‘That’s an awful lot of number ones’ – a humbled Saoirse McHugh on her votes

Political newcomer overwhelmed by surprise poll and accompanying ‘whirlwind’

Green Party MEP candidate Saoirse McHugh at Castlebar count centre. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin

Green Party MEP candidate Saoirse McHugh at Castlebar count centre. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin

 

Saoirse McHugh, the Green Party MEP candidate, has been bringing her dog Olive for walks to try to cope with the stress of unexpectedly coming third in Friday night’s exit poll.

The Achill Islander, a contender in European Parliament’s Midlands North West constituency, has emerged as one of the stars of the campaign after her break-out performance on last week’s televised debate when her put-downs of Independent candidate Peter Casey won her plaudits.

Scoring 12 per cent in the RTÉ/TG4 poll in the four-seater constituency has left the 28-year-old first-time candidate struggling to stay calm as the slow process of counting 630,000 votes continues in Castlebar.

“I am just obsessively thinking about the count the whole time. My ways to calm down – I don’t know if they are doing me too much good,” she told The Irish Times by phone, preferring to stay away from the count centre on Sunday, the first day of counting.

Stress levels

“Every time I have a free moment my brain does start to wander to it, but I am just trying to be relaxed because this could go on until Tuesday. My poor stress levels!”

She acknowledges the poll may have been “far over-estimated” and that she is “quite at peace” with not winning a seat, but she is still overwhelmed by the strong support and the “whirlwind” of the last few days.

“I am really quite humbled by it. That’s an awful lot of number ones,” she said.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, whose profile has soared as a result of her commentary around Brexit, is expected to be elected on the first count with a substantial surplus.

The first count should be completed by Monday lunchtime or short afterwards. A rough analysis of votes shows Independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan performing strongly after her, followed by Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy with McHugh and Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh then also faring well.

An analysis of 3,400 of McGuinness’s first-preference ballots showed 40 per cent of her number twos going to Ms Walsh, 11.5 per cent to Mr Flanagan and 10.5 per cent or Ms McHugh. Political observers in Castlebar put Ms McHugh’s chances down to a fight for the fourth seat with Mr Carthy.

The arrival of Ms McHugh on the political scene is one of the stories of the election.

The genetics graduate who has worked in sustainable agriculture has no political experience. She kept making policy suggestions to Green Party leader Eamon Ryan until he challenged her to run for office.

“In two years of going to politicians and saying, ‘you should do this, you should do that’, it had never occurred to me to run. I had always seen politicians as separate. That, in itself, I found quite telling,” she said.

Controversy

“I have started saying to a good few people I met on the campaign trail: ‘You should run.’ So many people, it doesn’t even occur to them that they should run when in reality, all of us can.”

She brushes off the weekend controversy around her comments that she would quit the Greens if it went into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael as a “non-story” and “people fishing for controversy”.

McHugh does not see her views conflicting with those of Ryan’s or the party’s.

“Eamon is pretty good and always telling me just to be honest; ‘speak your truth,’ he says. I imagine that if you are in a party with a strict whip, it might be difficult but I found as far as my views align with the party it has been quite easy,” she said.

Before politics, she found that working with not-for-profit agricultural groups made her realise that everything she interacted with was influenced by policy, which in turn was influenced by politicians.

“So when people say, ‘I am not political.’ I understand that because I felt that before, but I also think every single thing we interact with is governed by politics,” she said.

“What’s that saying? ‘You might not be into politics but politics is into you.’”