Byelection is the ‘third referendum’

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Bobby Aylward, the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election candidate for the party, on a canvass in Carlowwhen they met Fine Gael supporter Vincent Walsh, who expressed his admiration for Mr Martin. Picture: Pat Moore

Officially, Friday’s Carlow/Kilkenny byelection is all about replacing former Fine Gael TD Phil Hogan, who was ‘promoted’ to Europe after the Irish Water debacle.

However, with a general election inching ever closer into view, it would be naive to believe there is nothing more at stake than backbencher bragging rights over the months to come.

The pressure will be most acute for Fianna Fáil and its leader Micheál Martin, an odd fact given that this is a seat the party really should feel confident of winning.

On paper, the mainly rural constituency looks like fertile ground for the Soldiers of Destiny’s recovery.

Traditionally, Fianna Fáil has edged Fine Gael in a conservative five-seat region split between the two political powerhouses, with the party bringing in two or three seats at every general election since 1927 until 2011, when the three-to-one trend switched to Fine Gael.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS

It still has a strong foothold, winning 10 of the 25 seats at Kilkenny County Council and five of the 18 in its Carlow counterpart.

Fianna Fáil is also the frontrunner in the byelection, a position further underlined by the fact such votes are regularly used to take a swipe at the government of the day. And in Bobby Aylward, the party has chosen a candidate who is a former TD (2007 to 2011) and whose family has represented the area in the Dáil for 34 of the past 38 years.

However, not all is as rosy for Fianna Fáil as first impressions suggest.

Should Fianna Fáil not take the seat, it will be its seventh byelection defeat of the current Dáil — an issue that makes a mockery of the party’s insistence that it can return to power.

While Fine Gael is unlikely to admit it, for the governing party, the coming days are equally pressurised. It all comes down to Irish Water and the legacy of the former environment minister who put it in place, leading to suggestions the byelection is effectively the third referendum of the week.

Of the 13 candidates, five have promised to scrap water charges completely, while one — Elizabeth Hourihane of the National Citizens Movement — is representing a new group set up solely to remove the fees.

Fine Gael has in recent days been at pains to stress its own candidate, David Fitzgerald, is gaining ground on Fianna Fáil and, given his political family background — his uncle Kieran Crotty and grand-uncle Patrick Crotty are former TDs — the 45-year-old former Kilkenny mayor has local support to fall back on. Even so, Mr Fitzgerald is fighting a difficult political tide not of his own making.

For the country’s latest political flag-bearer, Renua Ireland, the coming days will be its first real chance to test an entirely different kind of water, namely public attitude to Lucinda Creighton’s newly formed organisation.

Dipping his toes into the scene is trainee solicitor Patrick McKee, who recently jumped ship from Fianna Fáil. Despite making the move after his former colleagues chose Bobby Aylward to run and Sinn Féin claims that Mr McKee had openly pondered if he might fit in well with that other republican party before choosing Renua, the 26-year-old says his switch is driven by policy, not career.

Mr McKee, who is gay, was elected for the first time to Kilkenny County Council last May, and is its leas cathoirleach.

However, while party backers say Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are showing arrogance by believing this is a two-horse race, it will be a major shock if the first runner for Lucinda tops the poll. Despite McKee’s personal touch with voters making headway, building for a concerted general election run will privately be the main focus.

A similar target will also be in the crosshairs of Sinn Féin, whose candidate Kathleen Funchion has been quietly chiseling out a position in the Marble City.

The Siptu representative became the first Sinn Féin candidate elected in Kilkenny since 1923 when she won a seat on the local borough council in 2009. She also saw her 2007 general election showing of 2,568 first preferences (3.8% of total) double to 4,075 (5.5%) four years later, seeing her finish seventh.

Another strong showing in the by-election will encourage a Sinn Féin belief that a seat is there in the general election.

Things are not looking good for Labour either. The party’s Ann Phelan — now rural affairs minister — topped the poll during the shortlived 2011 Gilmore gale. However, 2015 is a very different political scene to 2011, and even with Ms Phelan’s coincidental recent announcement of a €17m social housing programme for Kilkenny, candidate Willie Quinn is unlikely to threaten for a podium spot this time out.

