On a sunny Saturday morning in Ballybough, Christy Burke greets a large number of the people he meets by name, followed by: “Don’t forget me will ye?”
“Never, Christy,” chime a couple of older, female constituents. Every now and then, he gets a heartfelt reaction like this. At times, he doesn’t seem far from being politics’ answer to Pat Mustard.
Some constituents he knows better than others. “Did you get the hips done?” he asks one elderly gent.
Independent councillor Christy Burke has been knocking around the north inner-city for decades now. He has a storied past. A member of the IRA in his younger days, he served time in Portlaoise prison for this in the 1970s.
He later became involved in the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement in the north inner city and was involved in marching on the homes of known drug dealers. Today, he is involved in helping addicts.
He was first elected to represent the area on Dublin City Council back in 1985 as a candidate for Sinn Féin before becoming an independent councillor in 2009. But, for a long time, he’s had an eye on national politics.
In the last seven general elections, and in two by-elections, he’s put himself forward as a candidate for the Dáil. A couple of times, he came close. In 1989, he just missed out on a seat.
This time, he says, is the last time that he’ll be trying.
Many constituents, whether supporters or not, seem to show Burke a lot of respect.
Others are his friends and recall days from their youth. As he does the rounds, one woman recalls his gorgeous singing voice back in the days of showbands. A couple of years ago, Burke won a Joe Dolan impersonation competition down in Mullingar. It’s a feat he seems proud of. Afterwards, he recorded a CD that raised €5,000 for charity.
Those he doesn’t know receive a more formal greeting. “My name is Christy Burke and I’m a candidate in the upcoming general election. Would you consider giving me your number one?” he asks.
In the last general election, Burke didn’t do so well: he came ninth among 15 candidates. But he and his followers hope that this is his year. The rise in popularity of independent candidates may benefit him. And his stint as Dublin’s Lord Mayor last year also helped to raise his profile.
There are also some obstacles though: the constituency now has three seats instead of four, for example.
As it stands now, if there were four seats, his chances would be good. Paddy Power’s current odds place him fourth out of the 14 candidates. But he’s a bit behind the three poll toppers, who are outgoing TDs Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, Paschal Donohoe of Fine Gael and independent Maureen O’Sullivan.
Some of his supporters on the doorsteps jokingly express exasperation that he hasn’t won a seat yet.
“It’s my only chance, I think,” he says.
Most of the people opening their doors are older Dubliners. But when he interacts with younger people, he doesn’t seem to do too badly either. He approaches them on the street. “Howaya lads?”
One young woman, who probably wasn’t old enough to participate in the last election, assures him of her vote. Her family always votes for him, she says.
Burke pauses and looks at her. “Are you a Spratt?” he asks. Of course, she is, it’s in the eyes.
On a Mission
Last Wednesday evening, Burke and his team were out knocking on doors in East Wall. At this point in the race, he’s out at least twice a day.
So did he really mean what he said? Will this be his last attempt to gain a seat in the Dáil? It would appear so. “If you don’t get it now, it’s time to go home,” he says.
The sky is dark and the atmosphere is different to Saturday’s. A large group of around 20 canvassers stand before Burke and listen to his directions.
They walk at a quicker pace. As does Burke. He seems more stressed tonight, and his phone buzzes constantly. He’s hardly happy when one of his canvassing team gets lost.
Not many people open the door. “A lot of people don’t answer because they’re afraid,” says Burke. One night, a nervous resident even called to report him to the Gardaí.
The gangland shooting of David Byrne comes up a couple of times. “Fear’s been injected into the community,” says Burke. “It’s like a cloud over the area.”
Though he seems stressed, Burke is no stranger to a busy schedule.
Some of his regular activities are on hold for the election, but a standard week includes attending council meetings, providing addiction classes for inmates in Mountjoy and Arbour Hill prisons, canvassing at the weekend and going on a soup run with the charity Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH).
A Focus on the Homeless
The director of the charity ICHH, Anthony Flynn, has known Burke for many years. He says Burke has helped them out since before they had an office, more than two years ago.
Burke’s mandate focuses on housing and homelessness, Flynn says, and that has always been the case, even before the issue grew legs and walked. “He helped raise awareness of the situation,” says Flynn.
During his reign as Lord Mayor, Burke spent a lot of time speaking out about the issue of homelessness in the city. But he gets out on the streets as well.
“His groundwork speaks for itself,” says Flynn. “You don’t see many TDs that do that continuously.”
Another thing Burke does continuously is canvass. He’s got a dedicated team that goes out weekly, all year round, in their blue hi-vis vests which feature his name.
