Only dogs remain hostile to Fianna Fáil in Meath East
Thomas Byrne says he is confident of winning byelection
Fianna Fáil candidate Thomas Byrne (right) jokes with Labour candidate Eoin Holmes with Meath Councillor Nick Killian (centre). Photograph: Barry Cronin
Every election campaign Thomas Byrne has been involved in has ended up with somebody getting bitten by a dog. It is usually him. In 2007, a hostile mutt in Kells left his trousers in shreds, necessitating a quick detour to a local drapers. This time around he has escaped so far but his wife has, unfortunately for her, managed to keep the tradition alive.
What does that tell you? Not much other than beware of the dog. But at least it’s only the canines who are growling at Byrne and his squadron of Fianna Fáil canvassers this time around. As one of the canvassers accompanying him around the Kilbreena estate in Dunboyne says, it was so hostile in February 2011 that he was cautious about knocking on the doors of lifelong friends for fear of getting a verbal mauling.
On Sunday afternoon in Kilbreena – a local authority estate of about 30 years’ vintage – the only thing that’s biting is the northeasterly wind. It is Siberian in its bleakness and inhospitality. It is about two degrees but the chill factor from the wind takes it to well below zero.
A few hundred metres away on Dunboyne’s Main Street, scores of runners are milling around waiting to start the annual four-mile race around the town. On the tannoy, you can hear the announcer calling for a Thomas Byrne – it’s a common name around here – to come up to the starting line. As Byrne waits for householders to answer the doorbell, he hops up and down like an athlete waiting for the starting gun. And he says now, as he said a fortnight ago, that this is a race he is going to win.
Have all the votes that Phil Hogan borrowed two years ago returned to Fianna Fáil, and with interest? Certainly, on an hour-long canvass through the estate, we encounter no hostility, no one chasing them from the door, and no one saying “not this time”. That could mean nothing more than anger has subdued into indifference or silent resentment. It could also mean that some votes have returned to a party that up until 2011 was pre-eminent in Co Meath, winning four of the six seats in Meath West and Meath East in 2007.
Lots of people are at home on Sunday afternoon. Only twice does Byrne get the cold shoulder. He goes to say hello and press a leaflet into the palm of a woman walking swiftly by. She quickens her pace and turns away as if she is being approached by a chugger.
“Do not let anybody pass no matter who they are,” one of the team consoles.
In another house, the door is closed in his face before he gets a sentence out.
Accompanying Fianna Fáil canvasses in Meath has proved tricky in terms of gauging support because the gillie is usually a local Fianna Fáil councillor who knows every trout in the lake. This time it’s veteran councillor Noel Leonard who seems to be on friendly first-name terms with just about everybody, including the non-biting dogs.
The only sign that the house is hostile is when Leonard hangs back at the gate. Elsewhere it’s all easy banter – a big chat about the St Patrick’s Day parade (“best ever in Dunboyne”); noting that this day last year the temperature was 22 degrees; a woman saying a miracle will be needed to improve the weather before Easter. And a good few pledges of votes along the way.
The main selling point that Byrne conveys is that it’s a two-horse race between him and Helen McEntee. It’s important, he contends, that Meath East has an Opposition TD rather than three Coalition deputies. Today’s he’s also stressing his local work, in improving the green areas of this estate and helping constituents through his regular clinics in the town.
The issues that crop up on the door are local ones. A woman has a problem with heating. In another house Fiona Poona, who moved in two years ago, is concerned about antisocial behaviour and shows the brick that was thrown through her kitchen window. Highly articulate, she stands in her kitchen with its sweet smell of fresh baking and describes the frustrations she has had trying to get a response from the various authorities. Byrne talks about the urgent need for the council to have a proper parks department to ensure there are facilities for kids. He also says that cutbacks in the Garda Síochána have meant that two former districts in Meath East have been rolled into one.
So after an hour we can report that Byrne has not been bitten by a dog or had his head bitten off by an irate citizen. As to his prediction of victory, it’s harder to tell. As uncertain as knowing if a dog is merely going to bark or if he’s going to bite.