Varadkar presses the flesh in Wexford smash-and-grab canvass

Fine Gael big hitters row in behind controversial byelection hopeful Verona Murphy

Leo Varadkar canvasses with Wexford byelection candidate Verona Murphy (centre) in Wexford town. Photograph: Fiach Kelly

Leo Varadkar canvasses with Wexford byelection candidate Verona Murphy (centre) in Wexford town. Photograph: Fiach Kelly

 

It was a smash-and-grab canvass although how much support was snatched during a 40-minute trot around Wexford town will only become apparent when votes are counted on Saturday.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his controversial Wexford byelection candidate, Verona Murphy, moved from shop to shop in a canvass Fine Gael clearly wanted to keep under the radar.

It was supposed to take place last Friday – a busy shopping day – but was instead postponed until a dreary Monday afternoon when the shops were largely empty. Varadkar and Murphy also declined to speak to the press.

Fine Gael has seemed unsure of how to handle Murphy since she, in a series of interviews, claimed asylum seekers have to be “deprogrammed” and children as young as three may have been manipulated by Islamic State.

Varadkar and his Ministers condemned her comments publicly while she apologised and recanted. But party sources say privately the Irish Road Haulage Association president’s campaign is going well on the ground.

Nonetheless, the odds seem to have tilted heavily in Fianna Fáil’s favour, with party candidate Malcolm Byrne now seen as the favourite.

On Monday, the only hint of distaste for Murphy or Varadkar was a curt dismissal the pair received from a man browsing in The Book Centre on Main Street.

Ministers Paul Kehoe and Michael D’Arcy – whose constituency rivalry in Wexford is as keen as any party colleagues in Leinster House – were momentarily united in their efforts to keep as far away from the cameras as possible. They trudged far behind Varadkar and Murphy like two bored teenagers following their parents on a worthy, yet dull, family outing.

Former Wexford TD and Leinster MEP Avril Doyle helped run the canvass with a high-handed efficiency.

Varadkar’s patter centred on Black Friday arrangements for retailers, his own seasonal shopping habits – “I am very much 23rd December” – and the fact that the byelection is on the same day as the Late Late Toy Show.

Away from the shops, a middle-aged man engaged Varadkar in brief conversation. Although originally from Dublin, he has been a long-term resident in Wexford but still follows the Dubs in GAA.

“But that wouldn’t be your game,” he said to the Taoiseach, to which Varadkar demurred and pointed out he is also a rugby fan.

In Marlow Dry Cleaners on Anne Street, Varadkar talked to Kim Walsh, working behind the counter, about how his tie came back from his own cleaners recently with white stains.

“I said you brought it to the wrong cleaners,” laughed Walsh afterwards. “Leo? He’s grand. I wouldn’t mind him, I like him. I suppose he is straight up, too, isn’t he?”

She didn’t commit a vote to Murphy. “There is a few of our local lads as well. I suppose Brenda Howlin is a good man here.”

In the Credit Union, Martina O’Connor jokingly told Varadkar he is “a little gangster”.

“I’ve been called many things now but not that one,” he replied.

She too was non-committal on whether she would vote for Murphy, while saying that Varadkar himself is “okay”.

Nicola Kehoe, Jenny Whelan and Áine Scallan were among those working in the Post Office on Anne Street when Murphy and Varadkar visited. They were more enthusiastic than others about the Fine Gael candidate, who did most of the talking. The Taoiseach, known to be awkward at times, chipped in occasionally.

“All I’d say is could you have a number one for the woman, from the women?” asked Murphy.

“Are there no women TDs in Wexford, are there?” asked Varadkar.

“No, five men,” replied Murphy. “Very male dominated.”

“Five men, yeah, we can’t have that,” said Varadkar.

Back out on Anne Street, he was tackled by a man who challenged him on homelessness but the Taoiseach was back in his car and away from Wexford in short order. Box ticked.

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