Some four decades after he first put his name forward for election to the Dáil, Fine Gael Senator Colm Burke is hoping that the result might finally fall in his favour.
He has won elections since — to Cork City Council, the European Parliament and the Seanad — but never to Dáil Éireann. It is a stiff challenge but he is confident that, this time, it will be different.
In just over a week, voters in Cork North-Central will go to the polls to elect a replacement for Billy Kelleher, who was elected to the European Parliament in May. Mr Burke is one of a dozen candidates on the ticket and faces a challenge in engineering a historic change in the constituency.
Early signs are that Fianna Fáil councillor Padraig O’Sullivan is in pole position.
Historically, Fianna Fáil has dominated Jack Lynch’s constituency. The party has held at least one seat since it was established. Mr Kelleher was 4,000 votes above the quota in 2016 and Fianna Fáil did well in the local elections since, too.
If Mr O’Sullivan doesn’t win, it will be the first time ever that the party has not had a Dáil representative in the area.
He isn’t the only challenger: Sinn Féin’s Thomas Gould is very popular in the area and Labour, the Greens and Solidarity all have high expectations too.
Mr Burke is adamant that despite the weight of history, Fianna Fáil has no right to the seat.
“It’s the people of North Central that own the seats, not any political party,” he said.
“I don’t own it and Fine Gael don’t have an entitlement to a seat just like Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Labour don’t.”
The Senator is no stranger to running: he ran in the November 1982 general and the by-election in 1994, missing out on seats both times. He was co-opted onto Cork City Council in 1995 and retained his seat until 2007 when he became a member of the European Parliament until 2009. He has been a member of the Seanad since 2011.
The 2016 general election was a source of frustration, he conceded.
Mr Burke was expected to be on Fine Gael’s general election ticket with Dara Murphy, who was added at a selection convention, but the party opted for newcomer Julie O’Leary.
“It was extremely frustrating because we had worked very hard in the city,” he said.
Notwithstanding the threat of the other candidates on the ballot, Fine Gael has to be mindful of its own presence in the constituency. Or its lack thereof.
Dara Murphy has repeatedly denied accusations of being an “absentee TD” but he took a role as director of elections for the European People’s Party’s (EPP) 2019 European Parliament campaign. He is due to step down from the Dáil at the next election, something which opponents have used as ammunition in painting a picture that Fine Gael has “abandoned” the northside of Cork.
It is a line trotted out by many: Sinn Féin’s Mr Gould regularly points to the abundance of amenities on the southside of Cork in comparison to the northside, while Kathleen Lynch, former Labour TD, said Mr Murphy should have resigned his seat when he took on the EPP role.
Mr Burke doesn’t think that it will impact too much on his chances.
“I am going on my record as a public representative. I have worked very hard in Cork North-Central as a senator for the last eight years,” he said.
He rented a constituency office in the centre of Blackpool and said he has worked “very hard” in making representations for people in health care, social welfare and housing.
By-elections can typically be hard on government parties.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said as much on a recent visit to Cork when he joined Senator Burke, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy to turn the sod on an affordable housing purchase scheme in Mayfield.
Mr Varadkar is confident that Fine Gael can take the seat.
“By-elections are always very difficult for government parties and this is a seat that was held by Fianna Fáil previously. But we’ve growing confidence that we’re going to do very well here in Cork North-Central,” the Taoiseach said.
“The people we’ve met on the ground say they really recognise that we have a strong candidate, an excellent candidate in Senator Colm Burke — someone who’s been an MEP, a Lord Mayor, and can enhance the quality of representation that Cork has in the Dáil. That’s going to be a very important aspect of this by-election.”
It was just one of a series of high-profile canvasses in recent weeks as Fine Gael rolls out the big guns to improve their chances.
The senator has been joined by Education Minister Joe McHugh, Senator Jerry Buttimer and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney on other canvasses, while a planned visit from Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty was rescheduled at the last moment. Culture Minister Josepha Madigan is also due to knock on doors with Mr Burke.
It is not unusual: The party is rolling out familiar faces in all of the by-election campaigns.
It remains to be seen how it will impact the chances. Last week’s visits included the announcement of a school expansion in Blarney, as well as the Mayfield housing project.
Rivals, including Padraig O’Sullivan, have accused the Government of cynical timing. Solidarity’s Fiona Ryan described it as “disgraceful electioneering”.
Mr Burke has denied that it is a cynical move.
“People are entitled to make comments,” he said.
“I am focused on the positives in Cork. We have got a project up and running for providing affordable housing. There are a whole lot of young people now who don’t qualify for local authority housing and are finding it difficult to get mortgages because of the price of houses.
There is no shaking the feeling that next week’s by-election is merely the hors d’oeuvre ahead of next year’s general election main course, though. For those who win, it could be a short spell in office before going back out to the campaign trail.
The machine is already in full swing and after four decades of campaigns, Mr Burke will be hoping for more than just a few months in office, if he is successful. But, he said, he is ready to again, whenever needed.
Two Independent candidates have entered the Cork North-Central by-election to highlight issues they say are being ignored by the established candidates.
Voters will go to the polls on November 29 to cast their votes to replace Billy Kelleher, who was elected to the European Parliament earlier this year.
Among the names added to the ballot paper is activist Martin Condon, who is focused housing, the environment, and improving access to cannabis for medical patients and regulating its sale for adults.
This is Mr Condon’s first run.
He is running a small campaign by himself.
“I have no posters and I only printed 1,000 recyclable flyers. I am encouraging people to take a photo of my flyer at the door rather than take the flyer. I am also offering to send it to them electronically,” he said.
In a recent interview with The Echo, he said his motivation comes from wanting to make the world a better place for his daughters, aged six and 12.
The second candidate recently added to the ticket is Charlie Keddy from Kilcoole, Co Wicklow.
Mr Keddy has been contesting local and national elections since 1985 when he first ran for Wicklow County Council.
In the 2019 local elections, he ran in Greystones, picking up 190 first preference votes.
This time, Mr Keddy has registered to run in all four of the by-elections. He said e is a single-issue candidate, running on an anti-abortion platform. “There is not enough support for the unborn. Nobody in Cork would have it as a priority like me,” he said. Mr Keddy has run on an anti-water charges campaign previously.
The 12 candidates now in the running: Senator Colm Burke (Fine Gael); Martin Condon (non-party); James Coughlan (Workers Party); Cllr Thomas Gould (Sinn Féin); Sinéad Halpin (Social Democrats); Charlie Keddy (non-party); Thomas Kiely (non-party), Cllr John Maher (Labour); Oliver Moran (Green Party); Cllr Pádraig O’Sullivan (Fianna Fáil), Cllr Fiona Ryan (Solidarity); and Finian Toomey (Aontú).