“We were taught to be leaders,” says Anna Rooney. “You have Communion and Confirmation. We had the same – but with a political side to it.”
Rooney, despite her Irish surname and touch of a Monaghan accent, grew up in the Soviet education system, in the province of Abkhazia in Georgia. Leadership wasn’t all that she learned. In 1992, war broke out between Abkhazian separatists and Georgia (foreshadowing last year’s conflict in the other breakaway Georgian province, South Ossetia).
“Suddenly, we had nothing.” Her family had by then moved across the border, into Russia, and were lucky to escape the worst of the fighting. But their economic prospects were destroyed, and they had to start over. That gives Rooney a distinctive perspective on the current recession.
“The worst thing is the war. When you go through the war, your eyes are opened differently.
“We can get through this crisis. Everybody just has to find the strength.”
The crisis is personal for Rooney, also. We are standing in front of a dark shop window in the main square of Clones, Co Monaghan. The newspapers on the floor inside are old; the counters are dusty; the petrol pump out front is dry. This is Rooney’s husband’s business, hit by the double blow of a new petrol station franchise on the outskirts of town and cross-border shopping.
Still, she sees opportunity in crisis.
“Look at what’s happened the last five years: we’re all on the go; unless you text somebody, you can’t visit them; every minute is written down. We lost our community values. Maybe we have to go back to ‘community’.”
This is a community that seems to have welcomed Rooney, who remembers how, when she first moved here, after a whirlwind courtship conducted in large part online, “people were coming into the shop just to look at me”.
She got involved in local and cross-border voluntary activities, and set up a multilingual services company. Then, a few months ago, Fianna Fáil asked her to stand for them for Clones Town Council. She was “honoured to be asked to represent”.
“My party choice was based on personal experience. The people who helped me when I arrived, they all were Fianna Fáil.”
The campaign, though, has brought a new awareness of her identity.
“Until about three months ago, I never felt that I was a ‘foreign national’.”
Suddenly, Rooney is part of a larger trend. There are an unprecedented 38 immigrants running in these local elections, from countries as diverse as Colombia, Poland, Pakistan and Zimbabwe (a full list of countries is below).
For many of those candidates, their hope of election is a forlorn one: reliant on a vote from their own communities, they will be stifled by low voter registration amongst immigrants generally. For Pat O’Sullivan, an independent (and Irish) candidate Limerick City South, running in large part on integration issues, this issue is crucial. With a quota in Limerick of around 900, it is “virtually impossible for an immigrant representative to get elected on the first count”, he says. Immigrant candidates being run by the parties are being used as “fodder”, to attract votes that will then transfer to other party candidates.
“It’s an abuse because our ethnic groups don’t realise what’s happening to them. They have aspirations and hopes that they’re going to be elected, and that’s wrong.”
Elena Secas, a soft-spoken Labour candidate in Limerick East, juggling her campaign with childcare and the final stages of a Masters degree, seems unperturbed by such cynicism. “I don’t see the point in running if you don’t think you have a chance to win.”
A journalist in her native Moldova, Secas moved to Limerick in 2001, and joined the Labour party a few years ago “for its core values”. Irish society lacks “fairness”, she says. “I think that everybody should be considered and represented in a fair way, indifferent to their status in society.”
The Moldovan community is small, but Secas insists she will attract votes from other immigrant groups, as well as from Irish voters. On the doorsteps, people have been “very polite”, she says.
This perspective is common amongst immigrant candidates: either they aren’t encountering racism or hostility, or they are reluctant to report it. (One exception is Paddy Maphoso, running as an independent in Dublin’s North Inner City, who abandoned his canvass one evening when a youth threatened to “put a bullet in his head”, as reported here last week.)
On the doorsteps in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, the reception given to each of two, rival Nigerian candidates is impeccably polite.
Stella Oladapo, a claims examiner with a multinational insurer, goes door-to-door, alone, while one of her daughters waits patiently in the car. At home, her ten-year-old daughter is minding the baby, while her husband works the late shift in another multinational.
Oladapo is running for Fianna Fáil but, on this canvass at least, there is little sign of a party presence behind her, though her flyer features a photo of her with Brian Cowan. Oladapo had originally joined the Blaneys’ Independent Fianna Fáil organisation, because Niall Blaney had been “so supportive” when she arrived in Letterkenny first, and she followed him into the party proper.
Oladapo’s campaign strategy is contained in a clutch of handwritten foolscap pages: a list of 400 names of everybody she knows in Letterkenny, “friends, and friends of friends”. (The quota here in 2004 was just under 600.)
“I went street by street through the register, and if I spotted a name that I knew, I wrote it down, and visited them. The majority of the people here will give me their number one votes.”
The list could be an icon for a perfectly multicultural Ireland. Oladapo ran an African restaurant till recently, and employed a Polish waitress and an Irish chef. There are many Polish names on her list, and also Indian: “I have lots of Indians in my office.”
Oladapo’s rival for the Nigerian vote, at least, is Michael Abiola-Phillips, running for Fine Gael, whose most distinctive campaign innovation is a white bib, worn over his suit, with his name and logo, and matching baseball cap.
Abiola-Phillips, too, has courted the immigrant vote, targeting the local African churches in particular, and driving around town delivering last-minute voter registration forms. But he, at least, appears well integrated into an unusually cohesive party strategy in the town. Most of their promotional materials give equal space to all five candidates, and the canvass is being mapped out on a large whiteboard in the Fine Gael HQ with a long list of housing estates to be canvassed in turn.
The Sunday Tribune visits on a morning, which suits Abiola-Phillips. Previously a political analyst in Nigeria, he now spends his nights driving around Letterkenny’s business parks as a mobile security guard; he then sleeps for two hours, juggles campaigning and minding the children for the day, and gets another two hours’ sleep before work in the evening.
In a local estate, successive doors open to give him a polite nod and take his flyer with a “thank you”. He always asks for a vote or high preference, and takes people at their word when they say they’ll do what they can.
“He seems a nice critter,” says Veronica Gallagher as Abiola-Phillips walks on down the road. “He has a good personality. As we always said around here, a smile carries farther than a frown.
“There’s only one problem: they’re not here that long. They don’t know the swing of things.”
That could be the crucial factor deciding the prospects of many of the 38 candidates this Friday. But it’s not inhibiting Abiola-Phillips, for whom the issue is as much about offering leadership to his own community as representing the indigenous one.
Being elected, he says, would be “a way to set the standard for other immigrants coming behind me”. In that, he echoes Paddy Maphoso in Dublin.
“At least I’ll be counted amongst those who tried to make a difference,” says Maphoso. “In 2009, I stood out and tried to make a change.”
Candidate nationalities: There are 15 Nigerian candidates, 8 from Poland, 3 from Lithuania, and 2 from Russia. There is one candidate from each of Colombia, DR Congo, India, Latvia, Moldova, Netherlands, Pakistan, South Africa, the United States and Zimbabwe.
This article was produced with the assistance of the Forum on Migration and Communications. A shorter version was published in the Sunday Tribune and an alternative version was published in Le Monde Diplomatique.