Richard Boyd Barrett: Voice for change, and an outlet for disillusion

Richard Boyd Barrett at last week's leaders' debate.

Richard Boyd Barrett steps up on the plinth and takes the microphone. The amplifier is next to him, balanced on a rubbish bin which also bears an advert for a 1916 event.

The crowd of 40 or so press forward. They are gathered here outside St Michael’s Church, in the heart of downtown Dun Laoighre on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. Most of the assembled are holding small placards, bearing rainbow colours and inscribed statements about saving the community. One man wears a native American headdress.

They have come here to protest at the withdrawal of funding for a long-standing youth project, Oasis, which works with deflecting young people from drug use.

Boyd Barrett is in his element. The general election may be in full swing, but he has allotted time to lend himself to this protest. There are precious few votes in it as most, if not all,of the gathering would already have decided to give him a number one. But this is his bailiwick, leading a protest, championing a cause, hitting out at faceless officials who have taken a heartless decision.

“The reason we are here today is to ring alarm bells about a nasty set of cuts,” he tells the crowd.

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He goes on to point out that the fate of the Oasis project is symptomatic of a wider malaise.

“We need a more equal society. When you talk to most people they do want a fair society, a different way of doing things.”

Dun Laoighre is in the heart of south Dublin, which is the cockpit of the nascent recovery, yet its hinterland contains pockets of deprivation that still feel the worst effects of the recession.

People Before Profit Alliance’s Richard Boyd Barrett listens to Christy Hendy from St Brigid’s Park in Cornelscourt, Dublin 18. Boyd Barrett looks set to be returned to the Dáil comfortably. Picture: Steve Humphreys/Irish Independent
People Before Profit Alliance’s Richard Boyd Barrett listens to Christy Hendy from St Brigid’s Park in Cornelscourt, Dublin 18. Boyd Barrett looks set to be returned to the Dáil comfortably. Picture: Steve Humphreys/Irish Independent

Those pockets are the socio-economic electoral heartland for most candidates in Boyd Barrett’s People Before Profit. But the man himself has appeal right across the social spectrum. After 20 years of activism, and with the revelation in 2007 that his birth mother was Sinead Cusack, he has acquired celebrity wattage in south Dublin.

His middle-class background and amiable personality render him completely unthreatening to those who might fear their positions would be under threat from radical politics. They mightn’t like to see him running the country, but there is admiration for his idealism, which has increased after his performance on the leaders’ debate last week. A fundraising event for his campaign two weeks ago involved a performance by Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott.

Five minutes after Boyd Barrett begins his speech, Mass-goers begin spilling out of St Michael’s. A few drift over to the protest. One middle-aged man who has emerged from the church nods approvingly at what he hears. What does he think of the man with the mic?

“You’d need a person like that to hold people to account,” John Devine says.

“I’d vote for him because of that. He’s a bit like Bernie Sanders,” he says, referencing the quasi-socialist candidate for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in the USA.

“I hope everybody is committed to the fight,” Boyd Barrett’s booms, his voice thickening with emotion as he goes on. “Say yes if you are!”

“Yes,” the gathering responds in unison.

“We’ll walk down to the People’s Park and back up again,” he says.

And with that, off they go, marching down George’s St, a relatively prosperous main street in a town in south Dublin.

One female garda is on hand to marshal the protest march. Onlookers gape with some bemusement at the procession.

“They say cutback, we say fightback,” they chant.

Trailing the protest is a solitary figure who identifies himself as Cathal Ó Súilliobháin, a medical doctor who works in the drugs area.

“There’s a myth that the drugs problem is confined to deprived areas,” he says. “That’s not so.”

As for the man leading the march, he opines: “He seems to be a sensible sort of fella. What I’m trying to figure out at this point is what to do with my number two.”

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At that, Dr Ó Súilliobháin spots a car and says “there’s my ride” and breaks away from the protest.

Having walked down one side of the street, the protest turns and marches up the other. Bemused faces look out from the smattering of cafes on George’s St. The women in a hair studio come to the window to observe the spectacle.

The whole street is festooned with election posters. Most candidates just stare out with nice shining faces, but Boyd Barrett’s shows him with a microphone gripped in his hand, ready to voice his next protest.

When the protest arrives back at the starting point, the mic is handed over to Dave Hennessy who works in the Oasis project. He goes through what has happened and then turns to the man of the hour: “Getting Richie on board has been amazing. Everybody should give him a round of applause.” And the gathering does just that.

Brian Meaghar has joined the gathering. He is from Cork but has been living locally for decades.

“I would have been a floating voter, probably voted either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael for most of my life but for the last 10 years I’m leaning towards fairness,” he says. “I’ll give him my number one.”

There is no doubting Boyd Barrett’s sincerity. Neither is there much question but that he will be returned to the Dáil, probably quite comfortably. He has a wide base of appeal. For some, he represents the voice of change. For others, it would seem, he is an acceptable outlet for disillusion with mainstream politics. In all likelihood, he will never be in a position to exercise executive power, but wherever he perceives injustice he will be the first to reach for a mic.

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