Danny Byrne – On the doorstep with the Donegal contender

Danny Byrne canvassing in the area.

By Alexander Kearney

In a small café just on the village side of Ringsend bridge, I’m waiting to meet Fine Gael’s sole candidate for the new South East Inner City electoral district. Danny Byrne is keen to introduce himself to the community, and I’m curious about his eagerness. The local elections are not till the 24th May, and it’s only the second week in January. NewsFour has yet to be approached by any other candidate.

Byrne, though, is a first-time runner, and the 2014 electoral boundaries have changed yet again. The new district stretches from the tip of the South Wall up to Merchant’s Quay and across to Portobello and then back along the Grand Canal where it it bulges out around part of Ballsbridge and the Aviva stadium. It marks a considerable reduction in size from the existing Pembroke South Dock.

Pembroke South Dock is represented by eight councillors; the South Inner City will only have five. So why has Fine Gael backed an unknown here?

I’m told Byrne is already leafleting and canvassing, but a Google search fails to pick up any campaign website, Twitter account, or online bio. I do know that he works at a local estate agent, Castle, and from his photo, I’d say he’s in his mid-to-late 40s.

Most of my online results are for another ‘Danny Byrne’ from Killybegs, and his pursuit of compensation for his family’s exclusion from a controversial Lost at Sea scheme in 2001. A tragic case, but from long ago and nowhere near Dublin 4.

When candidate Byrne arrives he wears the uniform of his profession: a broad smile and a dark pinstripe suit. I wonder again why Fine Gael would field a man in the property business, when housing availability has been one of its most striking failures.

I check my notes on housing targets and the current levels of homelessness; I intend to press on those points. But first I ask, what can Danny Byrne tell us about himself?

He tells me he’s from Donegal, and has lived in Ringsend for 14 years (he retains that distinctive soft North-East accent). When he was eight he lost his father, Francis and his 16-year old brother, Jimmy, in a fishing accident in October 1981. Three other crew members also died. Speaking of the MFV Skifjord, he says “it was one of the biggest fishing boats in Ireland at the time, if not the biggest.”

His mother Winifred had to raise her surviving eight children in straitened circumstances, “People talk about the 80s, that was my 1980s.” Just last year, he finally succeeded in winning compensation on behalf of his mother against the omission of the family from a national scheme to assign ‘tonnage’ to those who had lost vessels between 1980 and 1989. Without this, such families might never be able re-enter the commercial trade under the post-1990 Common Fisheries Policy. It was the same Danny Byrne, the one from the wild Atlantic coast of Killybegs.

Byrne briefly retells the story. The scheme had been run for just six months, and only advertised in the shipping journals; his family had never got to hear about it before the expiry date. His case was taken up by then Irish Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly. Her report and its findings were sensationally rejected by a Fianna Fáil-led committee in 2010. He then went twice to the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee, before the current Minister for the Marine, Michael Creed, finally agreed to make an ex gratia payment of €245,570 last April.

Among other things, the Ombudsman’s report stated that the design of the scheme was “contrary to fair and sound administration”, a finding strongly contested by government and civil servants. The scheme was conceived and advanced by then minister Frank Fahey, two of whose Galway West constituents were awarded 75% of the total funds released. Fahey has vehemently defended the policy and its implementation.

The mix of tragedy, politics, and a sixteen year struggle for redress has been potent. Byrne recalls that “one of my only memories of my late father was putting up Fine Gael posters”, and the son has always identified with the party. Yet he was initially reluctant to engage in a campaign so closely bound up with a family loss, even against a Fianna Fáil minister whose stance he clearly deeply resented.

The experience, he says, has made him dogged. “I pursued that issue for so many years; so many doors were closed to me.” It has also inspired loyalties. He remains in touch with Emily O’Reilly, who is now European Ombudsman. He speaks of his gratitude to former Fine Gael MEP, Jim Higgins, and to Minister Creed, who, Byrne tells me had a huge quarrel with his own department about the case. He mentions Donegal Fianna Fáil TD, Jim McDaid, who broke ranks with his own party to declare “the scheme stinks”, at the Oireachtas committee that rejected the report. And Byrne emphasises the continued support of Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. As Fine Gael has been in government since early 2011, I note the party names he hasn’t mentioned. Mr Byrne is deliberate in his silences.

I ask him about the most important issues in the area. Byrne points to cycle lanes and how to make cycling safer. But when I raise the Quietway project spearheaded by departing Fine Gael councillor Paddy Smyth, and voted down last Summer by the South East Area Committee, he concedes he hasn’t studied it.

Regarding local housing and the Poolbeg West Glass Bottle site saga, he says, “I would 100% agree that there should be more social and affordable housing”, and intends to meet local groups on the issue. He favours the recent government initiative to limit AirBnBs, and points to his own previous experience in hotels and hospitality. “In some cases, people are running what is effectively a small business. Someone described to me last night… ‘we had new neighbours every two days’. That’s not exactly desirable.”

When I challenge Byrne on Fine Gael’s own record on housing, he quotes figues from his phone on targets set, millions spent, and units completed, but cannot tell me when we can expect to see a substantial decline in homelessness, “I can’t answer that. I know that Fine Gael are working night and day on this.”

I ask whether he has any particular projects or initiatives he wishes to pursue as councillor, but here and elsewhere he seems reluctant to go into detailed policy. Rather he emphasises his determination to meet as many prospective constituents as possible.

