Ireland, can we have your votes please?

She became Ireland's sweetheart when she won the Eurovision Song Contest. But thirty years on, can Dana adjust to a new life in politics?
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The bruiser with the wrist-to-shoulder tattoos has been waiting for an hour. "Dana, remember me?" he bawls coarsely, as "Dana" Rosemary Scallon, the sweet 1970 Eurovision Song Contest winner, now an Irish Euro MP, finally emerges from a political meeting in the Sligo Park Hotel, setting off a frisson of excitement.

They look incongruous together, this tattooed toughie and the cute, gap- toothed Dana, who thrilled Europe with the unforgettable "All Kinds of Everything". But the hard man from Dana's native Derry persists. "I left you off [at home] after a dance when you were 16," he says. Dana slowly smiles. She is glad that is all he remembers, she says. The little crowd giggles; the honour of an icon, for ever young and innocent, is still intact.

Dana was just 18, waif-like in a white mini-dress, when she won the Eurovision. At 48, despite the black business suit, maturer shape and lines round her eyes, there are still traces of girlish prettiness. The brown eyes are still beautiful, the smile still warm. "Ah, how are you now Dana?" enquires a succession of middle-aged women in the foyer, cooing over her as if she were still a teenager and only they had aged.

The enduring affection owes everything to the timing of Dana's Eurovision win. As Northern Ireland spiralled into violence, Dana offered North and South a tiny ray of hope. Somehow she always managed to float, innocent, above politics. "I never heard her say a single political thing," remembers a former local reporter, Eddie McIlwaine. "Most of Ireland was in love with her." Reborn as a politician, the grown-up Dana - now firmly anti- divorce and anti-abortion - is proving to be a far more divisive figure.

Dana's metamorphosis from entertainer to MEP has stunned everyone. In three decades there had been no sign of politicisation. In the early post-Eurovision years, Dana was content to tour America and Europe and make records. Despite some chart success, there was no descent into the predictable drugs hell. Sheltered by her family - her mum and gran accompanied her to the Eurovision after a blessing from the Bishop of Derry - she retained the wholesomeness that was her chief selling-point.

Legend has it that when Dana's mother was auditioning showbusiness agents, she asked Michael Grade for guarantees that her treasure would not have to wear low-cut dresses. On television Dana was confined to Saturday-night and summertime specials, and children's and religious programmes.

The singer was always a serious Catholic, but her conviction grew after her marriage in 1978 to Damian Scallon, a hotelier involved in the charismatic Catholic renewal movement. By the mid-1980s, club and cabaret appearances had given way to gospel concerts. In 1991 the Scallons and their four children left Northern Ireland for Alabama, where Damian took a job with the Christian cable station Eternal Network TV and Dana fronted one of its programmes.

Even Dana's mother thought it was a joke when she announced, two years ago, that she was returning to run for the Irish presidency as an independent. Forecast to come last, the political novice came a respectable third, ahead of the official Labour candidate.

This summer, when she stood as a Euro candidate in the vast west of Ireland constituency of Connacht-Ulster, she was dismissed once again. Pundits from Dublin to Galway were floored when she won a Euro seat normally reserved for the ruling Fianna Fail. "It was the Catholic Church that got her in," complains a veteran journalist in Galway. The constituency's liberals despair at the election of an "arch Conservative", contrary to the progressive trend in other parts of the country. Dana, they warn, is just an attractive front for an ugly counter-attack by those who would drag Ireland back to the Dark Ages.

On the journey from the hotel to a nursery project in the village of Gurteen, south of Sligo, Dana is full of her legendary sweetness, despite being exhausted by four days in Brussels and the constituency's weekend demands. Every question is weighed up, each reply is slow, softly spoken and considered. The style is outlandishly gentle for the brutish political world, except for the occasional edge of steely determination.

Applying lipstick to a tired face, she raises the conspiracy theories herself. "I have been dismissed as everything from a mouthpiece for the Catholic Church to an evangelical Protestant parachuted in from Alabama," she says. She claims that no big organisation backed her, only a grass- roots movement that grew up during the 1997 campaign, and her four siblings and octogenarian mother, who canvassed with her.

She insists she was "bounced" into politics by false claims that she would enter the presidential race. "My greatest fear was that I would be a laughing-stock. But I had to ask myself whether I was more concerned about what people thought of me than standing up for what was right." Buoyed up by the support she received in the presidential fight, she decided to stand for the Euro seat. She won, she insists, because she shares the values of many people ignored by the opinion-formers of Dublin 4 (the Irish equivalent of Hampstead).

I was warned that a day with Dana is like an outing with Princess Diana. It is true. Part glamorous celebrity, part living saint, she elicits the same delirious response. "She has huge respect among the middle-aged and elderly," says a local journalist. "They turn out just to hover around and kiss her."

In Gurteen, they are waiting for Dana to lay a foundation stone for the BusyBees nursery. She is late and it is freezing. At the nursery building- site there are a dozen runny noses among a dozen under-fives, and the entire village is shivering in its Sunday best. But apart from little Gavin, pulling at the paper bee attached to his jumper, and practising a filthy scowl for Dana, no one seems to mind.

As her car speeds into the village behind two vehicle-loads of political volunteers, three little boys cheer from the roadside and then chase off towards the nursery site. As Dana steps out, two priests and a posse of locals walk down to meet her. She pats elbows, strikes up conversations and makes time for everyone. She is not a shake-hands, kiss-baby, move- on kind of politician, constantly scouring the room for more important people to talk to.

Instead she is all rural couthness, modest and ever concerned. "Will you step out of the mud now?" she asks a dignitary in high heels, squeezing up to make space on her platform. When a bouquet appears, Dana is so delighted you would think it was her first. Later she poses for souvenir snaps before retiring to the heaving village hall for tea and sausage rolls. Her style, one aide admits, can be nightmarish on a tight schedule. She is always running late. But, he adds, "She is a people person, and if you could sell and bottle that you'd make a fortune." A volunteer, Freddie Kennedy, 53, says that Dana has restored his faith in politicians: "When she talks to you she makes you feel the centre of the world."

Dana thanks Gurteen for inviting her "because of my views on the family". As a working mother (her four children are aged 10 to 18), she says she knows all about wanting the best care for children. But Catherine O'Dowd, 26, says that while most share Dana's "pro-family" opinions, her invite - like her election - owed more to public fondness for her: "I honestly think that many people who voted for her did not think she would get in."

Local priest Father John Doherty suggests that Dana was elected because locals feel that the established parties have forgotten an area untouched by the Celtic Tiger economy. Their marginalisation is exploited by Dana, who talks volubly about economic neglect and the "tyranny" of Dublin's "illiberal liberals".

She is less keen to discuss her views on abortion, an issue on which Ireland is bitterly divided. In both elections she struggled to prevent her campaign being reduced to that single issue. But how far has she taken her views? Did she stand outside American abortion clinics and shout at patients?

Like many pro-lifers, Dana insists that empirical evidence, not moral belief, dictates her position. She became pro-life because women told her that after their abortions "there was never a day they did not see their child in the face of another". I say I know women like that. I also know others who seem to have suffered little and would make the same choice again. She stares ahead and says nothing. But what about clinic protests? "I would sometimes go there and pray," she finally concedes.

If she shies away from the abortion issue, Dana absolutely refuses to sing. Her brother and political adviser, John, says she is asked to perform everywhere she goes, but Dana presumably wants to draw a line between the Seventies singer and the Nineties politician. Ironically, it is to her political advantage that her electorate never will. Speculation is rife that Dana will run for the Dail. This time, no one is underestimating her chances. The odds are that in this part of Ireland she would probably win.