Campaign trail: “Green warriors” canvas for Dún Laoghaire’s Ossian Smyth

Smyth is hoping to ride a green wave in the four-seat constituency

“My kids call me the green warrior,” laughs Trish, a retired mother-of-three, as she tightly holds a bundle of leaflets outside the Leopardstown Inn. She’s one of a 10-person strong campaign team who have swapped their Sunday lunches for manifestos and badges and just one of hundreds of canvassers knocking on doors around Ireland in the last weekend before the general election. Trish has always voted for the Green Party, but she’s never been involved in a canvass – until now. “This is make or break,” she says firmly.

The team stands in a circle as everyone gets ready, talking and laughing with each other. They’re about to canvass for Ossian Smyth, a Green Party councillor for Dún Laoghaire making a bid for a Dáil seat in the upcoming general election. Ossian glides into the car park of the Leopardstown Inn on his bicycle. He chats with the team, handing out badges and introducing himself to first time-canvassers. As they set off, one canvasser double-checks: “Do we have enough leaflets? We ran out yesterday.”

The canvassers split into ones and twos to ring doorbells at three or four houses a time, while Ossian waits on the path outside. When a door opens – which happens with surprising frequency – Ossian darts up the driveway. Eva Dowling, a local councillor and Ossian’s campaign manager, remarks that the door to door canvassing has a distinct feeling of Irishness, explaining that friends of hers working in politics abroad have said the close, personable nature of canvassing here simply doesn’t happen elsewhere. There aren’t many breathers between houses, and Ossian spends the best part of two hours running from one door to the next. Among the canvassers, there’s a similar sense of urgency. They walk like they’re on a mission, which in a sense, they are, one canvasser agrees with me. “We’re not out here for the good of our health,” he jokes.

The canvasser, a solicitor from Clare, is new to the election campaign trail, but cut his teeth as a canvasser for the referendum on the eighth amendment in 2018. Canvassing for an election, he says, is worlds apart from canvassing on the repeal the eighth referendum. Going door to door for the repeal referendum, “you didn’t know what someone’s personal experience had been”, he says, noting how deeply emotional the referendum was. This becomes clear on another street when a resident stops a member of the team on the path to let them know her disdain for the Green Party’s pro-choice stance, shaking her head: “Shame. Shame.” It’s a topic that voters are still turning to in deciding which names will have a number on their ballot.

The climate quickly becomes a common trend among the issues that residents bring up, especially in the area of transport. One couple with a houseful of children interrupt their lunch to explain their concerns about traffic, limited bus services, and the isolated lane that connects them to the Luas, while an elderly lady comes to the gate at the end of her driveway to tell Ossian about the speed with which cars whiz by her house. A woman in a green jumper passionately asks for Ossian to support gardening in schools and nature education for children, and to embed it as a priority on the Green Party’s agenda. She is emphatic in her beliefs: “I want to vote Green for the environment.”

At one door, a middle-aged man with a bright red car greets Ossian with a nudge. “Congratulations, you’re going to be the new TD,” he says, shaking Ossian’s hand. “You’re on a rising tide.” He’s hinting at Ossian’s performance in the polls, which suggest he has a strong chance of being elected, and his recent success in elections for local council. Ossian is less assured. He reminds this resident, as he does others, that he lost in the last general election and needs to receive twice the number of votes in this one in order to secure one of Dún Laoghaire’s four seats.

The constituency is home to players like Fine Gael’s Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the current minister of state for higher education; Richard Boyd Barrett, spokesperson for People Before Profit; and Mary Hanafin, a former Fianna Fáil minister and deputy party leader. Eva tells me there’s a typically a “sense of camaraderie” between the candidates at events like hustings and the count night. She’s looking forward to the buzz of the count, which she describes as “Irish politics at its best”.

As the canvassers dash from house to house, people answer their doors far more often than I had been expecting. Part of this is because the time – Sunday afternoon, before the match starts – means that most people are at home, the team explains to me, and part is because this particular area is home to a large elderly population, who are more likely to vote. It’s rare for a young person to answer the door on a canvass, Ossian tells me. Although the team has been greeted with open doors here, there are other areas that they identify as harder to engage with. Houses with long driveways and electric gates are challenging, and apartments are almost impossible.

“Will you vote Green?” attracts a few droll answers on the doorsteps. “Why not?” one woman responds, while another who is out walking her dog replies, “who else is there?”. The easiest houses for the team are those which give an emphatic yes and already have Ossian pinned as their number one or two vote. Some people can be persuaded; one Sinn Féin voter agrees to give the Green Party his second preference. The most difficult houses are likely those which are more reserved with their thoughts. “I’ll have a read,” one woman tells Ossian as he hands her a leaflet. She’s not giving anything away. “I’m reading everything.” With the number of “I’ll have a read” responses that the team receives, it’s a wonder that there are any booksellers left in business; campaign materials seem to be the top of everyone’s reading list.

“There are very few slammed doors,” one canvasser, John, tells me. John has been involved with the Green Party for thirteen years, and he explains that the best part about canvassing is when a voter gets to meet the candidate. “When you say to someone, ‘this is the candidate’, their eyes light up,” John describes. John is the secretary for the local Green Party branch (“for my sins,” he laughs), and he’s hoping that the election will bring positive change. “It’s an imperfect system, but you can’t beat democracy,” he says.

While John is a veteran canvasser, the campaign has also attracted a number of new members. Eva explains that there are over seventy volunteers for this campaign, many of whom have never canvassed before this election, like Trish, or have only become involved in recent years.  One canvasser, Jackie, echoes Trish’s “make or break” sentiment. She tells me about her father-in-law, a 92-year-old farmer, who is concerned about the climate crisis. She’s not happy with how climate change is being handled either. “It’s gotten to the point where I have to do something,” Jackie says.

The team canvass for two hours; it’s long enough, Eva explains, to get around to a decent number of houses without putting volunteers under too much strain. At 7am, it will start all over again, with canvassers spreading out to dart stations and school gates to catch constituents during rush hours. One of the last doors before the team head home for their Sunday dinners is answered by an elderly man. He has a small smile and speaks like he knows more than he’s letting on. Will he vote Green? “I haven’t thought about it yet,” he says wryly. “I won’t put you at the bottom.”

Lauren Boland

Lauren Boland was the Editor of the 67th volume of Trinity News. She is an English Literature and Sociology graduate and previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.