“I always point that out to people,” says Burke. “I don’t just canvass at elections, I do it all year round.”
He’ll canvass an area that’s had issues in recent weeks, and also likes to hand out leaflets keeping constituents up to date with the latest news.
As a result, he knows the roads well, and has a fair idea which houses are sure to vote for him. He could give tours of the north inner city.
He points out the house of the notorious Scissor Sisters, Brendan Behan Court, where the writer grew up, and Samantha Mumba’s childhood home. Burke recalls young lads volunteering to canvass for him, so they might get the chance to hammer down her door.
A Lifetime on the Council
Those who answer the doors often make some reference to Burke’s work as a councillor. He’s thanked for sorting out housing, parking and roads.
“Eugene is twelfth on the list,” he tells one woman, without even pausing to think.
A couple of his helpers carry clipboards to take note of any issues that come up while they’re out. Burke has helped some of these helpers out over the years.
For example, Terry Fagan, who has known Burke since his youth, and is out canvassing for him most days. He’s always been supportive of Burke and, in turn, Burke has always been supportive of him and his North Inner City Folklore Project. Years ago, when Fagan had trouble accessing archives, Burke made a few phone calls and sped things up.
As Fagan sees it, Burke has managed to stay on the council for so many years because if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. “He’ll be straight with you. He gives no false hopes and that’s what people like about him,” he says.
Another member of “Team Burke”, Teresa Brady, has similar views. “I find him very honest,” she says. She was just on to him about her broken heating, and says she knows he’ll get it sorted.
“At least if he can’t do anything, he’ll let you know,” one woman tells me at her doorstep.
He’d do anything for his constituents. Well, almost. He’s had some strange requests over the years. One from a mother who hadn’t been on a night out in ages and asked him to mind her kids for the evening.
“I’m not a babysitter,” he laughs. In situations like that you just have to hang up the phone as politely as possible, he says.
If he’s seen as a reliable councillor, would that mean people wouldn’t want to see him disappear to the Dáil? “I was thinking that the other day,” he says, contemplating the question.
He would need someone to take his place, he says, and though nothing is definite, he has one of his daughters in mind. Of his five children, she’s most interested in politics and community work.
“But they’d still ring me,” he says of his constituents.
An Independent Voice
On the streets of East Wall, Burke bumps into fellow councillor, Gaye Fagan, out canvassing for Sinn Féin. Burke spends a couple of minutes chatting with her.
After more than 40 years with the party, Burke left in 2009, just after the local elections. It was a surprise departure at the time, but he still seems to get on well with his Sinn Féin colleagues in the council.
He doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of why he left Sinn Féin, but simply says he had spent enough time in the party and wanted to become an independent voice.
“I wanted to do my own thinking and vote my own way,” he says.
With McDonald topping the polls in Dublin Central at the moment, does he ever regret leaving the party? No, he says, he has no beef with Sinn Féin, but nothing has changed since he’s left and he wants to continue to act independently.
At the doors, three issues come up all the time, says Burke. Funding for A&Es in hospitals, the cost of third-level education and homelessness. Naturally, these are also the issues he’s most focused on solving.
In Stoneybatter, constituents brought up the Eighth Amendment 25 times, he says.
Though his manifesto isn’t published yet, he’d like to see a referendum on the issue, and for it to be defined in a clear and meticulous way.
If he makes it to the Dáil, he’d also like to see water charges abolished and a better system of childcare for families.
I ask what issue is most pressing to him. He can’t pick just one.
“I’d be here all night talking about them, but I have laryngitis,” he gripes, seemingly glad the night’s canvass has come to an end. Though it sounds like his has more work to do at home.
“This is his year to be elected,” says Terry Fagan.
But the question is, why hasn’t Burke won a seat before now? “Some people have short memories,” says Teresa Brady.
Or perhaps, it’s that competition in the constituency is stiff. After all, fourteen candidates are all hoping for success later this month.
If Paddy Power’s odds are anything to go by, Burke will be competing with independent Maureen O’Sullivan for the third and final seat in Dublin Central.
As the late TD Tony Gregory’s director of elections, she took over his seat after winning a by-election in 2009, and was re-elected in 2011.
A recent article in the Sunday Times reported that Gregory’s brother, Noel, pulled his support from O’Sullivan and is now backing Burke. O’Sullivan doesn’t understand why.
Burke won’t say much about this. “[Noel] was out canvassing with us last week,” he says.
This, among other things, may sway some votes in his favour. Maybe this will be the year.