Byelections 19: Vote to fill Clare Daly's seat a two-horse race

Byelections 19: Vote to fill Clare Daly's seat a two-horse race
Two horse race? Fianna Fáil's Lorraine Clifford-Lee and Labour's Duncan Smith

The race to fill the seat vacated by Independents4Change TD Clare Daly in Dublin-Fingal on Friday, November 29 is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

But, as events in recent days have shown and with two weeks to go to polling day, it is all to play for.

Daly, despite being a self-described socialist, had a far broader appeal than just the hard left.

As several people remarked to me in the area, “the middle-classes had a sneaking regard for her.”

As one local man told me, out of his group of well-to-do golfing buddies, it turned out all-but-one had given Daly their number one vote in 2016.

Why? I asked.

“She was smart and solid on big issues. But her time as a union official in Aer Lingus saw her helping the cleaners as well as the executives. She had a seat for life here if she wanted, but Europe beckoned,” my local source told me.

Clare Daly
Clare Daly

A journey through the vast Dublin-Fingal constituency will take you to some of the fastest growing towns, filled with commuter families and people who have moved out of Dublin city centre.

Places like Malahide, Donabate, Swords and Portmarnock are all bustling, busy hives of activities and the issues are consistent.

Childcare, public transport, health and housing. Again and again.

While Fine Gael are standing their former deputy leader and ill-fated former health Minister James Reilly, the wisdom of that decision looks decidedly shaky as he is being written off by friend and foe.

Friends are saying: “Ah, the seat is likely to go left and he might be caught.”

Foes are less kind and say Reilly is seen as yesterday's man, a busted flush and incapable of securing the kind of vote he got in 2007 or 2011.

James Reilly
James Reilly

Reilly got booted out in 2016, failed to even get half a quota in terms of first preference votes and is unlikely to feature at the business end of matters when ballots are counted.

While Daly's heir apparent, Dean Mulligan, a 27-year-old county councillor, has been named and endorsed, the lack of a national profile or track record is a major obstacle.

Mulligan was elected to Fingal council under the Independents4Change (I4C) banner last May.

The Swords-based social care worker said Daly, whose election to the European parliament has caused the by-election, has promised to join him on the campaign trail. She is also expected to distribute personalised election literature on his behalf across the Dáil constituency.

With Sinn Féin still in traction after its pasting at the local elections in May, their much-reduced presence on Fingal County Council and what is seen as their poor performance previously means their candidate Ann Graves is also unlikely to feature.

So, in terms of viable candidates, it leaves just two - Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee and Labour councillor and Oireachtas worker Duncan Smith.

I meet Smith in a local coffee shop in Applewood, North Swords for lunch. Coming off the back of a successful local election in the area and an upbeat party conference in Mullingar last week, Smith is in positive mood.

Fingal is one of the last remaining old Labour strongholds and Smith, a councillor since 2014, has lived and survived through some dark days.

“I think we have a chance here. I think that if the Labour Party's to come back, they're going to need a new generation of people to get elected. And I think I'm part of that having been elected in 2014 against the head,” he says.

Duncan Smith. Picture: Moya Nolan
Duncan Smith. Picture: Moya Nolan

“As a party, we pull votes from all over the county. So we'll be looking at leveraging those votes. And there's plenty of them,” he adds.

But I bring him back to the dark days of 2014 when his party suffered huge losses across the country at local level as well as losing two MEPs and then in 2016 when its Dail representation was slashed to just seven TDs.

“It was difficult and we're in a very, we're in a very damaged space at the time as a party, so we were just generally wounded,” he confesses.

I asked him why, unlike so many of his former colleagues, he did not look to walk from the party when the going got really tough, especially on issues like cutting welfare benefits or water charges?

“I am Labour to my core, but the choice was to leave and if I did then where do I go? I have no motivation to ever run for another party as an independent,” he says.

But Smith also confirms the mood on the doorsteps has also softened significantly to him and his teams since then.

“We feel we have a good chance here. And we had a really good local election here, our tails are up,” he says.

Smith, a married father of a young baby, is originally from Finglas and is the first of his family to be actively involved in politics. He paints the picture of family life, struggling with negative equity, childcare and transport, which is very familiar in this constituency.

Smith's main rival is Lorraine Clifford-Lee, a high-profile Fianna Fáil Senator and lawyer.

Given Reilly's stagnant campaign, Clifford-Lee (below) has been seen as the front runner and best placed to take the seat.

Byelections 19: Vote to fill Clare Daly's seat a two-horse race

However, the controversy of recent days about tweets she sent nine years ago has brought unwelcome criticism.

When we speak, she, in fairness to her, holds her hands up and makes clear she made a mistake.

Speaking for the first time since controversy erupted over the tweets, she says what she did was “wrong” and she was “sorry from the bottom of my heart.”

She says the tweets about travellers and foreigners do not represent the person she is today and her record in standing up for minorities is there for everyone to see.

“I just want to say, you know what happened, totally, totally inappropriate wrong, and I'm very sorry for offending people. And I realized that I have caught the fence. And I'm very, very sorry,” she said.

It was way before I was involved in electoral politics, and in no way reflects my attitude and my true attitude to minority issues is reflected in what I have done and what I have had to say since I was in a position to influence things.

“And looking back now I am horrified because at the time I had no understanding of their impact. You know, I've apologised and I am extremely sorry from the bottom of my heart but I guess I can do no more than that,” the Senator has said.

Despite the furore, Clifford-Lee is upbeat and defiant and saying she has an important contribution to make to public life.

A married mother-of-two small children, Clifford-Lee is exactly the kind of candidate Micheal Martin and Fianna Fáil need in the Dáil. Hence, the party's full backing of her in recent days.

“I have been knocking on doors constantly for four years. I have two small children. Most of my constituents are having difficulty accessing affording childcare, housing is a massive issue. People are very concerned about their teenage children when they finish school and finish college will start to pack up and leave because they can't actually buy their own house.

“So you know, people have told us we have a recovery but they don't feel us in their own lives,” she says bluntly.

Inspired, she says, by the achievements of Constance Markievicz and Maire Geoghegan Quinn, Clifford-Lee sees herself and her party of the centre-left and says the decision to grant free second-level education was revolutionary for families across Ireland.

While tensions with her party colleague Darragh O'Brien persist, Fianna Fáil would be seeking two seats here if it wants to be in government next time around.

I see it as Clifford-Lee likely to top the poll but whether she can secure enough transfers to stay ahead of Smith is the big question for this bellwether constituency.

The full field for Dublin-Fingal by-election is: Lorraine Clifford Lee (FF), James Reilly (FG), Joe O’Brien (Green), Duncan Smith (Labour), Ann Graves (SF), Tracy Carey (Soc Dems), Gemma O’Doherty (Ind), Cormac McKay (Ind), Glenn Brady (Ind) and Dean Mulligan (Independents 4 Change).

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