In seconds the room is swamped with Fianna Fáilers - a day on the campaign trail in the West

European candidates Anne Rabbitte and Maria Walsh take to the streets

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee looks at the battle between the candidates of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in Midlands–North-West. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Away from the bright sunlight, deep in the gloomy windowless interior of Loughrea Mart, we pass the cattle and sheep rings and arrive at an ante-room.

There is a hatch showing an office on the other side. A man of medium height and medium age is working there. He comes up to the window when he sees us.

We are meant to meet Fianna Fáil European candidate Anne Rabbitte here. “There’s no mart today,” he says, “there’s one tomorrow alright. I wonder did they get their days right.”

As we wait for the canvassers to arrive we have an amiable lively chat about the weather, and about the price of cattle (holding) and sheep (badly down this year).

And then like a sluice gate opening, there is a flood of Fianna Fáilers and within seconds the ante-room is swamped. Rabbitte has arrived with a big entourage. Several conversations take place at once, and every one salutes the affable man behind the hatch. It turns out that the mart had been chosen as the starting point for a canvass of Loughrea. “You are doing a tour of the town,” declares the man behind the hatch.

It’s only when we are leaving that one of the canvassers points out who this man is. It is Jimmy Cooney, who played corner back on the Galway team which won the 1980 hurling All-Ireland. From nearby Bullaun and the Sarsfields club, he is a brother of the great Joe Cooney, and an uncle of current Galway senior and All Ireland winner Joseph Cooney. This man belongs to Galway hurling aristocracy. He is probably the most self-effacing of the personalities we meet on a strange star-studded celebrity trail throughout Galway Midland North West.

I am a strong west of Ireland woman and people need to see that in the European parliament in the next five years that I am not going to be pushed over - Maria Walsh

Today, we are following two candidates: Rabbitte; and Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh.

There are also two inter-locking themes. The first is the possibility Fianna Fáil’s candidate strategy could see the party end up with a duck here, repeating the failure of 2014.

Personality

The second is the arrival of Maria Walsh, the former Rose of Tralee, into the race. Parties have long recognised that personality and name recognition are huge drivers in European elections. And by choosing Walsh, electorally Fine Gael may have found a Golden Ticket in a Wonka Bar. Two seats here for them, zero for their main rival, could turn out to be the biggest story of the election campaign.

In both instances, there is tension between the candidates. Rabbitte believes her running mate, Brendan Smith, is favoured by party headquarters, a view strengthened by full page ads for him at the weekend. There has been some squabbling over territory but in the final week both have the full run of the constituency. The party needs a front-runner: having two candidates close to each other would guarantee a loss. A huge lift is needed to avert a disaster.

There has been tension in Fine Gael too between Walsh and her running mate, Mairéad McGuinness, the runaway favourite who is the nearest thing rural Ireland has to royalty. A comment by Walsh about her accuracy with a rifle to a Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago was portrayed as a “dispute” and at sniping at McGuinness. You wonder if all that was a deliberate strategy and artifice, setting up both against each other, building up a straw man to knock down. It did the trick for Fine Gael in 2004, winning two seats in East because of the the no-love-lost rivalry between McGuinness and Avril Doyle. Whatever, the divide seems a motivating factor, unlike that in Fianna Fáil between Rabbitte and Smith which seems deeply negative.

Who do we meet on the “tour of the town”, the first stop in our celebrity tour. Well two of the canvassers are also hurling aristocrats. Sean Canning, a relaxed man in his 70s, is the father of Joe Canning, the famous Galway hurler,. There were seven children in the family, six of them (five boys and sister, Deirdre) who won all-Ireland medals in hurling and camogie, for club or country. Another of the brothers, Ivan, is a Fianna Fáil councillor standing for re-election in this area. He brings good humour to the canvass. “Promise them everything!” he exhorts as they go into shops.

This is familiar territory for Rabbitte. It is a Fianna Fáil stronghold close to her base of Portumna. And you can see the power of the Fianna Fáil machine today. There are about 20 canvassers, including three local election candidates. Besides the Cannings, there is former TD Noel Treacy, who brings the common touch and easy familiarity of a lifetime in politics. They sweep the town methodically. “Don’t forget the credit union, it’s very important for you to go in there,” counsels Treacy.

Loughrea is a thriving town and as you pass by the shops and offices, you can identify some family names associated with the party. Rabbitte has only been in politics for five years and got elected to the Dáil three years ago on her first attempt. She has a rising profile nationally as her party’s spokeswoman on children but people would struggle to recognise her outside her base.

It’s clear that Rabbitte has made her fealty to her native county one of the main planks of the campaign. In a seven-minute interview she mentions Galway no less than 17 times.

“It’s ten years since we had an MEP in Galway, fifteen years ago since we elected one.

“Galway is the largest county in the constituency. I would be very tribal. I believe Galway needs that voice in Europe from an infrastructural and strategic and investment point of view.

