Dick Spring sent another long, late-night email from New Zealand to his nephew on Monday night. After the rudimentary reminders about local constituency generals, he signed off with a line of vintage, scrapping Spring: Just remember this is always worth fighting for.
The former Labour leader and tánaiste’s absence this past week from Arthur J Spring’s against-the-wind attempt to preserve the family and party’s relevance in Kerry has been seized upon as evidence Dick bailed when he saw the writing on the wall. The truth isn’t so juicy. Dick’s only daughter, Laura, gave birth to his first grandchild, a girl, recently on the south island in New Zealand. Nature doesn’t understand the clock rhythms of the body politic.
Arthur, 39, says he retains a “natural disposition towards positivity” which might help sustain him through an excruciating few days ahead. A Labour seat held for all but nine of the last 73 years, since 1943 when his grandfather Dan Spring was first elected to Leinster House, is at best hanging in the balance, and in all probability will be lost. The Spring Tides and the Gilmore Gales of elections past now conspire against the junior government partner, and were it not for the Spring tradition and MR Spring’s grim faith, party voters in Kerry might have already sought the sanctuary of the political shoreline.
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Buffeted by the Hollywood couple that is the Healy-Raes, and the latent support for the Fianna Fáil candidate, John Brassil, Spring is the odd man out in most pundit calculations for the newly configured five-seater.
Naturally, Spring’s maths deliver a different set of figures and conclusions, and he is correct in saying the uncharted territories, not to mention the 22,000 first preferences delivered in 2011 to candidates not running this time, puts the fourth and fifth seats in play. Also Spring, son of the Tralee doctor and golf-course designer of the same name, has lingered around enough tally counts and box openings in Tralee to know a Spring was never elected easy by people of North Kerry.
The gaunt expression in the Ashe Memorial Hall count centre on Dick’s face in 1987 when he held his seat by four votes, edging out Tom McEllistrim of Fianna Fáil, was only marginally greyer than the bitter ending of his political career in 2002. Dick Spring never quite got over losing his licence as a parliamentarian to the shade of politics practised by Sinn Féin and Martin Ferris.
If the characteristics of a struggling campaign are chaos and shouting, Spring’s Rock Street base in Tralee betrays neither of those. Accusations his campaign is listless or momentum is flagging, are firmly rebutted. “I reckon there is nothing further from the truth,” he says.
The truth, of course, is the Healy-Raes and their voracious appetite for work on the ground has changed the dynamic of politics in Kerry, and how it is practised. If you don’t come down to breakfast in the morning with a notebook and sleeves rolled up, you’re slacking. Kerry people love their Goochs and Mikey Sheehys, but they also love the fella that gets the job done. The Ó Sés, the Seamus Moynihans, and Declan O’Sullivans. Arthur Spring tends to suffer by comparison because the likes of Ferris and Jimmy Deenihan know how to use a shovel.
Dick Spring mixed well on the world stage, but he was as tough as old boots, Arthur J contests. He’s right. I saw Spring forced to lie on a hard floor between meetings with leaders of state, so debilitating was the back disfigurement caused by a car crash in the 80s.
“I do things my own way,” says Mr Spring. “I don’t want to be seen as an entertainer and as somebody who makes noise for the sake of it. I’d prefer to be respected and diligent and get on with processing things. The vast majority of people don’t look to their politicians for clientelism or entertainment. They want to know whether they can trust this person to do the right thing by their community and by their country. That’s the politician I aspire to be.
“There is a social democratic gene pool there, a progressive vote that is not anti-establishment, per se. I know I am fighting for one of the last seats, if not the last of the five. We would have thought up to now, given the national polls, Sinn Féin would be a certainty, but it seems he (Martin Ferris) is not resonating in West or South Kerry at all. That’s the feedback we get.”
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Arthur J (for John) Spring was elected to his first Dáil five years ago, and though Labour were surging — a tide that seems to be forever surging or ebbing away — he believed his election was more lower case local than upper case Labour.
