Rural Cork voters still feel ignored by Government
Bellwether constituency shows little change in fortunes or outlook since last election
The shop seems dusty and unfrequented. Outside, Friday afternoon traffic makes its way through Kanturk in the constituency of Cork North-West. People rush to get to the local bank branches before they close for the weekend.
The woman behind the shop counter, who declines to give her name, is right. As we speak for 10 minutes, not only has nobody entered her shop: nobody has even passed the front door.
“You think you’re getting up and then you trip and fall again,” she says of her business. “Last year was like that. You’d have a good month and you’d think things were getting better, but then you’d have a bad month and fall again.”
Her shop is slightly off the beaten track, but only a short stroll from the main thoroughfare of Strand Street and its busier outlets.
It is a year since towns like Kanturk – which has a creamery, a farmer’s market, a mart and a large rural catchment area – rejected the general election message of recovery as trumpeted by Fine Gael.
The ill-judged slogan fell flat in rural and provincial Ireland, jarring with voters who felt that whatever recovery there was had not yet reached them.
Hammering in Munster
Fine Gael took a hammering in Munster. Cork North-West perfectly illustrates this, and the party’s wider electoral failure. In recent political history, the constituency has regularly flipped its three seats on a 2:1 basis between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with each party periodically enjoying dominance.
In 2011, Fine Gael took 49 per cent of the vote, split among three candidates. Michael Creed, now the Minister for Agriculture, and Áine Collins were returned while the third candidate, Derry Canty, was eliminated on the fourth count.
Fianna Fáil, in the grip of its post-bailout meltdown, took 25 per cent of the vote, returning one TD, Michael Moynihan.
In 2016, Fine Gael’s vote plunged by a third to 32 per cent, with Creed returned to the 32nd Dáil. Collins lost her seat and Fianna Fáil’s Moynihan was joined in Leinster House by his running mate, Aindrias Moynihan.
Fianna Fáil’s vote share was 34 per cent, just a shade above that of Fine Gael. It was certainly not at the same level as in 2007, when Fianna Fáil ran three candidates and won two seats, with an overall vote share of 53 per cent.
As elsewhere in the country, the pitch in Cork North-West in 2016 was queered by Independents, who took 20 per cent. One, John Paul O’Shea, was especially strong.
Those in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael acknowledge that Cork North-West, so often a bellwether constituency for middle ground rural politics, was particularly so this time. Fine Gael found the going especially rough in Charleville and Kanturk. “It was pretty rough there,” acknowledged a local party figure.
One year on from the general election, views in Kanturk on how economic recovery is impacting locally haven’t shifted much. Some detect small improvement in their circumstances, others a retreat.
The Ireland largely responsible for delivering an inconclusive electoral result that begat the minority government arrangement is unchanged in its views.
“There has been no improvement at all,” says John Howard as he crosses Strand Street. He voted for Creed last year but will not say who he would support if there was an election tomorrow.
Francis Kenneally, who runs clothes and sports shops in the town, is similarly downbeat. “I don’t think it really has picked up at all, to be honest. I’m not one to look at figures day in, day out. I look at them at the end of the month, compare that month to same month the previous year. Some months might be up a bit, other months could be down a bit.
“I think it is very fragile. People are under pressure with their finances. I would feel they are very cautious, trying to sustain a business in a country town is getting more difficult as years go by.”
He voted Independent last year, but says the Government is operating with “their hands behind their back because they don’t have an overall majority”.
A government with a “slim majority” is preferable, he says, for the sake of certainty that an administration would be in place for five years. Even so, he maintains that Independents, whose proliferation has made majority governments difficult to form, are a good thing.
“It is good for the Dáil that you have other voices in there, and if you have someone in your local constituency who is a good person and if they work hard, they’ll get the votes.”
Younger people in Kanturk say recovery can be seen through returning emigrants – although they largely nose towards the pharma industries around Cork city for work – increased spending, and more cars and vans on the road.
Fiona Fogarty, who runs the busy Thomas Brown’s restaurant that straddles the car park between the local SuperValu and farmers’ market, says she has seen no improvements in the year since the election. If anything, there was more noticeable growth in the years before 2016.
For Jack McCarthy of McCarthy’s Butchers, the problem is that rural towns are being left behind, even if there is more money being spent.
Places like Kanturk are reduced to dormitory status, he says, and nothing is being done to halt their decline.
“A lot of people in this district would be in transit all the time, they are living for work. A bit of ingenuity to get the country going? Not a hope. Take out the Wild Atlantic Way and there is absolutely nothing in rural Ireland. We’ve got to get back to Bruce Springsteen: we take care of our own. Middle of the town small businesses, there is no hope for us.”
John Piggot, who runs a jewellers on Strand Street, used to vote Fine Gael but didn’t bother going to the polls last year. “I just don’t keep up with politics in Ireland any more, they just annoy me if I listen to the bullshit they go at.”
The Government may not be working, but voter sentiment in places like Kanturk has not yet shifted in a manner that would allow a different administration sweep in as a replacement.
Economic recovery has yet to be felt, and opinions remain largely fixed at the same point they were in February 2016. An election any time soon will not offer much of a change from the result of a year ago, if it would change anything at all.