Childers: "I’ve always represented the people not being heard"

The past is a different country for Nessa Childers.

Childers: "I’ve always represented the people not being heard"

Her past includes a father who was president of Ireland, and a grandfather who died for Ireland at the hands of a firing squad, but those are matters of pride rather than sensitivity.

It’s her own political past that is the touchy subject. She is running as an Independent for the European parliament, having jumped ship from the Labour Party, on whose ticket she was first elected in 2009. Before that, she was councillor for the Greens, but leaped from their decks to join Labour in 2008, a few weeks before she was selected by the latter to stand for Europe. Ms Childers is fed up with journalists traipsing over her past.

“I have come to the end of my tolerance being asked that,” she says, of questions about her political promiscuity. “Are you asking Eamon Gilmore that?”

The reference is to Mr Gilmore’s past in Democratic Left and the various entities that preceded his passage into Labour.

She has a point.

“I have the same values as I’ve had since my 20s,” she says. And then the statement that has become a mantra for those who have removed themselves from Labour since the party went into government: “Labour left me, not the other way around.”

Nobody who engages with Ms Childers outside SuperValu in Lucan mentions her past. Most politely accept the campaign leaflets she and her team are handing out.

One woman looks at the proffered leaflet as if it was contaminated, but backtracks when she hears Ms Childers’ name, and promptly took one.

A man of middle age and wiry frame emerges from the centre, takes the leaflet, has a quick sconce, and hands it back.

Nessa says she loves doing SuperValus, as they contrast with an impersonal location like the Dundrum town centre. “People will stop at places like this and engage with you,” she says. She’s good at engaging.

The campaign manager is Bronwen Maher, a refugee from the Green Party, which she represented as a councillor in Dublin. They have a small operation, two teams of four, supplemented by “Glenna and Tom”, as in businesswoman Glenna Lynch, and media figure and former soldier Tom Clonan, both of whom are nominated as substitutes for Ms Childers.

She is the only elected MEP running in Dublin this time around, although she was elected in the old East constituency, which has now been carved up into the two remaining constituencies outside Dublin.

Why didn’t she opt for the South, where it would seem she might have a better shout? “I did research which showed that if I stood, I would have been at over 25% in the northern part of the South constituency, but it would have been too much in terms of resources,” she says. “There are 10 counties there.”

Instead, she moves around Dublin, canvassing shopping centres and attending election events convened by NGOs. While her Independent status means that she doesn’t have recourse to a party machine, her brand is the market leader in this election. A large chunk of an electorate grown weary of taxes and cuts appears to be avoiding the main parties, all of which have served in government since the inception of the crisis.

A woman who declines a leaflet says she is from Galway. Bronwen urges her to give a nod to Independents there, name-checking Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan.

“I will never, ever be in another political party,” says Ms Childers, asserting her loyalty to her independent status. “I couldn’t face going into my dotage having made a Faustian pact with the Labour party.” Of course, being independent means you can feel the electorate’s pain and promise the world and never have to take on the responsibility for governing. Ms Childers rejects any notion that she is having her cake and eating it.

A woman who identifies herself as Bernie Goldsbury approaches and inquires whether the ECB has hiked up interest rates, because her mortgage payments have gone up. Nessa isn’t sure.

Ms Goldsbury says she will vote for Ms Childers. Bronwen asks her to write down her phone number, and she will be contacted.

The incident highlights the blurring of lines between national and European politics.

A man approaches and asks a question that is startling by Irish political standards.

“What are your policies?”

Ms Childers doesn’t miss a beat and begins listing off her priorities.

“What about public health,” he asks, before identifying himself as Kenneth Hickey.

Ms Childers reels off all she has done and emphasises that she is a psychotherapist with 20 years’ experience.

Will Mr Hickey consider her? “Oh yes, I’m interested in public health and politicians who have real-life experience as she has in psychotherapy.”

Ms Childers has a real chance of taking a seat. She has profile and name recognition, and is surfing a wave of popularity for Independents. The political trajectory down through two or three generations of her family provides an interesting parallel with national politics. Her grandfather Erskine was executed in the Civil War, his demise owing as much to the hatred generated by that conflict as any specific transgression.

Moving on from the days of self-sacrifice, her father, also Erskine, was prominent in Dev’s Fianna Fáil, an entity that saw itself as the spirit of the nation. Now, in the wake of unprecedented peacetime political upheaval, her candidacy represents loss of faith in the main parties, a drift towards individual representatives.

Some minutes after departing, Mr Hickey reappears with a gift. He passes Ms Childers a bottle of water to protect her through the muggy May afternoon.

She is both grateful and chuffed.

“There is a straw breaking the camel’s back,” she says.

“People are not being heard. I consider that I have always represented those people.”

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