Election 2016: Fitzmaurice aims to build on byelection win
Independent TD is winning voters in Roscommon-Galway with his can-do attitude
Michael Fitzmaurice speaking to Michael Early at his bar in Bushfield, Castleplunket, Co Roscommon. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Roscommon Town on a cold, wet and windy February afternoon is a bleak looking place.
Behind the old 18th century jail that dominates the square at the top of the town, there is a car park and a clutch of Celtic Tiger era shops.
Most are vacant, the business closed or one that did not even manage to get off the ground.
But there is a buzz around one of the shops: the constituency headquarters of Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice.
Inside, he is pacing about the room, talking into his mobile phone.
“Look it, I know there’s only one vote there and we’ll probably get it but I’ll be down anyway,” says the candidate.
The cream-walled office is sparsely decorated, visual relief coming only from some “Thank you” cards from grateful constituents, information leaflets and a couple of celebratory photographs recording his October 2014 byelection victory to fill the seat vacated by Luke Flanagan, his friend and champion who galloped off to Brussels.
In a corner on the floor, there are a few cardboard boxes containing what is left of the 30,000 “Vote No 1 Michael Fitzmaurice” leaflets he had made.
Marty, one of the re-election crew on duty, is looking at a large, glossy poster of the candidate lying on the counter.
“Get me 10 or 12 of them,” says Fitzmaurice, breaking away from the phone which appears, over the next few hours, to be more or less permanently attached to his ear.
Marty places the poster – “Standing Up For People” – on the floor and proceeds to measure its dimensions by walking, toe to heel along the edge.
Thirty one by 18, he notes before going off to order more.
Michael Fitzmaurice is a classic local politician. He is so rooted in his community and the landscape that he is now part of it.
A physically large man, he has huge hands that squeeze others in a vice-like welcoming grip that is warm and genuine.
He never stops talking and has an infectious “can-do” approach to problems.
He gives the impression of believing there are few things that a digger and a couple of willing lads cannot sort out.
He is now standing for the new constituency of Roscommon-Galway, a three- seater which constituency profiler Patsy McGarry predicts will elect one Fine Gael TD (new candidate Maura Hopkins) and two Independents: Fitzmaurice, who is part of the Independent Alliance, and former Fine Gael TD Denis Naughten.
Nightly, volunteers from among 250 to 300 people fan out across the constituency which has been divided into 17 areas. Homes are visited, votes pleaded for.
Emmett, another of the crew, breaks off from his phone to ask Fitzmaurice what is needed to qualify for Farm Assist, a means-tested State subsidy for low-income farmers.
“If you haven’t cattle on it, it can’t be classified,” says Fitzmaurice.
“He has two cows,” says Emmet, hand over the phone.
“Then he’s sound,” says Fitzmaurice.
“That should be no problem,” Emmet tells the (doubtless relieved) constituent.
And with that, we are out the door and into Fitzmaurice’s car, hurtling over to Bushfield near Castleplunket where Michael Earley’s pub, petrol pump and sheds stuffed with peat, bales of sheep wool and cattle meal is almost entirely surrounded by water.
Out back, a turlough has flooded to an unprecedented extent, creating a vast volume of water, spread over several hundred acres and up to 15 feet deep at the centre.
The water, which is about three foot deep closest to the property, is held back by a series of earthen banks, dykes of mud gouged from a nearby football field by Earley, Fitzmaurice and helpers, and a wall of half-tonne bags, also filled with mud, and stacked sandbags snaking about the place.
The mess is incredible: there are broken pallets, gas cylinders, fence posts, plastic sheeting and pieces of plastic everywhere. And mud, a lot of mud.
Community under siege
“This man could fly through with number ones,” Earley says as Fitzmaurice bumbles about the place checking the defences. “Only for him . . . ”
There is praise also for county engineer Eugene Dwyer.
“Outstanding!” says Earley who blames no one for what nature has thrown at him but would like to see a relieving ditch dug to Shad Lough.
On the other side of the constituency, in Ardaslough, Co Galway, Catherine Keaveney is in one of five homes cut off since the end of December by another turlough that has risen and put the access road under about four foot of water.
“It’s gotten deeper and deeper,” says Mary Brady, another resident, as Fitzmaurice drives a tractor bringing them in and out of their cut-off homes.
“Michael was the first to contact us and if he puts his mind to something, he’ll do it,” Brady says.
Fitzmaurice reckons he will have a work party from the council out within a day or two to raise the road.
What motivates him, I ask.
“I like doing good,” he says as an explanation. There isn’t a hint of self-praise.
“But there’s some days in the Dáil and, sure Jaysus, you’d be terrible frustrated at the pace of it. The Dáil needs a good shaking up.”