Roscommon and South Leitrim Constituency Profile: Roscommon and South Leitrim is somewhere you sense was never quite completed when an independent Ireland began nation-building. Travelling through the soft countryside of the constituency, there is evidence of absence everywhere.
Every village down to the smallest hamlet seems to have a ghost estate at its edges. And there are many tumbledown houses from previous generations: families who died off or emigrated.
Broadband is dire in most places and some 21,000 homes are on water boil notices. And, of course, there’s Roscommon Hospital and the raw nerves that still exist about the removal of its A&E services.
The strange thing about it is that Roscommon isn’t far-flung from Dublin, like the western seaboard. Two vastly improved road networks, the M6 and N5, pass through the county north and south, giving great access to Dublin in an hour and a half. Yet it can give the sense of being as remote as Donegal or west Kerry.
Roscommon is not peripheral, but the people on the doorsteps will tell you it has been marginalised. Its smallness gives it a striking sense of familiarity and community.
On a canvass of the Ardsala Wood estate with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, candidate Ivan Connaughton and Cllr Orla Leyden, people have lots of issues. Among those they encounter is a woman who is taking her daughter with suspected appendicitis to Portiuncla Hospital in Ballinasloe, which is the nearest A&E since the unit closed in Roscommon.
Quite a few people are wearing T-shirts with “Join the Boys” logos. That’s a remarkable campaign set-up for a local family whose three young boys have all been diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease. Most people in the town seem to be involved and have been generous with time and money.
One last election
Some 10 candidates have declared for next Friday’s byelection to fill the vacancy caused by Luke “Ming” Flanagan’s election to the European Parliament. This will be the constituency’s last election. Leitrim will be gone into a new northwest constituency the next election and Roscommon will be joined with a swathe of East Galway.
It’s striking the level of agreement and consensus among the candidates on the issues and the solutions, including one that urbanites find hard to fathom: turf wars. Nearly every house in the county has a stack of turf for winter – nobody lives too far from a bog.
For most people, the right to cut a family plot out-trumps a sheaf of EU habitats directives.
The big exception to consensus is the hospital, which remains a bitter issue. Connaughton has been put down as the front-runner, following strong local elections. Fianna Fáil has needed to address its absence of female TDs and there were two obvious candidates here, both excellent. But neither Orla Leyden nor Rachel Doherty was willing to stand.
Connaughton, low-key and hard-working, put his head above the parapet in 2011 when nobody else would. If he wins, the seat will be his to keep. The only female candidate is Fine Gael's Maura Hopkins, a young occupational therapist who specifically moved back from Dublin to win a council seat.
Very impressive as Hopkins is, given the controversy over the hospital and the traditional struggle of Government parties in byelections, it would be a surprise if she was in the final shake-up. The same disadvantage applies to Labour Party Senator John Kelly, although he is well-liked.
Threats from the left
The biggest threats to Fianna Fáil come from Sinn Féin's Martin Kenny and Independents Michael Fitzmaurice and John McDermott. The elbowing by Frank Feighan of McDermott, the hospital action committee candidate, at an event attended by the Taoiseach became a big story.
There's no better advocate than McDermott for the need for A&E response, including better air responses. In Strokestown, a huge crowd has gathered for a Sinn Féin rally. Bizarrely, Martin Kenny is not there because he's in Dublin for a Prime Time debate.
The dark horse is Ming Independent Michael Fitzmaurice. A central figure in the turfcutters’ association, Fitzmaurice has been backed heavily by Flanagan. He’s a formidable candidate in his own right and has a national profile as the prime mover in the turfcutters’ association.
Fitzmaurice, a huge bear of a man, is a “doer” who hates standing on ceremony and “bollixing around”. In physique and in his style of communication, he reminds one of Ben Dunne – direct, to the point.
He also has a few disadvantages. He lives in Glinsk, Co Galway, which (for now) is not in the constituency. He’s also a county councillor in Galway and pulled an impressive vote in the northeast of the county. In 2016, he will be living slap bang in the middle of the new constituency.
As the campaign enters its final days, it may be Fitzmaurice who will mount the biggest challenge.