Anne Rabbitte while out canvassing in Galway. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd.
Anne Rabbitte while out canvassing in Galway. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd.

“If we don’t have that at at the table, looking for the funding, we will get left behind,” she says.

Is that not wishful thinking? Is Smith not the favoured candidate with her as the sweeper? Hasn’t she herself talked about the “old guard” favouring one over the other?

Her response gives support to that view: “I suppose you are the first person who has interviewed me on camera since the campaign has stared. I did Drivetime. That was my first outing on national airwaves. I am doing Galway Bay FM next week. I am the best-kept secret in the west and the best-kept secret in Galway. Hopefully we will get the name Anne Rabbitte out there.

Barely a quota

The opinion polls show both Fianna Fáil candidates barely mustering a quota and too close to each other, as happened to Pat The Cope Gallagher and Thomas Byrne in 2014. Isn’t the reality that Maria Walsh is targeting the Fianna Fáil seat?

“Maria is a fabulous person. I have engaged in a number of interviews with her. I bring knowledge and experience and political acumen that I have built up over the past number of years.”

Rabbitte wants to be a MEP for the west, taking over Marian Harkin’s seat, but you wonder will she struggle for votes outside Galway.

And when you meet her Maria Walsh makes the exact same claim, also invoking Harkin. And besides, she also has strong Galway credentials. She was born in Kilmaine right on the Mayo/Galway border and went to school in Headford.

If we witnessed a Fianna Fáil machine in the morning, what we get to see in the afternoon is a Fine Gael circus. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has arrived in Galway to canvass with Walsh. There is only one reason for this and you can almost smell it in the air: it is electoral blood.

Walsh cuts a striking figure today with her short peroxide-white hair, the subtle tattoos behind her ear, and a colourful jump suit. Varadkar is dressed in an open-necked shirt and looks as relaxed as I have ever seen him in public.

On a trip to Africa with him earlier this year, the recurring image was of his tall figure standing aloof, wearing sunglasses, with his hands in his pocket, wearing an unanimated expression.

When out and about on “meet and greets” Varadkar retained a slightly awkward distance. Engagement with people, children and adults alike, was on the minimal side. He did not tend to emote.

Today it’s different. He is all smiles and familiarity. Maybe it’s the presence of the lively Walsh by his side. In any instance, they cut a swathe as a celebrity couple as they move down shop street, flanked by dozens of Fine Gael activists and reporters. You lose count of the number of “selfies” that are taken. People stop to stare. By any yardstick it’s impressive although a number of dissenters hold up posters in the background reminding Varadkar of the homelessness and housing situation.

But for the rest it’s hard to know which one is the biggest draw. We stop one woman as she reverses back from the scrum after getting a selfie. Which had she come to see. “Both of them. Well him I suppose,” she says after a moment’s thought.

At one stage, Walsh persuades Varadkar to do a two-handed reel when they come across an uileann piper busking. Normally, this would have the making of a “cringe” car crash for such a self-conscious politician. Varadkar seems game for it and survives relatively unscathed.

This kind of exercise creates momentum and buzz, and you feel Fine Gael has it right now. The last time this reporter witnessed a whirlwind like this was Bertie Ahern canvassing on the streets of Sligo in 2007, the morning when the final Irish Times opinion poll showed Fianna Fáil was on the road to victory in that year’s general election.

Fine Gael has allotted more territory to Walsh and Varadkar will also agree to go out with her again in Westmeath. It can smell it in the air - psychologically, two seats here would be priceless.

When you ask her about her differences with McGuinness, Walsh in a roundabout way confirms it is true and that the strategy is every candidate for themselves. There is a logic to it. It’s how the party might find its way to a second seat.

Walsh defends her stance: “As I said a couple of weeks ago, you cannot take away the fact I am a Rose and I am a proud trooper in the reserve defence forces.

“I need people to understand that I am here to be vocal for them, that I am here to defend the west and north west.

“I am a strong west of Ireland woman and people need to see that in the European parliament in the next five years that I am not going to be pushed over, that they understand that I am passionate and enthusiastic to deliver for them.

“The narrative you see in the press is one thing. Winning the second seat is my only objective.”

And her shtick. It’s almost like it’s taken out of the Anne Rabbitte playbook, with numerous references to Galway and the west of Ireland. “Places like Galway city are moving and building. There are industries in smaller places outside in Connaught that we need to give love to. Smart villages is something I am focusing on, working with Commissioner Hogan to see that visibility around the west.”

So to win a seat will she have to take Fianna Fáil out?

“I do not know what Fianna Fail is doing. My objective is to win a second seat for the party. I don’t know what is going to happen.

“Then name of the game is to get as much as possible ground cover over the next few days. People are seeing me not just me on billboards. They are seeing me on the streets.

“I need people to get out and vote Number One Maria Walsh on May 24th.”

It seem there is no fade factor in the west for a Rose like Walsh. Indeed, for some of us there will be no fade factor ever for the unassuming hero of a Galway team from 40 years ago.

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