Campaign trail: Activist Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin offers an alternative to Ireland’s “ruling parties”

“Everyone’s going to hate Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael here,” says one of Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin’s canvassers. Another agrees: “They’re going to be on our page.” Knocking on doors in a working class housing estate in the Rathdown constituency, the People Before Profit election candidate’s four canvassers have come prepared to present an alternative to Ireland’s “ruling parties”. On this blue-skied, bitterly cold Monday afternoon, Eoghan hands out large stacks of leaflets to the volunteers, who are bundled up in large coats. Huddled in a circle before we set out, he reminds the group of the party’s proudest achievements – anti-fracking legislation, advocating for the enshrinement of housing in the constitution, and campaigning against water charges. People Before Profit’s integrity is another central message to remind voters, says Eoghan. “A main message is that we are the only party who won’t go into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael,” he tells the group. 

Young families are the main occupants in this former council housing estate, so the group also notes policy topics relevant to this constituency, like childcare and healthcare. Pensions are another issue the canvassers may be discussing, as elderly people are more likely to be home on a weekday afternoon. The group sets out jovially, but as we enter the housing estate, a veteran canvasser remembers an encounter with a hostile older woman on the street during a previous door-knocking. “She’s bitterly republican but she’s vehemently anti-abortion, hates Richard Boyd Barrett, hates us,” he warns, telling of how the woman ran screaming  down the road after the unlucky canvasser. With this warning in mind, the group begins marching up driveways. 

Asking voters to put their faith in him is a relatively new experience for Eoghan. Until recently, “I’ve just been an activist,” he says. He has been a leading member of the United Against Racism group, joined campaigns against the direct provision system and campaigned for radical climate action.  He was involved in the housing movement Take Back the City, which involved the occupation of three buildings in the city centre between August and September 2018. Reflecting on the housing movement, Eoghan says: “Take Back the City sprang out of nowhere and then died away. It was a great campaign and then didn’t expand. When you’re holding a place like that, an occupied place, it becomes more difficult if you don’t grow in numbers because people get drained and tired and fall away.” He has no regrets about participating in the movement, though: “It was great to be involved in that.”

He initially got involved in People Before Profit to campaign for Bríd Smith in 2015, whom he believed was a strong voice on anti-racism and opposition to direct provision. 

“I wouldn’t have been the face of things,” he says, generally preferring to do behind-the-scenes organising than attempting to establish his own following. The opportunity to run for political office was presented to him last year, however, when the party wanted a candidate to contest the local elections in Dundrum. “I grew up there so I said I would give it a go,” Eoghan explains in between door-knocks. He didn’t gain the seat, but the loss doesn’t seem to have deterred him. 

The Rathdown candidate has reason to believe spreading his socialist message is worthwhile. The predicted anger at the mere thought of either civil war party emerges almost as soon as we begin. “I’m not voting Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, that’s 100%,” says one voter angrily to the People Before Profit candidate, who nods understandingly. “We need something different,” states another, a middle aged woman delighted to see a young left candidate on her doorstep. “We need a lot of young people with big ideas,” she says. She tells Eoghan that she used to be a Labour supporter but could no longer conceive of voting for a party whose time in coalition was, she says, an “attack on the poor people”. 

Whether these voters will be giving their first preference to People Before Profit is another matter, however. Many people at the doors tell Eoghan, “I’ll give you a vote”, a polite way of telling the young People Before Profit candidate that he won’t be getting their first preference. Eoghan tells me: “My grandad used to tell everyone he’d vote for them just to get rid of them.” The voters of this Rathdown estate want change, but many don’t necessarily want People Before Profit. 

Eoghan’s passion for activism is reflected in the group of canvassers he’s attracted, as is the party’s position farthest to the left of Ireland’s political parties. “People Before Profit is the only unashamedly leftist party,” one canvasser tells me in between doors. He talks of his Malaysian background and his queer and socialist activism work in his home country, which he left only five months ago. Since arriving in Ireland, he’s been a super-campaigner, travelling around the Dublin area canvassing for Bríd Smith and Richard Boyd Barrett. He says the reaction to the People Before Profit candidates at the doors has been mixed: “Either they haven’t heard of us, or they have, and if they have, it’s either really good or really bad.” Among the other canvassers are Roy, an English Jeremy Corbyn supporter who has canvassed for the British Labour party, and Aoife, a young woman wanting to “get back involved” after getting a taste for political campaigning during the repeal referendum.  Talking to Aoife, she mentions the rise of the right across Europe, but says she’s hopeful. “We seem to be leaning left when everywhere else is leaning right.”

Alongside discussions on the state of Europe were moments lighter in tone. ”I’m voting for him,” a stout middle-aged woman says firmly as she holds up a leaflet taken from Eoghan’s hand and jabs at his photograph. Amused, he says, “that’s me”. “Oh!,” the woman responds, gripping his arm affectionately and laughing as she leans against the doorframe. “You look younger here!” After some lighthearted conversation, Eoghan urges her to transfer left down her ballot paper. “Yes, Sinn Fein” she responds with a nod, suddenly serious again.

Supporting left candidates in general is one of the candidate’s central messages to voters at the doors, and Sinn Fein’s recent surge in the polls has brought hope for a left coalition. Discussing Sinn Fein’s rise with his canvassers as the team begins walking down a cul de sac, Eoghan says “A lot of the vote is going to Sinn Fein. People think the automatic opposition is Sinn Fein. I mean, look, overall we just have to be positive about it”.

Eoghan’s chances are slim-to-none, but he appears resigned to this reality. Discussing his chances in between door-knocks, it becomes clear that electoral politics are far from his primary  focus. “I think the most important thing is building grassroots organisations,” he says. Although “contesting elections is important”, even simply as a means of spreading ideas, he believes substantial and long-lasting change arises when ordinary people mobilise themselves and “force the issues”. Even when running for election, Eoghan remains an activist at heart.

Aisling Grace

Aisling Grace was the Editor-in-Chief of the 66th Volume of Trinity News. She was also formerly Online Editor and Deputy News Editor.