Fine Gael feels the chill factor in Meath East
Helen McEntee battles against the element and a little negativity on canvass
Helen McEntee: a candidate in the forthcoming Meath East byelection on the hustings in Kilmainhamwood, County Meath
What can be confirmed beyond doubt is that the barometer hanging in the hallway of the country house south of Duleek is accurate. The needle is pointing to stormy weather.
Two steps outside the doorway the temperature had dropped to 3 degrees and there is incessant horizontal rain. The Baltic wind is also guaranteed to turn all umbrellas inside out within 10 seconds.
Two steps outside the doorway also stands Helen McEntee. Shivering a little, her blonde hair tied back, her mauve coat soaked through, she still battles a smile through the elements.
This March byelection has been a trying experience as the candidates have traversed the wintry landscape of this three-seat constituency.
What’s harder to calibrate is the political barometer. Is the needle wavering for McEntee too, moving from Fair towards Change and into Storm?
McEntee has been an energetic, upbeat and uncomplaining candidate as she has sought to convince people she is more than a name. She will certainly get a sympathy vote but she will also need to retain floating voters who plumped for Fine Gael two years ago.
In mid-afternoon, McEntee and a large group of canvassers crisscross housing estates in the north Meath town, some estates working class, others middle class. TDs Damien English and Charlie Flanagan, are out with McEntee, as is the ubiquitous Kerry MEP Seán Kelly.
‘We will do our best’
In the first house they go into, a bungalow, the woman says no using the following formula: “We cannot vote for everybody but we will do our best.”
In the pristine new estates few people answer doors. Most residents there in the daytime are stay-at-home mums. Almost all of those who answer the door pledge support for McEntee, either because she is a young woman or because they knew her father (Nobber is not too far away and Shane McEntee had an office in Duleek).
McEntee tells one woman: “I am 26. I want to continue the work of my dad. I want to be a young fresh voice.”
The woman replies: “And you are a woman. As a woman it’s important to get a younger woman elected to engage on our behalf.”
Only one man answers the door. He is very pleasant and chats away with Seán Kelly (a former GAA president) about rugby and the Meath football team. When asked, he says the main issue is jobs. After working for more than 30 years in Drogheda he has had huge difficulty picking up any work in the past year. But he’s not venting.
Down at Fr Ryan Park, there’s more venting to be heard in this local authority estate. A lot of it is personal. A woman has lost €36 from her pension; another woman is concerned because a 79-year-old man, “crippled with arthritis”, has lost his home help. McEntee is sympathetic. She often responds pointing to her and her friends’ experience: those who have had to emigrate, somebody else who sent off dozens of CVs – like a man at a door – and got no reply. As McEntee walks across the rainswept road, a man in his 50s stops her to salute her.
He asks: “Will you win it?”
She is stumped. There is a long pause. “Well, I’ll be working away.”
“Well, it’s not over till the fat lady sings,” he replies.
Another local man tells her: “I definitely will not be voting for Fine Gael.” He then says something not uncommon these days: “The only one I have seen in the past while willing to do something is Sinn Féin.”
The man is out of work and has been unable to find employment or get on a decent Fás course. “The small people pay for everything. The bigger people with a lot of money are getting away scott free,” he says.
McEntee and Kelly engage him for 10 minutes patiently. Kelly thinks they might have turned him. I’m not so sure. There are headwinds everywhere in Meath East these days.