Luke "Ming" Flanagan is on the canvass on Galway’s Shop St for just a little while before he is marched off to the nearest Garda station.
Those days were supposed to be behind him. Back in his youth, when he rose to prominence as a supporter of decriminalising cannabis, he was regularly arrested. He was even imprisoned once, but his father insisted on bailing him, and he came to be known as “Ming the Merciful”.
On this campaign day, it is a voter who is marching Ming off to the station to report him for an alleged criminal offence. The voter’s name is Gearóid O’Connor. He approached the candidate outside Eason and asked why he was “enticing people to break the law” by cutting bogs that are supposed to be preserved under an EU directive.
Ming says he cut his own bog at 2am one day last week, “not because I’m ashamed of it, but because the person who lent me the machinery was afraid it might be confiscated”.
He tells O’Connor that if he believes the 2am bog cutting was a crime, he should report it to the station, and he, Ming, would accompany him. “Come on so,” says O’Connor.
They argue as they walk, coming to a stop halfway to the station. “We need the bogs for future generations,” says O’Connor.
“I agree 98% with you,” Ming replies. He reels off facts and figures. O’Connor appears less sure that Ming is a lawbreaker. A woman approaches. She wants to wish Ming well, but the candidate’s high-pitched voice is full of righteous indignation at the EU’s attempt to mess around with Irish bogs. In the end, O’Connor relents. “Maybe you’re not breaking the law,” he concedes.
Will he give Ming a vote? “I wasn’t going to,” he says. “But maybe now. Somewhere down the numbers.”
The little drama on a Galway afternoon is notable because it is the only time on the canvass when the candidate is really challenged. Apart from that, Ming is Elvis on Shop St. He doesn’t approach any voters because they get to him first. A stream of people queue up to shake his hand, wish him well, tell him to “keep at it”, and “don’t let them away with anything”.
It is a sight to behold, unknown in Irish elections since the halcyon days of Bertie Ahern’s laying-on-of-hands, bearing something for everybody in the electorate. Ming doesn’t have any goodies to dispense, but he has celebrity wattage, he knows his onions, and can feel a voter’s pain with the best of them.
His appeal is across all demographics, spanning a pair of students from his native Roscommon to two elderly ladies en route to a prayer meeting. “We’ll pray for you and we’ll vote for you,” one of them assures him.
Men and women, obviously of rural stock, collar him to talk turf. “You’re the man over the bogs,” says one, his hand extended. But Ming is equally popular with city folk. One local retailer pays homage by complimenting Ming on his performance on Sunday’s election debate on RTÉ.
If the canvass is anything to go by, this lad is home and hosed. Barring a late plummet in his support, he will take one of the European Parliament seats in Midlands North West, defying conventional wisdom that his late entry to the race, and some denting of his credibility on the penalty points issue, would sink him.
His timing is perfect. He surfs a wave of popularity for independents, and his distinctive persona pushes him forward from the pack. Behind the culchie chic image, there is a deadly serious operator.
He is 90 minutes late for the canvass, during which a biblical downpour falls on Galway. He claims to have been delayed in his hometown of Castlerea, but he appears just as skies lighten to blue, ensuring ideal conditions for engaging with his appreciate public.
He says he decided to run after a poll he organised put him at 8.5%. “The initial reason [to run] was to influence the debate, and anybody who says I haven’t influenced the debate is living on another planet.” The influence he references involves questioning the consensus of Europe.
“We’ve got to take Euro-scepticism away from the extreme right-wings, not necessarily towards left-wingers but along the lines that we have to go back to being a community rather than a superstate.”
His election team, he says, numbers around 200. He has links to dozens of local election independent candidates across the 15 county constituencies — many of whom he first met a seminar he held in Athlone in March, where he urged community activists to run for office on an independent ticket.
“When they go on about election machines, we have an organic machine,” he says.
As of now, he intends to serve the full term if elected, but is not giving an unequivocal commitment. If he does run at the next general election, his first sub is Garda whistleblower John Wilson. Ming has been at the shoulder of fellow independents Mick Wallace and Clare Daly in highlighting malpractice in An Garda Siochána. That issue has not made much impact on the doorstep, he says, which disappoints him.
His credibility received a blow when, at the height of the penalty points controversy, it emerged that he had had points cancelled himself. He says the doorstep had largely been quiet on this. “It came up twice with my canvassers, but that’s it,” he says.
Mostly, people just want to talk to him, express their support, pour out their anger at the powers that be.
Another couple approach, hands extended. They know Ming’s people back in Roscommon. The man, Des Harte, says he had wanted to meet Ming for a long time. “Glad to meet you and I won’t forget you on the day,” he says.
After he was elected to the Dáil in 2011, the main parties regarded Ming as a bit of a joke. Those days are long gone. If he does make it to Brussels, some politicos in the main parties will step lighter through Leinster House, relieved that Elvis has left the building.
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