Taking voter temperature in Longford and Sligo: lukewarm for Varadkar

Fine Gael needs rural Ireland but its seen to be weak on country concerns from post office closures to driving laws

Paddy Tully (centre flat cap) keeps an eye on the prices at the mart in Granard, Co Longford. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

Paddy Tully (centre flat cap) keeps an eye on the prices at the mart in Granard, Co Longford. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

 

It is at sleepy crossroads such as Ballinalee that Leo Varadkar faces some of his toughest challenges.

Situated between Granard and Longford town, the small village is home to one of the candidates Fine Gael hopes will help increase its number of Dáil seats and put Varadkar in a position to form a majority government after the next election.

On a drizzly afternoon in Ballinalee last Wednesday, Padraig Farrell crosses the road from his hardware shop to his grocer’s to say hello.

Micheál Carrigy, the Fine Gael councillor and general election candidate, is the postmaster in the post office a few doors up, housed in the convenience shop bearing his family name.

Farrell, wearing protective gloves as he cleans out various units in his shop, says he sees traffic head towards Dublin from 6.30am most days as locals leave the county for work. Come the general election, he will vote for Carrigy. Yet Farrell, from a “Fine Gael family”, will not vote with any great enthusiasm for the party or the Government.

His support for Carrigy is purely personal and local.

“Longford needs a seat, it absolutely needs a seat,” Farrell says. “I am not very happy with Leo Varadkar, not at all. He is doing nothing for rural Ireland whatsoever.”

Of Longford-Westmeath’s four TDs in the Dáil, none are based in Longford. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have one seat each, along with Independent Kevin “Boxer” Moran, who based in Athlone.

The retirement of Labour’s Willie Penrose means one seat is up for grabs, and the fight between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to take it will be one of the key contests of the next election.

The challenge Varadkar faces is building poll ratings that would firmly secure the Longford seat for Carrigy, as well as other targets across the country.

Fine Gael TDs still fondly recall the night in December 2017 when news of an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll putting them on 36 per cent – and Varadkar’s personal ratings on 53 per cent – fizzed through the party.

It was for this, TDs told each other, that they had replaced Enda Kenny with Varadkar as party leader. Since then, however, Fine Gael has slipped back to 30 per cent, with Varadkar’s own approval ratings dropping 10 points to 43 per cent.

Fine Gael gathers in Wexford this weekend for a national conference ahead of the local and European elections on May 24th, with a general election to follow in the months thereafter. It desperately wants to achieve results in line with its poll figures of December 2017.

The charge of being aloof to the concerns of rural Ireland – smarting from the closure of post offices, Garda stations and recent tightening of road traffic laws – is one that many in Fine Gael are acutely aware could be a weak spot for Varadkar.

Farmers

A warning came in the most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, published earlier this month, which showed that support for Fine Gael had dropped among farmers.

Yet, at the Granard mart this week, the mood among cattle farmers was more upbeat than that of Farrell and other retailers in Granard, who also expressed support for Carrigy as a local candidate despite misgivings about the Government.

Even with low beef prices and the threat to the industry from a no-deal Brexit, Carrigy, Varadkar and the Government had some support at the mart.

Pat Nannery (37) said the blame for a no-deal Brexit, and its associated economic effects, will lie solely with London.

England would get the blame, fully – 100 per cent,” he said. Nannery knows Carrigy personally, and insists he will vote for him, as do many others at the mart. He says Varadkar is “doing fabulous” as Taoiseach.

Pat Wallace from Multyfarnham in Westmeath sees Brexit in similar terms, and says of the Government’s position: “I’d be behind them anyway.”

The British, he says, “have done what they have done for the last 800 years, we are not going to make a lot of change now”.

Brexit aside, Ireland “seems to be ticking over okay”, although overspending on the national children’s hospital is a concern. “That’s crazy, if we all carried on in that way we’d be out of business.”

Other descriptions of the performance of the economy at the mart range from “middling” to “the finest”, while Frank Heslin describes Varadkar as a “chancer, like the rest of them”.

“It is all spin – that rubbish they came out with that 2040,” he says of the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 capital spending plan launched last year.

However he hints he may give Carrigy a vote, but not his first preference which will go to Fianna Fáil’s Joe Flaherty, who based in Ballymahon in the south of the county.

Heslin, too, seems willing to face up to the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, if it happens. “The ordinary farmer, he is going to survive. He knows the rhythm of things and the way of the world. And, fair enough, you are not going to make a fortune but you are going to survive.”

Some express frustration with the seemingly interminable Brexit process, and want certainty soon – deal or no deal.

Martin Clyne (81) raises Minister for Transport Shane Ross’s tightening of road traffic legislation, including how learner drivers are no longer allowed on the road unless accompanied by a fully-licensed adult, which he says has stopped young people from driving.

“The only one who stood up was Healy-Rae. I wouldn’t be a supporter of the Healy-Raes [Kerry TDs Michael and Danny] but it was up to Fianna Fáil too to stand up but they hadn’t the guts.”

