Ammar Ali taps on the car window.
A man, hunkered down behind the wheel, his coat pulled around him, looks up, and feels for the key to the ignition. He rolls down the window a smidgeon.
It’s a frosty Friday evening, and the air on Donovan Lane, between Blackpitts and Clanbrassil Street, is still.
Ali recognises the guy from nearby Chicken Hut. He asks how he’s doing – and then where he lives. “In Dublin 8?” he asks, already feeling inside his bag for some of his election leaflets.
“Me? No, in Lucan,” says the guy.
Ali pushes a couple of Fianna Fáil flyers through the window, and asks him to pass them on to friends who live in the area. Just in case.
Five years ago, political parties in Dublin seemed to have lost interest in running candidates from minority or migrant backgrounds after earlier pushes had failed to deliver the fillip in votes that they had hoped for.
As of November last year, just three of 949 councillors nationwide weren’t Irish citizens, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
On Dublin City Council, there were no minority or migrant councillors. This year’s local elections in May could change that.
Counting Ali, there are at least five candidates in the Dublin City Council area from either minority or migrant backgrounds, running for political parties for a seat at City Hall.
As well as Ammar Ali in Dublin’s south-west inner-city, Fianna Fáil have Imran Khurshid on the ticket in the north inner-city, and the Social Democrats have Ellie Kisyombe.
The Green Party is running Sophie Nicollaud in Ballyfermot-Drimnagh, and also Hazel Chu in Pembroke.
That’s just in the Dublin City Council area.
Interest from political parties in candidates from migrant backgrounds has waxed and waned over the last few elections, says Bryan Fanning, a professor of migration and social policy at University College Dublin.
He talked to political parties back in 2003 about what they had been doing to get migrants involved as candidates or as voters. The answer? Not much. “It was like they hadn’t really thought about it much before,” he said.
When Rotimi Adebari and Taiwo Matthew, who were both born in Nigeria, were elected to town councils in 2004, it seemed to indicate potential for votes, he said. “There was a fair bit of enthusiasm.”
Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil appointed integration officers to recruit immigrant members at that time. There seemed to be less enthusiasm in Sinn Féin and Labour, he said.
In the 2009 local elections, almost 40 immigrant candidates stood around the country, says Fanning. About half were of African origin, mainly Nigerian, and about half were Eastern European, mainly Polish.
The enthusiasm that there had been during the 2009 campaigns then disappeared though, he said. “A big problem then hit.”
When Fanning asked political parties in 2014 why they seemed to have canned efforts to recruit immigrants, they said it hadn’t paid off in 2009. “In other words, They felt like migrants weren’t turning out to vote.”
Parties no longer saw this as a magic pool of votes, and most immigrant candidates stood that year as independents with broad platforms, jumping late into races, he says. “They weren’t really for anything except being, sort of, being included.”
In May 2014, the last local elections, 31 candidates weren’t Irish citizens or were “new Irish”, and most of them were Polish and Nigerian, an ESRI report says.
Of those, just 10 nationwide were put forward by political parties: two for Fine Gael, two for Labour, one for Sinn Féin, three for the Green Party, and two for the People Before Profit Alliance.
In the Dublin City Council area that year, Fine Gael stood Nadine Meisonnave, who is Russian-Estonian, in Pembroke-South Dock.
But she was the only migrant candidate for a political party in the city – and didn’t win.
Even as political parties cooled on them, some in the city with migrant backgrounds still saw involvement in political parties as a route to challenging the invisibility of minorities at tables and forums where decisions are made.
Earlier that cold Friday night, Ali had made his way along Dufferin Avenue, knocking on doors and ringing buzzers.
“I used to live here,” he tells some who open – this street was where he and his family first lived when he moved to Ireland, aged two, from Pakistan in 1996.
He says he clocked years back how Fianna Fáil had run Shaheen Ahmed, a candidate in Lucan from a migrant background, in 2009, which drew him to the party. “That gave me an indication,” Ali said.
He canvassed for Senator Catherine Ardagh, and TD Jim O’Callaghan – and brought them to mosques to speak to people, linking them in with those they might not reach otherwise.
He’s been involved in lots of local groups in the area too, he says: Rialto Youth Project, Fatima Homework Club, and the two local mosques – at Blackpitts and on South Circular Road.
He ran for Ogra Fianna Fáil a couple of times and lost, but brushed himself off and decided he needed to work harder on the ground and within the party.
Ali was appointed a Fianna Fáil local representative – a position that’s often a stepping stone for someone looking to become a local councillor – for the south-west inner-city area in 2017. In December, he got one of the two party nominations for the area.
North of the river, Imran Khurshid, a solicitor from Pakistan and one of three Fianna Fáil candidates running the north inner-city, says he joined the party in early 2017.
He felt comfortable with its politics, and actors, and also was attracted by the party’s long history, he says.
When he put his case to the party that he should be a candidate, he says he highlighted how Fianna Fáil hasn’t had a councillor in the north inner-city since 2004.
There are so many non-white Irish now in the north inner-city, he says. He has connections, has lived in the area for more than a decade, runs a business. “I can bring those people on board,” he said.
Within the Party
As far back as 2009, Jagan Muttumula and others were working as part of a block called Fine Gael Intercultural – which was officially recognised by the party a couple of years back.
