Is it a promotion for a new Netflix season? No, it’s an election poster

Harry McGee goes on the campaign trail with candidates in Ireland South

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee meets three of the 23 candidates vying for the five seats in the hotly contested Ireland South constituency.

 

In postcard pretty Avoca, Co Wicklow on a beautiful day in late spring, Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne walks its sole street canvassing votes for the European elections.

There’s a small straggle of people on the streets and they all seem to be American tourists. “My God you look like a Kennedy”, one exclaims. Sure, with his wavy hair, square chin there is a resemblance, especially to Teddy. Byrne has obviously heard the comparison before and shares a passable Boston accent.

Around the village there are numerous references to Ballykissangel, the BBC series that gave actor Colin Farrell his first big break and also made Avoca temporarily famous.

“There was a time when there would be 20 or 30 coachloads a day of British tourists coming here because of Ballykissangel,” says Pat Casey, the Wicklow TD who is accompanying Byrne.

But that was 20 years ago and Ballykissangel no longer carries the same purchase. While still a tourist village (there’s a lovely Avoca Woollen Mills at the top of the hill) today it has a bit of a Klondike feel to it.

This region of the Ireland South constituency also has a slightly ‘after the goldrush’ feel to it. For European elections, it was once Leinster and then Ireland East. But with the number of Irish MEPs being reduced it was finally subsumed into Ireland South, comprising all of Munster and (now) six south Leinster counties.

The big anomaly, though, is that the four MEPs elected in 2014 were all from Cork and Kerry. To say there was regional imbalance is the understatement of the year.

Grace O’Sullivan of the Green Party in Bray. Photograph: Kathleen Harris/The Irish Times
Grace O’Sullivan of the Green Party in Bray. Photograph: Kathleen Harris/The Irish Times

Distinct battles

And so while this is one constituency, there are two distinct battles going on, almost independent of one another. One is in the south west starring the three incumbents - Seán Kelly and Deirdre Clune of Fine Gael and Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin; the other is in the east and south east where there are five candidates with biddable chances of getting elected. All five have played the regional card to a greater or lesser extent and that has become the main sub plot of the election here. They are: Andrew Doyle of Fine Gael; Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáíl; Grace O’Sullivan of the Greens; Sheila Nunan of the Labour Party; and Independent Mick Wallace.

“This is huge constituency running from Bray to Beara, ” says Bryne. “It’s very hard to get across the entire constituency. The four MEPs who represent us, two are from Cork City; one is from west Cork and the other is from Kerry.

“There is nobody from south Leinster or from the south east. It is important there is balance.”

All of the other candidates from this part of Ireland South express similar sentiments.

On the promenade in Bray, you can see Killiney Hill and indeed Howth to the North. It’s hard to get around the notion of Bray, also a Dublin satellite, as Ireland South but that is what it is. Indeed, its population has made the North Wicklow town, the focus of this battle.

The Green Party candidate Grace O’Sullivan walks along the promenade being buffeted by the wind, chatting to walkers as they pass.

Of all the candidates, she has perhaps the most varied backstory. From Tramore in Waterford, she was one of ten children, a natural tomboy who loved boats and was a life saver, and also developed a huge interest in peace and the environment. In her early 20s she took off and spent ten years at sea on the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior. She was a crew member when it was bombed by the French near a nuclear testing site near French Polynesia. Undaunted by the bombing, which killed a crew member, she and others sailed into the site and later took the campaign to the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Sheila Nunan, while Wicklow based, is “free to roam”. Her big challenge is reaching voters. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times
Sheila Nunan, while Wicklow based, is “free to roam”. Her big challenge is reaching voters. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times

All 12 counties

She returned to Tramore with three young daughters after her marriage ended. Her eldest daughter, Emer, now 27 has intellectual and physical disabilities and is on the autism spectrum.

It made for a difficult life, as she struggled to work and set up a small tourism business while looking after her children.

“You have no idea how people with disability in Ireland are marginalised. I can tell you as a mother it is so unfair.

“I have had to fight extremely hard throughout Emer’s life to get her access to services. She is currently waiting seven years for accommodation, and has been denied again and again. It is disgraceful.”

She was approach by the Green Party five years ago. Not a conventional politician, she can sometimes struggle for the soundbite, but she is authentic and passionate.

O’Sullivan, like Nunan and Wallace, will search for votes in all 12 counties but all nod towards the need for regional balance, ergo, an MEP from the east and south east.

While the Greens seem to be enjoying a boost, it’s a rural constituency with a large farming population. O’Sullivan campaigns heavily on climate change, on sustainability, on biodiversity, on what she calls “a social Europe and a peaceful Europe”. Will she win over farmers? She has attended every IFA hustings and event since last December to argue the toss.

Mick Wallace will search for votes in all 12 counties. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Mick Wallace will search for votes in all 12 counties. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Brand

The problem with European elections is if you are not well known. It’s a struggle because either name recognition or party brand must be strong. Sheila Nunan, the Labour candidate, lives in Bray and is another non-politician with an impressive pedigree.

The former secretary general of the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation does have a profile but would not be a household name.

Geographically, the constituency is grist to the mill: “I’m used to belting around the country to schools and branch meetings all my life.”

