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.
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.
Runners and riders from across the electoral spectrum
Fianna Fáil — Bobby Aylward
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