“My convention was in November, so I started straight away leafleting, and I started just last week to canvas. And I intend to canvas, and have been canvassing, seven days a week. Like I said, I just met a member of the Fine Gael National Executive, and he said you’re probably canvassing more than any other candidate in the country. He said so-and-so is canvassing three or four days a week, and my reply is: what are they doing the other three evenings of the week? I’m determined to win a seat, and I will win a seat.”

Two weeks later, on a clear, sharp chilly evening, I join Danny Byrne at 5pm on the canvas trail around Vavasour Square, Havelock Square, and O’Connell Gardens. The Aviva stadium glows like a giant jellyfish nearby. Byrne explains that between now and May he intends to call on every home at least twice, and he carries two separate piles of leaflets: one for those who open the door and one for those who are out.

He explains some of the trade of canvassing: don’t call after 9pm; kids are asleep, and people will assume it’s something serious. Use the bell and the knocker, so they hear you, but never leave a leaflet sticking out of a letter box. That’s a definite no-no: it creates a draft inside and alerts passersby that the house is empty. In short, don’t let voters remember you for the wrong reasons.

“Hi, Danny is my name, and I’m running for the local elections in May.” The responses along Vavasour and Havelock Squares are encouraging. Most of those who express a preference, say they’ll vote Fine Gael. But these are relatively prosperous addresses, and behind many of the early Victorian low brick fronts are expensive remodelings and large extensions.

On Vavasour Square there are frequent complaints about the addition of double yellow lines at the stadium end. Byrne notes the issue, says he’ll look into it. One resident admits that, of course, many households now have two cars, and therefore the problem of parking is even more acute. We spot one electric car with a charging point in a front garden. No one has suggested to us that there should be fewer cars on the square.

On Havelock Square we’re invited in by John Morrison and his son to discuss local flood risk insurance. They tell us that insurers, nodding towards the Aviva behind, will offer coverage for one house but not for its neighbour, despite the recent flood defence works on the Dodder. John raises the challenge of climate change. He had worked for the national Geological Survey and worries about the accelerating retreat of the West Antarctic Glacier. He implores Byrne, “climate matters – it shouldn’t be a political football.”

We move next to O’Connell Gardens, and on a small modern estate Byrne meets with a more mixed response. Here many of the residents are notably less well off, and at least one shuts the door on learning Byrne is from Fine Gael.

Back on Bath Avenue, we’re ushered into the sitting room of a young professional couple; our voices in the hallway would otherwise disturb the child being put to bed. Here and in Vavasour and Havelock Squares, a number of residents freely tell us how lucky they are to live where they do, having the choice to walk to work and the pick of good schools nearby.

A number of the issues flagged are very local indeed: vandalism of the glass balustrade on nearby London bridge and dog poo; yes, dog poo came up repeatedly, and the suspicion that someone was deliberately smearing it on pavements, and that it might even be human.

By 9pm our circuit is complete and my feet are frozen. A large full moon has risen over the rooftops. Byrne tells me that I was lucky to join him this evening, and not the day before when it was driving rain.

I wonder what drives a candidate to come out in all weathers to have a shot at winning a position with relatively little power. One constituent jokes that Byrne might have his eye on a full-time political career; Byrne smiles a non-denial. Yet it is clear he genuinely likes canvassing. “The attraction is to represent people. I love to meet people. If it’s important to them, it’s important to me.” He recognises that he’ll have to engage with social media at some level, but insists, “I’m much happier meeting people face to face, and I don’t think that will ever change.”

On the doorsteps, I’m surprised that housing and homelessness have, on the whole, only been mentioned in passing. The people we meet seem reasonably secure – especially in the two squares – and rather conscious of it. On Havelock Square, we do talk to a woman who despairs of being able to buy a home. She tell us she’s on an excellent salary, but now believes her best hope is to start a small co-op development.

In our interview, Danny Byrne acknowledges, “property prices are rising rapidly around here”, He supports Eoghan Murphy’s promotion of greater building heights in urban areas, and even the minister’s direction against councillors speaking about ‘live’ planning applications during council business. When I ask him about recent speculation on Murphy’s future, he won’t be drawn.

Beyond supporting his party’s housing policies, the boldest suggestion Byrne will offer is that, “when one acquires or buys a property it should be mandatory that you make a will at the same time. After family disputes… the properties can lie in limbo for many years.”

For now, Byrne’s focus is on the micro and the local. There are no grand proposals, no sweeping ideas. What there is, is determination. He is fond of saying, “never take no from someone who can give you a yes”, and offers his long pursuit of redress on the Lost at Sea scheme as proof of his mettle.

He faces not one, but two Sinn Féin candidates: Susan Gregg Farrell, and the well-established Chris Andrews. Among the other contenders are Maria Bohan, (Fianna Fáil), Claire Byrne (Green), Kevin Donoghue (Labour), and Annette Mooney (People Before Profit).

Danny Byrne maintains he’s been the first out of the gates, (Green Cllr Claire Byrne has, in fact, been on the canvas trail since last Autumn). But each of his rivals can point to Fine Gael’s eight years in power, and the problems that haven’t been fixed despite strong recent economic growth.”

On the canvas, Mr Byrne explains to southsiders, nationals, and non-nationals alike how easy it is to register for local elections. One doesn’t need to be Dublin-born or even an Irish citizen to vote for a city councillor. Nor to stand as a councillor. But one must be registered at an address where one is “ordinarily resident”.

It is a biting irony, therefore, that a particular category of person is excluded from our local franchise: people of no fixed abode. For those who live in tents along the Grand Canal or in the doorways of our shopping streets, this exclusion is not likely to be among their most pressing concerns. Their plight, though, should be one of ours.