“There was a sentiment that Tralee wanted and needed a TD. I had been a councillor for two years and there was a strong swell of loyalty towards the Spring name and representation for the area again. There is a family tradition we won’t necessarily ride on, but it is there. It’s not that I woke up one morning and cultivated 9,000 first preference votes. Am I facing the challenge some Labour TDs are confronted with elsewhere in the country? Not as much.
“Go back to West Kerry, and the respect is still there for Dan Spring, who would be 105 if he was alive. The Springs have struggled since the 1940s to win the seat in Kerry. Along the western seaboard it was always one of the last seats you could be assured of, it was a battle. Hard work got the candidate over the line, not the brand name.”
A satellite television salesmen in Listowel told me when Michael Healy-Rae came through the shopping centre this week, people were stopping him for selfies. Crowds milled around him. The Kilgarvan movement is a juggernaut sweeping a lot before it in Kerry but Labour still believes there is enough votes to harvest the 13,000 or thereabouts needed for a quota on Saturday. Senator Marie Moloney delivered 5,000-odd last time in South Kerry.
“Dick has said it’s the most extensive canvass undertaken by the Labour Party in North or South Kerry, and he should know. People acknowledge I am pushing the Kerry agenda and it’s been a difficult time to be in government. I am okay with what we’ve done so far.
“In 2011 people were angry, 1,000 jobs a week were going, and households were losing their standard of living in front of their eyes. It’s so much more solid out there, but I have to pour scorn on the Fine Gael campaign when they talk about ‘keeping the recovery going’.
“The way it’s being told, the recovery is a destination we’ve arrived at, when in reality, it’s a journey. We’ve taken a crashed car out of the ditch, fixed it up, and put it back on the road. The road is solid, and we can start picking up speed again. People hear ‘recovery’, and think ‘I’m not feeling it.’ That leads to resentment because they see it somewhere else. I found the first three years (as a TD) exceptionally difficult — psychologically, politically, and family-wise. It was a terrible time to be in government, the amount of negativity pouring in this door was incredible. People felt let down. But in 2015, we had the fastest growing in the developed world at 7%. There is no credit given for that in Ireland. I get about six hours sleep a night. Most nights. Last Friday, a poll came through saying Labour are at 4%. You think it’s nonsense, but you are lying in the bed and that’s all that is playing in your head.”
One political owl in Killarney says the voting patterns of the last general and local elections — and the poll trends, insofar as they’re reliable —make re-election for Spring “almost miracle territory”. He may split FG candidates Deenihan and Brendan Griffin, but it will take something out of the ordinary to derail the vote-hoovering machines that are the Healy-Raes, Ferris, and even a resurgent FF, which not too long ago had four of the six seats in the county.
By way of almost validating his anti-populism credentials, Deputy Spring cites the de-linking of Kerry from Cork for regional development and capital grant aid as one of his key achievements in his first term in Leinster House. “There’s less than five votes in it I’d say,” he shrugs. “I went to work on that, we got the change brought about through Richard Bruton. It’s helped the likes of Dairymaster and Liebherr expand, given them capital they wouldn’t have been able to attain otherwise.
“My acronym for recovery in Kerry is TEAM — tourism, engineering, agribusiness, and micro-businesses. We’ve focused in on that in local terms. Put an imaginary fence around the county and start by saying ‘how can we make this place better for everyone living in it?’
A head around the office door tells him it’s time to go door-knocking again. “I have no job to fall back on, and two small kids,” he admits. “But I wouldn’t be afraid of washing glasses. The two things we were advised as kids by my dad and Dick not to get into was politics and medicine. I never really listened to conventional wisdom...
“There are different ways of being a politician, and I don’t denigrate any style. But I have my own and it either appeals to people or it doesn’t. I am not going to change. People know I’m in a dogfight. But when the chips are down and the fight is on, we’re always in there.
“Because it’s always worth fighting for.”