A great man for the one-liners is our Micheál. As we prepared to quiz him about their TV encounter and Leo Varadkar’s car crash response to that illegal drug question (some cannabis in college but that was a long time ago) the Fianna Fáil leader was unexpectedly wreathed in smoke from a nearby ventilation system.
“Is that Leo?”, he murmured without missing a beat, delivering the kind of zinger that was sadly missing during the debate itself.
Officially he didn’t want to go down the road of pursuing that particular issue, although he made clear he didn’t buy into the Taoiseach’s humility project: privately he had some critical musings about the format of the encounter “half interview and half debate”.
We were in hipster heaven, in a trendy corner of Dublin South Central where Fianna Fáil’s nearly woman of four years ago, Senator Catherine Ardagh, who missed out by 35 votes, is giving it another shot.
No butcher shops or fast food merchants to wrinkle Micheál’s nose here. Stopping for a quick coffee with the candidate he had to choose between the Fumbally, where the specials were beetroot burgers and Brazilian vegetarian casserole, and the Olive (homemade green pea soup or chicken and basil pesto salad.) The Olive won out, Catherine Ardagh’s four-week-old twins, Darragh and Sean, conveniently on hand for a photo.
Dublin South East is a sprawling urban constituency, stretching from the Liffey as far as Cherry Orchard and Walkinstown in the western suburbs. The Ardagh team had chosen Blackpitts near St Patricks Cathedral to showcase their party leader.
In days gone by, Blackpitts was a byword for grimy deprivation, its name a relic of plague burials in the 14th century. Nowadays its terraces and cul-de-sacs, dotted with trendy conversions and car charging points, are home to Dublin’s young professionals.
Unfortunately, when Micheál called, they were all out, earning the dual incomes they need to support an inner city lifestyle. In Warrenmount Place, just three doors out of 20 or so opened to the Fianna Fáil team.
Eavan Keane listened politely; her West Limerick husband is an FF man but she is independent, she told Mr Martin firmly. After voicing concern about the proliferation of student accommodation she told him — without much conviction — that she would consider supporting Catherine Ardagh. It was much the same story in nearby St Michael’s Terrace: door after door remaining stubbornly closed as the team began to fret about the pace of the canvass.
Those who did engage were older residents. William O’Donnell raising the familiar subject of the pension gap, raging against the unfairness of shortchanging those who have to retire at 65. He’s worked since he was 14, has never drawn benefits; no one has ever told him what his entitlements are.
Long-time Blackpitts resident, Margaret Humphrey, was only too well aware of those benefits; she dragged Mr Martin into her spotless kitchen, laughingly insisting that he sign her social welfare form.
One younger voter was Barry Lyon, who worked for St Michael’s House and bemoaned the dearth of respite places to help older parents of children with special needs.
A gleaming BMW X5 pulled up and local restaurateur, Farhan Malik, took the Fianna Fáil leader to task about the lack of engagement with the Pakistani community; they are itching to get involved in politics he insisted, yet none the parties are reaching out.
All in all, the morning spent on the doorstep represented a microcosm of inner city Dublin: well off, time-poor couples side by side with older residents who have seen the area change out of all recognition in recent years. Then there are the new Irish, many of them, according to Mr Malik, disengaged from local politics. And of course the Fianna Fáil team didn’t venture into the canyon-like gated developments that abound in the south inner city, where canvassing is practically impossible.
It’s an electorate that’s hard to read. Most agree that it is time for a change, but demurred when it was suggested they back Fianna Fáil.
Catherine Ardagh was pipped by just a handful of votes last time out leaving Dublin South Central with three left wing seats and no Fianna Fáil representative. Her challenge in 2020 is to unseat an incumbent and fend off a possible Green challenge.
For all that, the 37-year-old solicitor should be a TD by the time she’s organising her twins’ first birthday party. There might not have been huge enthusiasm for Fianna Fáil on the Blackpitts’ doorsteps, but the desire for change that’s out there should see her across the line.