“We are trying to encourage as many immigrant people as possible as candidates,” says Muttumula, a candidate for Fine Gael slightly further afield in Ongar in the Fingal County Council area.
Like many from overseas who have gotten involved in politics here, Muttumala is from political stock – his brother is the equivalent of a TD in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, and he’s worked on his campaigns.
He moved here in 2001 as an ICT professional, and later, when his wife wanted to crack on with her career in dentistry and their son was young, he decided he would change direction and explore politics.
He lists other minority candidates on the ballot for Fine Gael in the greater Dublin area: Punam Rane in Mulhuddart, Okezie Emuaga in Balbriggan, and Baby Pereppadan in Tallaght South.
At one point last year, it had looked as if that list might also include Godfrey Chimbganda, another Fine Gael member from Zimbabwe who is also on the steering committee of Fine Gael Intercultural – but he’s stepped back for now, partly for personal reasons.
About five years ago, Chimbganda helped to organise a conference centred around a key question: would the whiteness of Irish politics ever change?
Paul Yaw Boateng, a former MP for Brent South in the United Kingdom, and the first mixed-race cabinet minister over there, was the keynote speaker.
Boateng talked about how black politicians in the 1980s in the United Kingdom organised to demand better representation within the Labour Party through the Black Sections – and used their loyal votes in urban areas to get seats.
“I remember all of us sitting, looking at each other, like, ‘Did you hear that? Did you hear how they did it?’“said Chimbganda, during one of several conversations last year.
When Chimbganda first looked to join a party, it was Fianna Fáil. “If I was able to come to Ireland during the Fianna Fáil days, to me, they must have been some kind of pro-immigrant thing,” said Chimbganda.
That’s what he’d thought. But the party didn’t contact him for more than a year, so he switched allegiance to Fine Gael – convinced by a friend, Fonong Fevant Fon, who was in direct provision at the time.
He was frustrated about a lot right then: lack of representation, racist attacks. “From all those things, I had seen stuff that I thought, those things can be fixed politically,” says Chimbganda, who also oversees the Youth Platform Project, which deals with issues concerning young migrants.
Beefing up migrant numbers within political parties, encouraging others to sign up and get involved, has been a goal for him. “In sooo many rooms that matter, I find myself being the only ethnic minority. Forget being the black guy, the only ethnic minority,” says Chimbganda.
Fine Gael Intercultural is still a smallish presence, says Muttumula. “To be honest, we are not a big group within the party. We are still in the hundreds.”
Khurshid says there isn’t an intercultural grouping in Fianna Fáil as there is in Fine Gael. “But we intend to do that,” he says. “To have the same kind of forum or something like that.”
Not everybody has opted for the bigger parties, of course. “You could end up just being a number there,” says Ellie Kisyombe, from Malawi, who is running for the Social Democrats in the north inner-city.
Would she have run as an independent? That might work for some people, but you need to have a support system and people to work with, she said. “I believe in a family as a group of people.”
As she saw it, the Social Democrats is a new party, people are curious about the shape it is going to take – there’s room there for impact, she says.
She was looking for a party that acknowledged and made space for all the different parts of her identity: as a black migrant, and also an asylum seeker, and also a single mother, she says.
She knows it isn’t going to be easy, that there are challenges to being a “changemaker”. “It’s going to be a battle,” she says.
Getting out the Vote
Research from 2016 found that Dublin city has one of the largest gaps in the country between the percentage of people who aren’t Irish citizens living here at 19.2 percent, and their percentage on the voting register at 5.7 percent.
Hazel Chu, the Green Party candidate in Pembroke, who got involved after running her husband Patrick Costello’s last campaign for the same party, says she thinks there is an effect whereby immigrants or minorities see a diverse spread of candidates and it makes them more likely to vote.
“It does sound quite parochial, but people do do that. They look at whether they’re being represented rather than principles and parties,” she says.
Ali of Fianna Fáil lists some of the issues that people have come to him with. There are those struggling to get immigration statuses sorted and living with the severe stress of that, he says. “It was taking years and years for the department to answer to them.”
At a corner store in Blackpitts, he stops by to talk to the guy behind the counter about the meeting he had at a gurdwara and how growing Sikh communities in Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght were struggling to get to the gurdwara on a Sunday, with four hours’ travel by bus.
“I’m raising an issue about the bus thing,” says Ali. He is thinking about whether there could be a special bus, once a week, a kind of community transport serviceto run people there and back.
He stresses that his constituents are everybody who lives in this part of town, though, regardless of where they are from – they all have concerns about pot-holed roads, dog poo, the housing crisis.
At Cloud Nine, a shisha lounge on Clanbrassil Street, there are lots of guys and girls in their mid-20s. Clouds of shisha smoke sweeten the air. Punjabi music is playing on a small television screen in one corner.
Ali works his way through the room, shakes hands, and – turning – shakes another hand, and another.
“He’s making us Pakistanis proud in Dublin,” says Usman Akhtar, a filmmaker.
Akhtar didn’t vote in the last election, even though he was old enough. “I wasn’t registered back then. I was lazy.”
He says he’ll register next week. Ali is ahead of him – he’s already been onto Akhtar’s brother about it.
“I didn’t know that,” said Akhtar, with a grin.