McFadden steels herself for Longford-Westmeath byelection

Her sister’s death is still a raw wound for Fine Gael candidate Gabrielle McFadden

Longford-Westmeath byelection candidate Gabrielle McFadden canvassing Mikey Ward and Winnie Sherlock in Athlone. Photograph: Jeff Harvey/HR Photo

Longford-Westmeath byelection candidate Gabrielle McFadden canvassing Mikey Ward and Winnie Sherlock in Athlone. Photograph: Jeff Harvey/HR Photo


The term “sympathy vote” can have a cynical ring to it. In crude electoral terms, the bounce for a bereaved candidate is an obvious bonus, but in personal terms, it means battling on a second front; the still -raw grief for a loved one.

When a chilly rain spat on Gabrielle McFadden’s first canvass yesterday morning, sending voters scurrying indoors, she headed back to the office earlier than expected.

Workers were removing her sister Nicky’s old poster from the window. As Gabrielle fought back tears and vanished into a room, Elaine Barrington winced. “It was supposed to happen later, when she wasn’t here.”

While the photo was on the window, “it was like Nicky still had a presence in the office”. Seeing it ripped away was another wrench.

No hiding place
However since Monday night’s convention, when Gabrielle was ratified as the Fine Gael candidate in the Longford- Westmeath byelection caused by Nicky’s death in March, there is no hiding place.

She may be the mayor of Athlone but her fight extends across two counties now and she needs to distinguish herself from Nicky.

A brief canvass outside the Franciscan friary is part of the campaign’s slow, soft start in Athlone town. With Kevin O’Brien, the constituency chairman, in the background, and with no identification (rectified later with a large rosette), she approaches people almost tentatively, with small talk about the rain and putting up the umbrellas.

Almost invariably, her approach is greeted with words of sympathy and the mournful, meaningful handshake reserved for the recently bereaved. “It must be hard on you now . . .”

“This election might take your mind off it . . .” Some even call her Nicky by mistake.

Is all that well-intentioned sympathy just dragging her back into distress ? “It can’t drag me back in because I’ve never come out of it,” Gabrielle says. “It’s there all the time. I have a sensation in my chest that I could get upset at any moment. I got very upset yesterday morning when I was preparing my speech for the convention – I couldn’t say her name without breaking down. I did it because it was something I had to do.”

Some people ask her is it too soon; one suspects there have been many family discussions. “But my heart is still going to be broken in six months time; it will be broken forever. I don’t think it would have made any difference.”

Her personal support comes from her husband, a clinical psychologist, their two teenage children and her aunt Kathleen, a “third parent” to the three McFadden girls.

The three – Gabrielle, Nicky and Áine – were a particularly tight bunch. They were together on May 31st, 2012, to hear Nicky’s diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

Within a couple of weeks, Nicky asked for certain promises. She didn’t want to go to a nursing home or hospital, so Áine, a public health nurse, co-ordinated her home care and did such “a phenomenal job”, that Nicky never spent a night in hospital.

She asked Gabrielle to help to keep her office open for as long as she was able and – “should the need arise” – that Gabrielle would stand for convention. Gabrielle worries about the perception that she feels entitled to the seat. “No one has a God-given right to a seat. I’m not just doing this because I’m Nicky’s sister; she asked me because she believed I could do a good job.”

More work
Her father had been a longstanding county councillor and she herself was elected in 2009. As Nicky’s voice deteriorated, Gabrielle took on more of her work. “I raised parliamentary questions and made representations to Ministers. I know the work a TD does.”

If elected, her focus will be firmly on jobs – pushing midlands tourism and helping to fund and mentor start-ups.

It is evident these first days are challenging. But there is steel behind the hollow eyes. As I leave, she is sitting down with her team. “It’s on the front page of the Topic that I’m not running for the county council [true but she’s worried voters may think she’s not running for anything]. That has to be dealt with,” she says briskly.