan in Lucky Lane, Catherine St, Limerick City with co-owner Mark Sheehan. Picture: Brian Arthur

Michael Clifford joins Grace O’Sullivan, the Green Party candidate for Ireland South in the upcoming European elections, as she takes to the campaign trail on Shannonside.

The sky is darkly ominous over the Dock Road on a May afternoon that could have been lifted from the depths of winter.

Grace O’Sullivan is going door to door with a small team of canvassers in Limerick City, yards from the entrance to Mary Immaculate College.

Ms O’Sullivan is the Green party candidate in the European Elections. Her mission is to shape the future before it is upon us. But her own past is enough to make you feel dizzy and inadequate.

She spent her 20s at sea, on board vessels manned by Greenpeace, the activist environmental body. She was a crew member of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed by French secret agents in Aukland in 1985.

The Rainbow Warrior had been due to sail to highlight French nuclear testing in the South Seas. O’Sullivan’s friend and crew mate Fernando Pereira died in the bombing.

Later, she was detained by the French in the Antartica and deported back to Ireland. Her mother told her she’d done her bit but it was too late to stop then. She went on to win the first female surfing championship in Ireland.

Along the way she also raised three daughters. While some politicians cut their teeth arranging to have potholes filled, she was busy taking on nuclear powers and saving various breeds of penguins way down south.

Today, though, she just wants your vote if you’re at home at all. She is going door-to-door with the party’s local election candidate Brendan MaGabhann, which, in Euro election terms, is a bit like going on safari.

A canvasser rings a bell and a dog on the other side of the door responds in anger. No humans within glued to Daithi and Maura. Next door there isn’t even a pet to answer the knock. And on it goes at another three abodes until a woman of late middle age opens up.

What ails you ma’am that can be sorted out by a member of the European Parliament? “No issues really,” she says. “Other than the plastics. It’s frightening, just terrifying.”

Pollution by plastic? Grace’s ears prick up and she’s off explaining all she has done in Seanad Éireann to address this scourge. The woman nods and looks down at the election literature she had been handed. She’ll certainly keep it all in mind, she says.

Another door is answered by a man barely out of his teens who looks like he’s just got out of bed. “I haven’t given it much thought,” he says of the pending election.

Grace asks whether he was among the climate protesters, the young cohort who have been demanding action on climate change. Doesn’t ring a bell. He is polite but unengaged with what he might be facing into in late middle age when the planet is scheduled to take off for hell in a handbasket.

The Green party is calling this the climate change election. They believe they can make huge gains on the heightened awareness of the planet’s fragile health. Logic would agree that proposition but politics might not.

The climate/environment issue is such that it demands prioritising the long term and the global over the short term and the local. 

Can the electorate handle tomorrow’s truths handed down from science? Or will voters incline more towards an Augustinian response of “make us really green Lord, but just not yet”.

Grace O’Sullivan is running in a crowded field in the Ireland South constituency but you’d get a bit of value on a bet on her to emerge as an MEP (7/2 with Paddy Power). Four of the candidates are odds on for a seat, including Billy Kelleher (FF), Sean Kelly and Deirdre Clune (FG) and Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ni Riada.

Brexit has gifted the constituency an extra seat so it’s all to play for. But with the heightened sentiment about the planet, surely the Greens should be waltzing past the post in this second order election. Not so.

One item of carry-on baggage for the party is its brief stint in government as the walls of an economic crisis came tumbling down. O’Sullivan, who ran first for Europe in 2014, wears that baggage lightly.

“Five years ago the party having been in government was an issue,” she says.

You might get a very small reaction about that now but it’s far less. People recognise that climate change supersedes any issues people might have about the time the Green party was in government.

She came to the party late, just before the 2014 European elections. “I got a call from Eamon Ryan asking me to run ,” she says. “I’d never been a member of any political party,” she says.

Her history had been in activism rather than politics. After the 2016 general election she ran for the Seanad and was elected on the agricultural panel.

At another door a young woman tells the candidate it’s her first time voting. Grace cranks up the hard sell. The young girl’s father ambles down the path to the front door. “Oh the Greens,” he said. “We’ll look after the Greens.”

He points to the young woman. “She’s a first-time voter. You’re guaranteed my vote but you can work on her.”

Grace goes to work. She reminds the young woman, as she does each person she encounters, that Limerick does not have skin in this dog fight.

“You know that there’s no Limerick person running in this election,” she says.

Grace is only over the road in Tramore, Co Waterford, and what with the Greens having an appeal without borders, isn’t she the perfect candidate to look out for the Treaty city. (No doubt all the candidates have stock tales about how their respective grandfathers once had a few pints with a Limerick man and the bond with the city has remained strong since).

Sustainability is the word that informs O’Sullivan’s main pitch. Whereas everybody is now tuned into the planet, the Greens claim to be the ones who are actually focused on it.

“We’re trying to build trust that the Greens can and will deliver. The issues in this election are core issues for us. Social justice, fairness and equality. Look at the farmers, for instance, they are being very badly treated on price for their produce. I want to right that. The whole issue of peace and disarmament.

“I’m a believer in change,” she says. 

I have seen in my own life and work where actions can change practices and there are a lot of positive things that can be done in Europe for how we live.

After the canvas, it’s onto O’Connell Street in the city to the premises of Narrative 4, a not-for-profit organisation that works with young people. There is an attendance of around 30 to hear O’Sullivan and the four Green party candidates for the local council give their pitch.

Then she shows a slide show of her backstory, and how she got from Tramore to the Antartica and all the way back. This has been part of her pitch in the various population centres across the sprawling constituency. It’s a compelling narrative told in a manner that highlights her humility, passion and steel.

She is straight up about how she had to immerse herself in an alien culture when she entered politics.

“It was easier for me to climb on the chain of a Russian nuclear warhead than to walk into Leinster House,” she said.

“I had grown into Greenpeace and then I had to grow into politics and learn. It was like having to stand up in school and present yourself.”

In other hands, the story might come across as egotistical or self congatulatary, but O’Sullivan relates her experience like somebody attending a job interview. As an apprenticeship for entering politics in today’s world, it would be difficult to better it.

But apprentices don’t win elections. If O’Sullivan is to succeed this time she will need to seriously up her game. In 2014, she came in ninth with 4.2% of the first preference vote.

In opinion polls she is running at around 5%. In order to remain standing at the later counts she will have to hoover up a serious cohort of preference votes. Her party is very transfer friendly, but it will be an uphill struggle.

O’Sullivan has been in bigger battles. When you’ve had secret service agents bombing your sea-borne home, wrestling for the last seat with Mick Wallace might seem like a stroll in an eco-friendly park.

On a wider level, the fate of this warrior on polling day may provide a hint as to whether the heightened awareness about green issues can be translated into votes.

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