A party man through and through, Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne is very different than the man he seeks to replace, writes Michael Clifford.
Soft day in Gorey. A light curtain of rain is falling over the Wexford town, but it won’t dampen spirits as the Crimbo is hovering into view. ‘Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly’ is tra-la-la-la-laing from speakers up and down the main street.
There is one small issue to get out of the way before the goodwill is passed around in bright wrapping paper. Who among the candidates will emerge winner of the by-election for the constituency of Wexford?
The poll is required following the election of the Independents 4 Change TD Mick Wallace to the European Parliament last May.
Wallace was a maverick in a pinkT-shirt and heavy-metal mop of hair who bypassed convention, but made a serious contribution in holding power to account. He had no background in politics prior to his first successful election in 2011.
He didn’t hold clinics. He managed to survive and prosper on his national identity. To this extent, he was a one-off — and he or she who follows him will not be attempting in any way to borrow his clothes.
The favourite for the by-election is travelling at a speed of knots up Main Stin Gorey on a Saturday afternoon. Malcolm Byrne is togged out in waterproofs as the rain has clung to his canvass for much of the day.
Byrne is no Mick Wallace. He is a party man who has ploughed the electoral furrow for nigh on 20 years. Presentable and professional in appearance, he’s Fianna Fáil through and through.
The one trait he does share with the outgoing man is likability with voters — a handy, but not crucial attribute in our electoral system.
Byrne can barely move 20 paces along the street without being greeted by somebody who knows him.
All these exchanges are on first-name terms and usually include an issue that is bothering the constituent.
One woman is beside herself trying to get a house for her daughter, who is far down the list despite being a mother.
This woman’s friend also has a word with Byrne about a male relative who just can’t find a place to live.
“The challenges of growth,” Byrne explains. “Gorey is a growing town. Housing is a serious problem.”
A man issues a passing wave. “You have my number one,” he assures without being asked. “You always did, and Catherine’s.”
Councillor Pip Breen appears on the street to put his shoulder to the wheel. Pip is from Boolavogue, where a rebel hand set the heather blazing.
Pip says that by-elections are a rare beast round these parts. The last in Wexford was in 1945.
“We had to explain to some people what a by-election was,” he says.
The prowling traffic warden gives a passing wave.
“Good luck on Friday,” he says. Malcolm turns to the reporter, nearly apologetically, that all this positive stuff is coming at him. “I didn’t set this up,” he says.
Of course he didn’t. He didn’t have to — because he’s been a representative in this town for the last 20 years and it is obvious that he’s a hometown boy.
Two more women collar him, this time about a shortage of school places. By now he is competing for sound with ‘Rudolph The Red- Nosed Reindeer’ blaring out from the tannoy system.
Byrne has the cut of a man who believes his time has come. Ten years on the old urban council, another 10 on the county council. He has one general election run under his belt and a recent European campaign.
He caused a bit of a stir at theselection convention for the Euros when he was selected ahead of the high-profile TD Billy Kelleher to carry the party standard in the South constituency.
Kelleher was later added to the ticket and was elected as expected. Byrne hung in there until the 16th count, and tThe run for Europe did no harm in boosting his profile.
While he was the darling of the Euro convention, a little controversy was set alight locally over his selection for this by-election without recourse to a convention. HQ just decided he was the man to run. Why not ask the local organisation who it wants?
“I think it was a question of timing,” he says. “Somebody had to be in place relatively quickly. And with my record, I don’t think anybody could suggest I wouldn’t want a convention, I’ve done them for 20 years.”
As he crosses Main St, he brings up herself.
“Immigration isn’t an issue on the doorstep,” he says out of the blue. Who asked about immigration? This is an oblique reference to she-who-is-regarded-as-the-main-competition — Fine Gael’s Verona Murphy.
The biggest posters on the road into Gorey are those depicting Murphy’s smiling face.
The accompanying election slogan is ‘local and vocal’, but unfortunately she has gone to ground.
Requests to accompany her on a canvass were turned down.
She is communing with her people in the aftermath of three successive media mess-ups in which she managed to insult asylum seekers, migrants, and even homeless people.
Byrne is happy to talk about her, carefully proofing his statements to avoid any accusation of attack.
“The fact that it [immigration] is getting attention is annoying, as it’s simply not coming up,” he says. “What has come up a few times was her comments about the homeless.”
This was a suggestion from Murphy that bad personal choices had led some people to end up without homes.
The perception in the media is that the various comments have damaged Murphy’s chances of success, possibly fatally.
That does not necessarily provide an accurate reflection of her standing with voters.
She would only ship damage if potential voters felt strongly enough about the issues on which she voiced her ignorant opinions. (She apologised later and admitted she had not been in full possession of the facts.)
History suggests that she may well prove the media consensus wrong on polling day, but other factors are also against her. Often, when a candidate receives a blow mid-campaign — even when it is self-inflicted — HQ redoubles its efforts. There is no sign of that in this case.
The other problem she faces is the local organisation.
There are already two party TDs in the five-seater and there would be very little chance of retaining three out of five in next year’s general election.
If Murphy were to overcome all of these factors then it would suggest she has a calibre of steel which would serve her well overa long career.
If not, then Byrne, who was a slightfavourite even before Murphy pointed the gun at her foot, should succeed.
The other candidates would disagree with such an analysis.
Sinn Féin’s Johnny Mythem lost out on a Dáil seat by 30 votes in 2016, but it’s been a long three years for the Shinners.
Labour has a solid base in the constituency, but George Lawlor is unlikely to be joining his party leader Brendan Howlin in the Dáil.
Karin Dubsky is a newbie Green, but she has a solid record on the environment which should stand to her if she’s there for the long haul.
And Cinnamon Blackmore has the best name of allcandidates, but this one’s beyond his People Before Profit.
Whomever wins will only hold the seat or six months before the general election.
For Byrne, next year’s general will be the fourth election he fights within 12 months.
“By next summer I could be bankrupt, a TD, or both.” he says.