‘Strangest election ever’ as 15 candidates battle it out to be mayor of Limerick

Nobody knows who will emerge victorious after this Friday’s vote

Fianna Fáil’s candidate to become Ireland’s first directly-elected mayor delivers her pitch to the camera of a “smart” doorbell at an empty home. “My name is Dee Ryan. I am so sorry to have missed you,” she begins, telling the householder she is leaving her leaflet and would “love to help you with anything at all”.

As she sprints to the next house she says the message is “on someone’s phone right now and they’re either laughing or disgusted – either way they might share it with someone in WhatsApp.”

It is a novel way of campaigning, and Ryan uses it as she competes with 14 other candidates to secure the new role of directly-elected mayor of Limerick.

In the absence of opinion polls bookies’ odds have been a talking point, albeit they are not being seen as a reliable indicator of support.


Independent candidates – businesswoman Helen O’Donnell and former Department of Finance secretary general John Moran – have consistently been among the favourites. Also viewed as strong contenders are Ryan – a former Fine Gael and Labour member who left her job as Limerick Chamber chief executive to run in the election; Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan; and Fine Gael councillor Daniel Butler.

In truth nobody has the foggiest notion who will emerge victorious after this Friday’s vote. Much will depend on eliminations and transfers. Whoever wins will have one of the largest political mandates in the country, and will represent more than 200,000 people.

Limerick voted in favour of having a directly-elected mayor in a 2019 plebiscite. Cork and Waterford rejected similar proposals. The new mayor, to be paid €154,000 per year, will not have the same level of powers as those in New York or London. There have been critics of the limitations of the role – Quinlivan among them.

The most significant power will be proposing the annual budget for Limerick City and County Council of around €700 million. This will need the approval of councillors.

The new mayor will also have guaranteed access to Cabinet Ministers, with a set number of meetings each year. They will have €40 million to allocate for mayoral initiatives in the city and county over five years.

On a canvass near the Gaelic Grounds one householder was impressed with Ryan after last week’s televised debate, telling her “you probably have our vote”.

She raises the issue that, aside from housing, the candidates say has been most consistently brought up on the doors – the overcrowding at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) “People on trolleys for days. They have to open up another A&E,” she tells the candidate.

Ryan agrees. A key part of her campaign is her aim of securing a commitment that a model three hospital – with a 24-hour emergency department – be located in the region. She suggests one of the ways she can deliver on this as mayor is by maintaining “political focus” on the issue, including during the set meetings with Ministers.

Sinn Féin’s Quinlivan would consider it a “failure” if he was elected and after five years the situation at the hospital “was worse or not considerably better than it is at the moment”.

The issue is raised with him on a canvass elsewhere in the city by Margaret Lyons who has concerns about bringing her 101-year-old mother Elizabeth to the hospital should she fall ill. The household are staunch Sinn Féin supporters and centenarian Elizabeth plans to vote for Quinlivan.

The Labour Party’s Conor Sheehan describes the contest as the “strangest election ever”, citing the lack of opinion polls. He suggests the outcome could be decided by people in rural parts of the county “who by and large have felt ignored” during the campaign.

Sheehan is adamant the new mayor “can do nothing about UHL” and argues it is “disingenuous” to suggest otherwise. He is “sticking to the competencies of the role” and reckons the mayor can have an impact on housing. He would push for the “full devolution of the housing budget” in a bid to speed up delivery.

Ryan’s housing proposals include the use of the Government’s land acquisition fund to purchase sites for delivering thousands of homes.

Quinlivan says there’s a lot the mayor can do about housing “if you get government support”. He is, of course, hoping that if elected he would soon be working with a government that includes Sinn Féin, and he suggests the party would expand mayoral powers.

Fine Gael’s Daniel Butler believes that as mayor he could help deliver 2,000 affordable homes across four sites in Limerick.

Helen O’Donnell is highlighting her decades of experience running a catering business as well as her involvement in community groups and charitable organisations, including the JP McManus Benevolent Fund.

Billionaire racehorse owner McManus last week publicly endorsed her to be mayor while confirming he has not financially supported her or any other candidate in the race.

In 2023 McManus gave €1 million to GAA boards in each of the 32 counties, prompting gratitude from the GAA but also leading some national opposition politicians to question his status as tax resident in Switzerland, where he has conducted his main business for many years. He is a popular figure in Limerick and his intervention backing O’Donnell will not necessarily have been welcomed by other candidates.

Asked if McManus’s tax status could become an issue in the mayoral race, O’Donnell said the question is not relevant to her and her campaign, adding “my focus is on the final few days when a lot of the electorate make up their minds”.

She said it is “a great honour to have Mr McManus endorse me”.

In Killmallock some of those she meets on the street mention their regard for her late husband Tom who was a Fine Gael TD and MEP. She herself was a member of Fine Gael until just before she entered the election race as an Independent. Is it not naive to think she will be viewed as Independent after her long involvement with Fine Gael?

She says if elected she would have “a very good working relationship [with councillors] across the board”, adding “I think it’s essential for the success of this mayoralty”.

Is Fine Gael’s candidate Daniel Butler concerned O’Donnell could chip away at his support base?

“No”, is his direct answer. He says he has the backing of the party, including former minister for finance and Limerick TD Michael Noonan, and “we’re really feeling momentum”.

Amid concern around the country over abuse of politicians during the current elections, some mayoral candidates have also had some bad experiences.

A picture of Butler’s family home was posted online along with his address and a message encouraging people to smash the windows. He reported the post to gardaí but is undeterred in his election campaign, saying he and his wife decided they would not be intimidated by anybody.

Social Democrats candidate Elisa O’Donovan, meanwhile, said: “You only have to look at my social media to see the abuse that is directed at me every day.”

Candidates reported that one contentious subject, immigration, has not been a major issue on the campaign trail. Quinlivan said it rarely comes up on the doors, adding “we don’t have any far-right candidate or any person who would have come out against immigration”.

So what are various candidates highlighting in the closing days of the race?

O’Donovan says “we need buses that arrive on time” and “a fair housing allocation system”, adding “If we get the basics right Limerick will be a great place to live”.

John Moran says “people understand that the role [of mayor] is a serious executive role. They’re looking for somebody with a serious executive experience, which obviously I have.”

Green Party TD Brian Leddin is pushing for a rail line to Shannon Airport, saying this would drive development and “it’s actually a housing plan and a commercial development plan as much as it is a transport plan”.

Dr Laura Keyes of Rabharta wants to bring in a culture of “universal design” in Limerick to improve accessibility for people with disabilities and the population at large.

Tackling homelessness and addiction is a key theme of Aontú candidate Sarah Beasley’s campaign, and she would seek to deliver a new addiction centre within her first year in office.

People Before Profit candidate Ruairí Fahy has highlighted the limitations of the office of mayor but says he wants to “go beyond the legislation” and use it to help workers, carers and parents stand up for themselves.

The other candidates are Independent councillor Frankie Daly, Caitríona Ní Chaitháin (Socialist Party), Gerben Uunk (Party of Animal Welfare) and Colm Ó Móráin (Independent).

The success or otherwise of Limerick’s new mayor will be closely watched in government and in other parts of the country in the years ahead. As he made his pitch for the job, Butler said: “We need somebody that can bed it in, make it a success, and to show Limerick in a good light. We don’t want it to turn into a national embarrassment. We want this to show up as a national success so a few places, like Dublin…will want to follow suit.”