The Independent TD won’t make any promises or guarantees that he is unable to keep, writes Juno McEnroe
He doesn’t care if people vote for him; he’d rather “beg” on the streets than host constituency clinics; and he’d absolutely “love” to be the housing minister.
Mick Wallace is somewhat of a firebrand politician, who either raises your ire or elicits your respect. No stranger to controversy, his nonchalant approach to politics contrasts with his criticism of big business and corruption.
Strolling up the back streets of New Ross in his black leather jacket, laced-up hiking boots, and his customary pink top, Wallace looks calmer compared to most Dáil hopefuls at election time. Bathed in sun on this crisp February morning, parts of this Wexford town are tough, working class areas, left behind in the so-called economic recovery.
Sporting a woolly beanie supporting Torino, the traditionally left-wing-aligned football club of Turin, and carrying his pink election leaflets, the straight-talking politician is met by a mixture of veneration and occasional apathy on the doorsteps.
Some vent their indignation at Dublin, where the Government presides, while others look tentatively at Wallace.
New Ross, like many small towns, took the brunt of the recession. A local authority report last year put Wexford as the third-most disadvantaged region in the State. New Ross was declared the most disadvantaged municipal district in the county.
In the council estate of Nunnery Lane, resident Mary Walsh has a big welcome for the TD.
“They’re not paying you enough money, you’re always wearing the same top,” she says, smiling, as Wallace hands her his leaflet. “You’re a fighter, you’re on TV. You stand up to them.”
“There’s s plenty of reasons to be giving out,” says Wallace.
He took the five-seater constituency by storm when he topped the poll in 2011 with 13,329 votes. Since then, he has been no stranger to controversies. Not long after he took his seat, it emerged the developer had failed to make tax returns amounting to €1.4m on apartment sales and was forced to make a deal with Revenue.
Later, Wallace used Dáil privilege to reveal astonishing claims against gardaí, as well as against Nama.
Last year, he was jailed briefly in relation to his opposition to US military planes landing at Shannon airport.
Wallace says his role is fighting in the parliament, not down at constituency clinics, which he won’t host.
“I behave like a national politician, not a parish pump politician,” he says.
Wallace says problems preoccupying Wexford minds are housing, jobs, and mental-health issues. He is candid, almost blunt, about helping voters.
“They can call me, write, or email me. If they’re not being treated fairly, I’ll try and help them. If it’s about a waiting list or planning, I won’t do it. I’m an honest voice. I don’t go around begging for votes.”
As we close and open frosty gates and knock on doors, I wonder how Wallace reaches out to voters, telling them frankly that he won’t guarantee anything. It’s fascinating. But maybe as a society we have become too accustomed to politicians throwing out promises like confetti.
The personal tragedies that lie behind front doors in this deprived area of New Ross are heartbreaking. Mary Griffin shyly steps out in her dressing gown to relay her family’s situation. Her two grandsons are autistic, she is recovering from cancer, and her husband, James, is a chronic diabetic. Her concerns are about help for the family, bus passes, and financial support. She says there is no help for her grandsons, who must travel to Waterford.
The grandmother eggs on Wallace. “Is he going to continue stirring the shit above [in Dublin]? The system is rotten and well we know it,” she says, pledging to give Wallace her number one.
But his refusal to roll up his sleeves and get stuck into local issues could hit his vote.
One woman walking from her car answers his request for a vote. “I won’t, no. I can’t make my mind up, but I know you’re fighting your corner,” she tells him.
Others answering doors say they’ll think about it. Wallace knows these are a no vote. “I’d beg on the Halfpenny Bridge before I’d do [constituency] clinics,” he tells me.
In JKL, another deprived estate, people are wearing coats indoors on this cold day. One worried man asks Wallace if he can ask the council to build an extension for his handicapped wife, who has to sleep in the front room. “I’ll give anyone a vote who can get my wife a bedroom,” says Sylvester Hunt.
Again, Wallace guarantees nothing, saying he’ll look into the request after the election. “If I told you I would fix that, I would be lying,” he says.
Businesses on New Ross’ main street pull no punches about who to blame for their worries. “The Government have taken too much out of people’s pockets,” says fishmonger John Fox. Paul Brennan, manager of bookshop Nolans, wants high business rates lowered.
“Politicians only come by at election time. We are the forgotten town in the south-east. Wallace will probably top the poll as people are still fed up,” says Mr Brennan.
Wallace himself refuses to be drawn about what he will do if re-elected. But he does fess up about wanting a cabinet position. A senior minister is needed for housing and he could do it. Developers should be penalised for sitting on landbanks and a grand social housing programme is needed, he says.
“It’s not rocket science, I spent my life in [that sector]. I would absolutely love it.”
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