FG’s Helen McEntee favourite to succeed her father in Meath East byelection
Fianna Fáil’s fortunes looking up as candidates shiver on the doorsteps
Fine Gael's Helen McEntee, a candidate in the forthcoming Meath East byelection, speaks to Maisie Farnan at Kilmainhamwood Retirement Village, Kilmainhamwood, Co Meath. Photograph: Barry Cronin
The Meath East byelection evokes strong memories of the general election in 2011, held at the same time of the year. There’s a smattering of snow on the ground and the dark draws in quickly.
In the Nordic coldness the candidates shiver if the doorstep conversations are too long. Mostly they are short – but not always convivial.The difference is that Fianna Fáil is not getting it in the ear this time, but the two Government parties are. Well, for that read Fine Gael.
Labour was unable to accommodate The Irish Times to join its candidate Eoin Holmes on the canvass over two days. The party said he was preparing for the Vincent Browne TV3 debate. Opponents say Labour has found the hustings to be a political as well as a meteorological tundra.
Win the seat
As for Fine Gael, its candidate Helen McEntee will likely win the seat but with nothing like the whopping 41 per cent of the vote from 2011. As the daughter of the late Shane McEntee, electoral history is on her side. The long sequence of 21 byelections won by opposition candidates, between Noel Treacy’s victory for Fianna Fáil in 1982 in Galway East and Patrick Nulty’s win in Dublin West in October 2011, suggests a rule that government parties don’t win byelections.
An equally powerful factor is the sympathy vote for the close relative of a TD who has died in office. By happenstance, most deputies who died during that period were in opposition: Clem Coughlan, Ber Cowen, Johnny Fox, Brian Lenihan snr, Hugh Coveney and Pat Upton.
While there has been a huge influx of commuting families in recent years – particularly to the towns of Ratoath, Dunshaughlin, Ashbourne, Slane and Dunboyne – Meath East is still a traditional constituency. Helen McEntee is aware she will benefit from empathy for her late father. “People are loyal to him. People said to me there will be a sympathy vote. I am not going to knock or disrespect that. There are people who will vote in his memory.”
McEntee (26) is personable and chatty and seems to have overcome most of the nerves that come with being thrust into the limelight.
On a chilly afternoon, she is canvassing the impressive detached houses along a quiet country road in Rathbeggan. The response on the doorsteps is mixed. There is sympathy – “I am getting emotional just looking at you,” says one woman who answers her door.
But here, among the solid middle-class, classic Fine Gael stock, it is not all one-way traffic. A woman in an extended cottage tells McEntee the middle classes have suffered and Fine Gael reneged on election promises. McEntee gamely talks about her youth, the fact that most of her friends are living in Australia, the US or Britain, and her determination to bring employment to the constituency. “You are brave enough to come to people’s doorsteps to hear the absolute truth,” the woman says after a long exchange. McEntee argues she is there on merit. She has a degree in politics and worked for her father for five years and a Dáil seat was always her long-term ambition.
At another house, a man is clearly irate: “It’s the first time I will not vote Fine Gael. You said you will never touch property tax. You know what yiz did. So not this time around.”
Does it signal a strong Fianna Fáil comeback? Well, the party is sparing no effort. Last weekend, 220 people were out canvassing and Micheál Martin is out almost daily as one of eight teams criss-crossing the three-seater. Their candidate Senator Thomas Byrne (35) lost his seat in 2011. Today he’s canvassing a small estate in Kells with a mix of local authority and private housing. Charlie Rogers, who has a small bus hire business, is emphatic: “I’ll vote for you as sure as you will vote for yourself.” Byrne’s demeanour mixes enthusiasm and occasional surliness. His promise to Kells voters that he’ll reopen his office in the town if elected hardly sounds like a vote clincher. This is strong Fianna Fáil territory and so there are few dissenting voices.
It is also clear the hostility Fianna Fáil encountered everywhere in 2011 has gone. Byrne is gung-ho about his chances. One of his main lines is it is pointless to have three Government backbenchers in the constituency. He also majors on property tax, rural roads (a big issue), debt alleviation (he helped draft Fianna Fáil’s major Bills) and cuts to allowances.
Debt relief and property tax also feature largely in Darren O’Rourke’s canvassing repertoire. The former lab scientist is 32 and a newcomer. He left his job last year to become a Sinn Féin adviser in health and has the really serious demeanour of many of the party’s backroom team. “It’s a huge opportunity to get out and put foward the Sinn Féin analysis,” he says. His profile is too low and he’s still a little too diffident to sway the outcome, but the party will certainly consolidate.