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On the Canvass: Cold night but warm reception as Brian Stanley hits the doorsteps in Portlaoise

Brian Stanley and supporters canvassing in Colliers View ahead of the 2020 General Election

It’s a bitterly cold Tuesday evening in Portlaoise but the reception on the doorsteps for Sinn Féin General Election candidate Brian Stanley is overwhelmingly warm and positive.

He’s joined by a team of canvassers, including his wife Cllr Caroline Dwane-Stanley and his daughter Laura, as they begin in Colliers View, just off of Colliers Lane.

They start at 6.30pm with strict instructions from local branch member Clare Spollen, who is co-ordinating the campaign, that they’re to finish by 8.15pm.

While she’ll knock on doors if they’ve a small team with them, on this night she’s giving the orders, ensuring that they don’t mistakenly go to the same house twice and that nobody gets left behind.

Among their team is Brian Kearney who is Brian’s parliamentary assistant in Dáil Eireann. A Donegal native, he has more or less decamped to Portlaoise for the course of the campaign.

Also with them on this particular evening are Lilly Moore, Ger Lawlor and Sinead Cox.

Breda Stack is the parliamentary assistant based in the office in Portlaoise while Brian’s daughter Laura is employed in a part-time basis in the office too.

If he were to lose his seat, like with any TD those jobs would be all gone too.

As the team pound the footsteps, Laura’s 13-year-old daughter, a student in Dunamase College, waits patiently in the car reading a book.

“She’s a gaeilgeoir,” Brian tells us proudly and as he goes from door to door, he throws out the odd word of Irish too – “míle buichos”, “go raibh maith agat”, “slán” .

There’s no answer at about half of the doors but where there is in Colliers View, those that engage are supportive.

“There’s no need to call here Brian, you have our support anyway,” says one woman.

“If it was any of the rest of them I’d run them,” says another. “But not you Brian.”

Another thanks him for helping secure a house for a family member across town in the Bellingham estate. “We’ll have to get that name changed,” he laughs.

“It’s named after Lord Bellingham (an Anglo-Irish member of British Parliament and former British Army captain in the late 1800s).”

Though the pace is quick given the cold and the need to keep moving, he gives time to those who request it.

Colliers View is part of Cliúd Housing, a scheme that provides affordable housing for people who cannot afford to buy their own home or pay for private rented housing.

One woman is looking for a bigger house. “Housing and medical cards are among the things that come up most,” he says. “But the relief that people experience when they get the keys to a home is unbelievable.”

As the team go through the estate, they gather up another recruit to help: John Reynolds from Mountrath, a long-time supporter of Brian.

They also encounter a supporter who mocks the recent proposals to honour the RIC. “Tiocfaidh ár Lá,” he proclaims as the group keep moving.

One issue that comes up is the urgent need for new facilities for Portlaoise Panthers Basketball Club as he informs a voter that he and Caroline met with club officials last week.

A broken light in one corner of the estate is noted. It will be Caroline’s job to bring that to the Council’s attention to get fixed.

With time to spare they decide to move onto the nearby Hawthorn Drive estate.

The group are told to be conscious that it’s where Fianna Fáil candidate Pauline Flanagan lives.

And lo and behold, who answers one door only Pauline’s husband Gerry who’s at home on his own as Pauline is off canvassing elsewhere.

He takes the leaflet and listens before the penny drops with Brian as to who he’s speaking to. The two exchange good-humoured stories before Brian heads on. “You might give me your Number 2!” he chuckles.

Out on the road, a taxi driver stops the group and wants to chat. But it’s obvious he’s a supporter too. “I want to get my pension next year and don’t want to have to wait three or four years for it,” he says.

Another person getting out of his car with his child shouts over to tell them that he’ll be voting Sinn Féin.

“I won’t vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or for Labour or the Greens either,” he says.

One woman is polite but doesn’t make any commitment. “Make sure you use your vote anyway,” says Brian at another door. “Apathy is the enemy.”

Another man is reluctant at first to engage but then he brings up the importance of having Portlaoise Hospital nearby.

“I fell at Christmas and banged my head and had to go to hospital,” he explains. “Where would I be if Portlaoise Hospital wasn’t there?”

Brian has to explain that he was the one who brought attention to the proposed downgrading when he got a copy of Susan O’Reilly’s draft report.

“The Government have only pressed the pause button on Portlaoise Hospital to get themselves over the next election,” he says. “But they haven’t given any firm committment.”

As they finish their round of Hawthorn Drive, sleet begins to fall. It’s just coming up on 8.15pm. Time to wrap it up for the night.

“Brian would always want to get a few more houses done,” explains Clare Spollen. “But we always stop at this time. People don’t want to see you – they’re putting kids to bed. There can be matches on TV. They don’t want to be disturbed.”

Throughout the evening, we chat as we go. Originally from Mountrath, he first became active politically in the late 1970s when he took part in the protests against the PAYE system. In 1979 it’s estimated that up to 150,000 attended a rally in Dublin.

Then came the Hunger Strikes at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“The way I saw it, it was Margaret Thatcher against young lads from places like Belfast and Bellaghy. There was only one side I was going to come down on.”

He lived and worked in England in the 80s but moved back to Ireland in the late 80s as Sinn Féin were taking the first steps into the political mainstream.

John Carroll ran as a candidate in Laois-Offaly in the 1987 General Election and got just over 1,400 votes. Brian was helping in the background.

He always insisted he didn’t want to run himself but in 1991 he was coaxed into going for the old Portlaoise Town Council. John Carroll went again in the 1992 General Election but they had no candidate in 1997.

There was a breakthrough of sorts in 1999 when Brian won a seat on Portlaoise Town Council, winning over 400 votes.

In 2002 he went in the General Election and got 4.1% of the vote and exactly 2,600 first preferences.

In 2004 then he won a seat on Laois County Council. He was making progress and that continued when he increased his General Election support to 5.1% and 3,656 votes in 2007. He was still a long way off getting elected but he was getting closer.

Re-election to Laois County Council followed in 2009 and then came his Dáil success in 2011 when he unseated Fianna Fáil John Moloney and took the fourth seat in Laois-Offaly with just over 8,000 votes and 10.8% share.

Caroline was then co-opted to the Council and subsequently regained the seat at the next two elections.

In 2016, with Laois on its own as a constituency, he took the second seat as he grew his vote slightly.

Now he’s going for a third straight success.

At first he says the Dáil drove him mad. Getting anything done was slow compared to his work in the Council. But he got used to it and has grown to enjoy it.

He has battled in the Dáil chambers with the likes of Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan and Labour’s Alan Kelly. He has been on Sinn Féin’s front bench, most recently as their spokesperson on agriculture.

As they finish, the group gather and listen as Brian tells us that Sinn Féin will talk to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the election about going into Government with them, despite those parties stating their objections.

That’s for another day.

For now it’s getting to meet as many people as possible ahead of polling day on February 8.

SEE ALSO – Check out all the 2020 General Election coverage on LaoisToday