Both Carrigy and Flaherty keep offices in Longford town, where James Bannon, who lost the Longford seat for Fine Gael at the last election, is spotted having a teatime haircut in D’Barbers. The affable Bannon is polite but will not be drawn on who may succeed him in Leinster House, having fully disengaged from politics.

Two women, who decline to give their names, are not as reticent as they discuss their town and its politics in a nearby newsagents.

“I would vote local and I would stay local,” says one. “Robert Troy [Fianna Fáil’s TD] might have pumped into Longford, he might not pump into Longford what Boxer Moran has.”

“Boxer Moran is brilliant,” replies her friend.

The first woman agrees. “He is but I still wouldn’t give him my number one out of Longford because he is not a Longford man.”

They are not as taken with Varadkar.

“He has fallen into the ways of every other politician,” says the first woman. “Out for himself and nobody else.”

“I think he is slightly aloof,” said the second. “I don’t think he is a people’s Taoiseach.”

Local sources speculated that the popularity of Moran in south Longford, where Flaherty is based, could help Carrigy win the seat. And allegiances in Longford town itself, traditionally a Fianna Fáil stronghold, are fluid.

“Carrigy might have the edge but I think Flaherty will get in,” says James Mahon. “I am going to vote for Joe Flaherty. I am a Fine Gael man.”

Like others, he is sad about the state of his hometown. “I am ashamed of it. I am 71 and I am living here all my life. I wouldn’t stay here in this town after 8pm at night. It is an unsafe time at night. We have a lot if multicultural and different types of people.”

Further up the N4 in Sligo, Varadkar last year launched Project Ireland 2040, the capital development plan he believes will help spread growth to the regions. Fianna Fáil zeroed in on the promotion of the plan to further its claim that Varadkar is spin over substance, the party’s main attack line on the Taoiseach.

The four seat Sligo-Leitrim constituency currently has two Fianna Fáil TDs, and one each for Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, whose deputy, Tony McLoughlin, is retiring.

Brexit

Last month, Varadkar and Ross turned the sod on the €150 million upgrade to the N4 between Collooney and Castlebaldwin, part of Project Ireland.

In the Johnston Court shopping centre in Sligo town, Tom McLoughlin, an unaligned voter from Caltragh who is distantly related to his TD namesake, described Project Ireland as “crap”. Yet he is still likely to vote Fine Gael at the next election.

“Fianna Fáil, they busted us. I think they might just get back. It is a big Fianna Fáil town here. He is not doing anything wrong at the moment, Leo. He is holding his guns with this Brexit.”

Carmel Mullaney, whose husband John runs a clothes shop in the centre, says she too has yet to see much follow through on Project Ireland 2040. Her husband, she says, has noticed a “slight uptick” in business.

“But nothing compared to other towns. Sligo has always been behind,” she says.

The Government is “doing okay”, as is Varadkar, although, in her view, he needs to “tone it down ... some of the things he says, you’d think [he’d] stop and think before he said it”.

On Rockwood Parade, Pat Forde is walking to work at North Connaught Youth & Community Services, where he is regional director. “The town has come on well but there is an awful lot of empty buildings around the place,” he says. “But I think a lot of that might come down to rates and we don’t have the footfall.”

A Fianna Fáil supporter, he says he will vote for change at the next election. “As he admitted himself, I think he lacks the empathy,” he says of Varadkar.

Anne McLoughlin, also on her way to work, says Sligo town is not what it was.“It has improved slightly, nothing massive.”

For her, Varadkar has fallen short of initial expectations.

“We thought he was a clever man, young, forward thinking. There doesn’t seem to be any plan going forward. With Ireland, with Leo Varadkar, with Fine Gael. I can’t even say that Fianna Fáil would be any better.

“ I am not a fan of the Healy-Raes with their parochial politics. It is so irritating, but they are getting a serious amount of work done for their constituency.”

Not long ago, some in Fine Gael believed that Varadkar’s personal standing would be the main driver of the party’s success at the next election, but the strains of almost two years in office have made the Taoiseach just another politician in the eyes of many voters.

Back in December 2017, Brexit and the initial agreement on the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard border, was the fuel powering Fine Gael’s popularity. Not one among the dozens of voters in Longford and Sligo who spoke to The Irish Times this week said the Brexit policy pursued by the Government was incorrect. A successful resolution to the process in the coming weeks may burnish the party’s standing once more.

Nor is there a great rush to any particular politician or party, aside from compliments towards some Independent TDs.

And, in a difference from the 2016 election campaign, when Fine Gael’s message of recovery fell flat outside Dublin, many in rural Ireland now feel that the economy has improved, if only marginally.

While he may no longer be hugely personally popular – in rural Ireland at least – the Taoiseach may still see a path, through Brexit and the economy, to capturing the extra five to six per cent he and his party covet.

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