Taoiseach facing rumbles of discontent on the home front
Many voters in Castlebar feel Enda Kenny hasn’t done enough for the area
Avril Grufferty, Ballinrobe (left) and Martha Egan, Finney, meet Cllr Brendan Henaghan, on his local election canvass in Castlebar. Photograph: Michael Donnelly
The horizontal rain is lashing shoppers off the streets. The liquidation notice in the shuttered frontage of Hynes’ shoe shop – part of Castlebar’s DNA for 60 years – is still sending shockwaves through the town.
Inside another empty shop, a retailer is close to breaking point: “I shouldn’t have time to be talking to you,” he says sharply. His eyes well up: “Look around you – I’m hanging on by my fingernails, financially and psychologically. But I have a family. Failure is not an option.”
Turnover is down by 60 per cent. Property bought as a pension has tanked.
“Three years ago, everybody in Mayo put all their hopes and aspirations in Enda Kenny, ” he says. “They sold their souls here to win votes for him. In the rest of the country Fianna Fáilers were being asked to ‘lend us your votes to save Ireland’; here it was ‘lend us your votes to save Mayo’. And they did. That was our big chance finally to get a look-in. But now we’ve been forgotten and abandoned. The message coming back is that he’s a national politician for all of the people.”
Yes, he voted Fine Gael three years ago too. “The Irish people don’t do street riots; they lie in wait . . . this Government is going to be mauled.”
Another, more relaxed retailer agrees. “People are very, very disappointed. The town is dying – and being let die. We have too many overheads and not enough footfall.”
Does she get angry when canvassed by Fine Gaelers? “No,” she says with a wry laugh. “I’m way past that.” But like almost all the Enda-critics, she pleads for anonymity.
Unlike Rita Quinn and her son Pat. They run a shop that defies description: fishing tackle, guns, jewellery, skincare.
“I mightn’t bother my head voting this time,” says Rita, a former pharmacist.
“I see a lot of disillusionment with Enda Kenny. He has done absolutely nothing for Castlebar,” says Pat. “He goes around shaking hands in Europe but he’s still a TD for Castlebar.”
This is Mayo’s recurring theme. Wasn’t Enda supposed to bring home the bacon? If you are elected to represent the constituency and then become Taoiseach to govern the country, where does your first duty lie? Here in Mayo, it’s not just the voters who believe your first duty is to them.
In a questionnaire sent to random public representatives, Áine Ryan of the Mayo News asked if they were taoiseach, what they would do differently in the county.
“I would put on the Mayo jersey to start with!” replied Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary. “The Taoiseach has shown, in my view, a marked reluctance to fight for Mayo in his three years in office.”
Has the Taoiseach done a good job in leading Ireland out of crisis? “No,” said Independent councillor and undertaker, Michael Kilcoyne. “All politics is local and his first obligation should be to the people of Co Mayo who voted for him and put their trust in him and elected him as their representative, their TD, in our national parliament.”
Occasionally around the town, the name of Pádraig Flynn is invoked.
“At least Pee did something for his own people,” mutters an elderly man about the former Fianna Fáil minister.
Thomas Collins, an estate agent, artist, music-and-gun dealer and close ally of Enda Kenny, gets “so angry” when he hears this kind of criticism of the man he calls “the Chief”.
“He was at nine events in the county last Saturday night,” he says, listing off numerous openings including a library, a business unit, a national school, a town park. Plus a walkabout and a book launch, ending with “an amazing speech” at Soroptimists International, a huge international event in Breaffy House.
To Collins, it all speaks of Kenny’s relentless work ethic and quiet achievement for Mayo. “Something is happening slowly and most people are missing it,” he says, mentioning the €12 million development at the Sacred Heart hospital, the regenerated town centre, the new VEC buildings, a new factory.
At the same time, he accuses people of failing to see “the big picture”. Enda Kenny “is now a national politician. People forget he has a huge job,” he says. “I think the national media have been very unkind and unjust to him. It’s just wrong.”
But he does concede the town has “suffered”.
Today, amid national news of soaring rents in the main cities, the auctioneer says morosely, “we’re not seeing any bounce here”.
There are some who argue – privately – that market forces are causing the business closures, not Government policies. Fine Gael will be pinning its hopes on them and on the “big picture” people such as Eugene and Josie Heneghan, who opened a cafe here three years ago because “it was a choice between starve or emigrate”.
Josie says: “I’d look at the bigger picture. I think Enda Kenny’s done unbelievably hard work creating jobs – not necessarily for Castlebar but for Ireland. He hasn’t sat at home.”
Or a relaxed Brendan Parsons, puffing a fag outside his shoe shop: “Deep down, I don’t see what else they could have done . . . But they have to find a new direction now.”
Or Seán Bourke, a 35-year- old, putting his faith and finances into a 150-year-old butcher shop: “A lot of what they did had to be done . . . I’m pretty sure I’ll be voting for Fine Gael again. I think people here thought they’d get more out of it but you can’t be seen to be favouring [Mayo] either.”
Or Katherine Brennan, in her bookshop on Castle Street: “The general view from people I know is that Enda has worked his ass off. He was dealt a hard card, but he’s a genuinely good guy and is doing the best he can.”
Thomas Collins predicts that “there’ll be cross-voting all over the place”, but also that the party will hold its four seats here. Other activists reckon they will lose at least one. FG has five candidates, of whom health food retailer Brendan Henaghan is the only non-incumbent.
A former town councillor, wearing his traditional blue shirt and new shoes, he is a likeable, happy man at ease among cross-voters and cross voters. “Even though he’s Fine Gael, I’ll vote for him because he’s a hell of a nice guy,” says a cross retailer.
On the street, an optimistic thirtysomething, Avril Grufferty, about to set up an outdoor preschool, and her friend Martha Egan reckon they’ll be voting for Independents. “I don’t go for the big parties,” Grufferty says.
Sinéad Kelleher, the busy, cheerful, thirtysomething proprietor of the Supreme Gifts emporium, can hardly be bothered to think about it.
“I’m sick of the lot of them,” she says with a laugh. “I just feel like most of them are talking nonsense. I’m very disheartened by so much of what’s going on. All the huge pay packets – I mean, are they in touch with reality at all? And what’s going on with the guards? And the charities?
“It’s not even one political party over another – Fianna Fáil weren’t any better in government. In fairness, I do think that Enda Kenny took control of a sinking ship. But they haven’t really instilled any optimism into business people. This town is dying on its feet.”
Will she vote? “I’ll go into the ballot box and do eeny, meeny, miny, mo.”