The difficulty is reaching out to people, especially with a party that’s still in recovery mode.

“The Labour vote has warmed up a little bit. There is a slight upward nudge in the opinion polls. Based on my own track record I’m getting a very positive response.”

One of her big messages is to revive the idea of a social Europe that was so prominent in the era when Jacques Delors was president of the Commission.

“Can we recapture that. Housing is a good case in point. Can we put housing centre stage as a policy platform, leveraging investment for social housing (from institutions such as the European Investment Bank). It was done under Delors; they had a housing initiative.”

Nunan, while Wicklow based, is “free to roam”. Her big challenge is reaching voters. There are hustings and events and social media but it is difficult.

“It’s finding enough fora and enough time to do that,’ she says.

I sympathise with the voter. There are 23 names on the ballot sheet. It’s very challenging for the voter to identify candidates and the issues.”

One candidate who has no difficulty in that regard is Mick Wallace, whose late arrival into the race provided a fly in the ointment for other candidates, mostly his fellow county man Byrne. Wallace is relying on his Dáil track-record on issues (especially justice) with Clare Daly. He says he might not appeal to everybody but he will have appeal. He was in Kerry and West Cork during the week but will draw most of his votes from the South East. Even in Bray he has a presence. Near the seafront is a giant billboard with Wallace in pink. And then there is a moody black and white picture of the Wexford TD against a dark background, staring hard into the camera. It looks like a promotion for a new Netflix season.

Andrew Doyle says he is out to win a seat. “I have been a councillor, TD and Minster and I have a herd number for what it’s worth,” he said. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Andrew Doyle says he is out to win a seat. “I have been a councillor, TD and Minster and I have a herd number for what it’s worth,” he said. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Five seats

With five seats, at least one and probably two will come from this side of Ireland South. That is why the two big parties have regional candidates; Byrne and Andrew Doyle.

Doyle is a Wicklow farmer and is Minister of State for Agriculture. The party has already two sitting MEPs, Deirdre Clune and Sean Kelly, both in the south west. One of his big messages is geographical balance; the other is agriculture.

“There is one third of the population here. I felt we need experienced people in the EU to defend the CAP budget and also to ensure we adapt to climate change.

“I am here to win a seat. I joined the ticket to try and challenge for three. I have been a councillor, TD and Minster and I have a herd number for what it’s worth. I am passionate about sustainable development and land use. We have a duty to be leaders on climate in Europe and on the planet.”

Byrne has been allotted the six Leinster counties for canvassing, Waterford and Tipperary. His running mate Billy Kelleher has Cork, Kerry, Limerick County and Clare. They both share Limerick city.

Byrne is a councillor based in Gorey and was involved in student politics. He is now head of communications with the Higher Education Authority.

The changing nature of society is a big theme of his. “We are moving towards a G2 world that is dominated by the US and China. They are not necessarily the values I would like to see in global affairs. The only alternative voice at that table is the EU in areas like climate change, human rights and tackling global poverty, in business and trade.”

One of his big issues is the changing nature of work. “Somebody who is sitting the Leaving Certificate this June, they will change job at least 20 times during their lifetime. They will experience more of the gig economy, experience work uncertainty. They will need to constantly upskill to experience the changes in automation and technology.

“Sixty five per cent of current jobs will either be redundant or changed over the next decade,” he says.

He demurs from replying about Wallace’s entry saying each candidate will contest on their own terms. But if the polls are correct, won’t he have to knock out Billy Kelleher to win a seat.

“It was said in advance of the Fianna Fáil convention, Billy Kelleher was home and hosed but the membership chose me.”

Byrne describes a largesse that probably would not be appreciated by Kelleher: “I then looked for Billy to be added to the ticket because it is important to have a regional balance and it is possible for us to win two seats.”

A comeback is on the cards. It’s likely that two of the five seats will come from the east and south east this time. As of now, none of the five could be definitively ruled out. And you never know, somebody might even recommission Ballykissangel.

Ireland South at a glance:

Ireland South takes in Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford, Wicklow, Limerick and Waterford. Its outgoing MEPs are Deirdre Clune and Seán Kelly of Fine Gael, Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin and Brian Crowley (Fianna Fáil but had lost the party whip). Mr Crowley is retiring from politics.

This time round there are five seats to be filled.

The candidates

The 23 candidates running for these five seats are:

Allan Brennan (Independent)
Malcolm Byrne (Fianna Fáil)
Dolores Cahill (Independent)
Deirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
Andrew Doyle (Fine Gael)
Paddy Fitzgerald (Independent)
Breda Patricia Gardner (Independent)
Theresa Heaney (Independent)
Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil)
Seán Kelly (Fine Gael)
Peter Madden (Independent)
Liam Minehan (Independent)
Liadh Ní Riada (Sinn Féin)
Sheila Nunan (Labour)
Diarmuid O’Flynn (Independent)
Peter O’Loughlin (Identity Ireland)
Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party)
Walter Ryan-Purcell (Independent)
Joseph Sexton (Independent)
Jan Van De Ven (Direct Democracy Ireland)
Adrienne Wallace (Solidarity-People Before Profit)
Mick Wallace (Independents for Change)
Colleen Worthington (Independent)

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