That changing constituency reality is something current TDs Ms Phelan, John McGuinness (FF), John Paul Phelan (FG) and Pat Deering (FG) would do well to keep in mind.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS

Runners and riders from across the electoral spectrum

Fianna Fáil — Bobby Aylward

From the Aylward dynasty, the 60-year-old constituency frontrunner was a TD for Carlow-Kilkenny between 2007 and 2011, when he lost out on the 13th count having gained the seat four years earlier on the first count; A member of Kilkenny County Council from 1992 until 2007. Brother of Liam, TD from 1977 until 2007, and son of ex-senator Bobby.

Fine Gael — David Fitzgerald

The auctioneer is another with a political family history, with uncle Kieran Crotty and granduncle Patrick Crotty former TDs. The Kilkenny county councillor is also the seventh member of his family to serve as mayor of Kilkenny. Secured the Fine Gael ticket ahead of ex-IFA president John Bryan.

Sinn Féin — Kathleen Funchion

The Siptu member is making her third Dáil bid, having competed in the 2007 and 2011 elections. The first Sinn Féin representative elected in Kilkenny since 1923 when she won a seat on Kilkenny Borough Council in 2009.

Renua Ireland — Patrick McKee

All eyes will be on the 26-year-old trainee solicitor’s result, after he quit Fianna Fáil to team up with Lucinda Creighton’s party. While the switch happened after Fianna Fáil chose Bobby Aylward, he says it was based on beliefs and not opportunities. Last May, Mr McKee was elected as a Fianna Fáil Kilkenny County Council member and made leas cathoirleach.

Labour — Willie Quinn

One of the few Carlow-based representatives, Mr Quinn has been a Carlow county councillor since 2007. He comes from a farming background.

Anti-Austerity Alliance — Conor MacLiam

The widower of Susie Long, who died from cancer while waiting on a public hospital waiting list in 2007. As in 2011, when he made it to the sixth count, the teacher’s focus will be on equal access to services and the removal of austerity taxes such as the water charge.

Identity Ireland — Peter O’Loughlin

Wants strict border controls to limit immigration. Received 7,000 votes as an Independent in the 2014 MEP elections, and hit the headlines when a meeting he held in Dublin ended in “head-butts” between his supporters and the Anti-Racism Ireland Network.

National Citizens Movement — Elizabeth Hourihane

Backed by Independent MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Ms Hourihane’s party is solely dedicated to ending Irish Water.

From Ballincollig in Cork, she last year brought a High Court challenge against the Government seeking the abolition of Irish Water as charges are a “health risk” to some people.

People before Profit — Adrienne Wallace

First-time candidate who “became active in politics after witnessing the affects of austerity”, Ms Wallace is a member of Carlow’s Right to Water group.

Greens — Malcolm Noonan

A former mayor of Kilkenny and member of Kilkenny County Council for the past decade. He has replaced former TD Mary White as the party’s election candidate.

A former director of Friends of the Earth Ireland and founder of suicide prevention group Lifeline Kilkenny.

Independent — Breda Gardner

Elected to Kilkenny County Council last May. A complimentary health practitioner who worked as a nurse for 18 years, Ms Gardner has stressed she is against “hidden politics”.

Independent — Daithi Holohan

An artist, Mr Holohan describes himself as an “independent republican” and recently gained attention in a profile on Tonight With Vincent Browne.

Independent - Noel G Walshe

Mr Walshe describes himself as a founding member of campaigns against household charges, water charges, and property taxes.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS


Lifestyle

Food news with Joe McNameeThe Menu: Upcoming food highlights

THE health properties of tea have long been advertised. “It maketh the body active and lusty” a 1660 promotion suggested. However, before you dunk your teabag into a mug of steaming water, spare a thought for the environment. Some have polypropylene to help to seal them and it doesn’t decompose.Storm in a teacup: Top 8 loose-leaf teas

Bestselling author Isabel Allende talks to Rowena Walsh about life, grief, and why it’s never too late to fall in loveIsabel Allende: It's never too late to fall in love

Cliffs of Moher Retreat owner Michelle Moroney has written a book on finding self-worth and stepping back from our 24/7 lives. She talks to Marjorie Brennan about the need to unwindMichelle Moroney highlights the need to take stock of our lives

More From The Irish Examiner