Ireland’s other vote on May 22nd
The Carlow-Kilkenny byelection, which takes place on the same day as the same-sex marriage referendum, is shaping up as a traditional Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael fight
Grassroots canvassing: Bobby Aylward, the Fianna Fáil candidate, looking for support in Piltown, Co Kilkenny. Photograph: Patrick Browne
On the canvass: Renua Ireland candidate – and former Fianna Fáil councillor – Patrick McKee, who’s standing in the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Looking for victory: David Fitzgerald, the Fine Gael candiate in the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection, celebrating Kilkenny’s Tidy Towns win in 2014. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
Amid birdsong and beneath blue skies, rural Co Kilkenny is revealing some of its glories:green fields, the budding beech and oak of Jenkinstown woods, bluebells, the not-quite-unpleasant smell of silage.
Although there has been plenty of coverage of the same-sex marriage referendum on May 22nd, another poll taking place that day has been a little overlooked.
The Carlow-Kilkenny byelection will fill the seat vacated by Phil Hogan when he became an EU commissioner. A victory is seen as critical for Fianna Fáil and the leadership of Micheál Martin. It will also provide a solid indication of Sinn Féin’s progress and show how Renua Ireland is shaping up in its first electoral contest.
“It’s a very traditional rural constituency,” the Fianna Fáil candidate, Bobby Aylward, says. “It’s always been between us and Fine Gael here.”
A small group gathers in the kitchen of Paudie and Deirdre Brennan’s house in Conaghy, near Ballyragget. They are all canvassers for the Fine Gael candidate, David Fitzgerald, and have done a slow trawl of farms in the parish.
As they sit down around the table, soup, trays of sandwiches, scones, apple tarts and a large pot of tea are produced. The talk turns to the rival Fianna Fáil team, which has been spotted in Castlecomer in recent days. There is talk, too, of hurling. Paudie Brennan played for Kilkenny, and his brother Nicky is a former GAA president.
It’s easy to get lulled into a sense of an unchanging nature of things. In 50 years of political history in Carlow-Kilkenny the spoils have been shared almost exclusively by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. The exception came in 2007, when Mary White of the Greens edged out Labour. The last byelection here was 55 years ago, when Fianna Fáil won in a three-horse race.
But change is afoot in the constituency, some subtle, some obvious, some disruptive. These days the tractors are enormous, and the farms are home to numerous high-tech aids.
The Brennans tell of a neighbour who used his smartphone to see live video footage of his cattle byre while on holiday in Australia. He would call his sons anytime he spotted a calving.
Water isn’t dominant, though: in such a rural constituency half of householders source their own water and already pay hundreds of euro a year out of their own pockets.
Change is afoot in politics too, although it may not fully emerge in this byelection. The general election could see the pattern of 50 years disrupted.
That threat is likely to come from Sinn Féin, which now has six council seats across both constituencies. With almost 10 per cent of support in the last local elections, the party is inching towards being a contender for the last seats. (The quota in this five-seater is 16.66 per cent of the vote.) But its low-key candidate, Kathleen Funchion, may still be an election away from a breakthrough.
Change is incremental. If you look at the figures from the 2011 election and last year’s local elections, the traditional parties still dominate. Four years ago, when Fianna Fáil was in meltdown, it still won 28 per cent of the vote here, and it now has 15 councillors across the two counties. In 2007 it won 50 per cent of first preferences. Likewise, Fine Gael won almost 40 per cent of the vote in 2011 and still has 13 councillors.
Sure, byelections are unpredictable and can throw up odd results. But it’s more apparent in urban and smaller constituencies, where a well-established candidate or organisation – Seamus Healy in Tipperary South in 2002, Catherine Murphy in Kildare North in 2005, Michael Fitzmaurice in Roscommon-South Leitrim in 2014 – can spring a surprise.
Carlow-Kilkenny is more like Meath East and Longford-Westmeath, where the traditional two parties dominated in recent byelections, despite encouraging shows by others. You sense at this early stage that it will come down to a close contest between Aylward and Fitzgerald. Nobody seems to feel that a high-profile Independent will emerge.
David Fitzgerald, an auctioneer and councillor, is from strong Fine Gael lineage and comes across as professional, articulate and organised. He appears to have an understanding of myriad local issues, from housing to reviving the sugar-beet factory.
For Fitzgerald the messages are more jobs and more tax cuts. He did well to beat John Bryan, the former head of the Irish Farmers’ Association, for his party’s nomination, and he is clearly determined. “I have to give it 100 per cent,” he says. “As they say in hurling, I am going to leave it all on the pitch.”
He will need to against Bobby Aylward. A farmer from Mullinavat, Aylward is genial, likable and energetic. People warm to him. A former TD, Aylward is from a Fianna Fáil family. (His brother Liam, a former MEP and TD, is canvassing with him.) It cut the family to the quick when he lost out narrowly on the last count in 2011. After the locals, it has been said, this election is his to lose.
On a canvas of an estate in Piltown, Co Kilkenny, Aylward contrasts the warmth of the reception now with the cold shoulder he received in 2011. There is a small reminder at one house, where a woman curtly tells the director of elections Barry Cowen that she won’t vote for Fianna Fáil. “I’d forgotten that used to be the craic,” Cowen says laconically as he walks away from the door.
Aylward hardly fits the bill of Fianna Fáil’s renewal drive. He deals with the portrayal of him as “old guard” by saying he won the convention “hands down” in a field of four under the party’s new one-member-one-vote system.
Fianna Fáil’s overarching concern is that its surge has hit the buffers since last summer. An Aylward win would be a tonic for the troops, but a defeat would raise searching questions about the party’s direction and Micheál Martin’s leadership.
For those reasons a victory in the byelection has assumed a huge significance for the party, although talk of Martin being deposed is well overstated.
A little like Fianna Fáil, Labour have got used to taking it in the neck at doorsteps. But its candidate, Willie Quinn, says the atmosphere has improved hugely this year. There’s some evidence of this on the streets of Kilkenny, where Tánaiste Joan Burton (guided by Ann Phelan TD) gets a warm reception from the locals among the tourists.
The Greens held a seat in this constituency before, and its candidate, Malcolm Noonan, has been one of its most consistent performers, retaining his seat and his vote even as the party was pushed towards extinction. He will be looking to consolidate his vote ahead of the general election.
The fly in the ointment may be Patrick McKee. Until recently he was a Fianna Fáil councillor in Kilkenny city, but defected (amid much recrimination) to Renua Ireland. He will be the new party’s first candidate in an election.
At 26 McKee is the youngest in the field, and he has plenty of exuberance and ideas. His themes are the big Renua ones: political reform, tax justice for the self-employed, help for small and medium enterprises. Tall and energetic, McKee seems a good find for Renua. This contest will give the party its first real electoral test and some indication of its potential reach. But it will be relatively modest.
As a glorious day in late spring draws to a close, children traipse home from school, their hurls like extensions of their hands. Some things in Kilkenny never change. At this moment, though, it’s not clear that politics is still in that category.