Byelections 2019: All politics is local in Dublin Mid-West

Voters in Dublin Mid-West aren’t talking about immigration. They’re far more worried about housing, transport, and a little boy named Sam, writes Juno McEnroe

Byelections 2019: All politics is local in Dublin Mid-West

Voters in Dublin Mid-West aren’t talking about immigration. They’re far more worried about housing, transport, and a little boy named Sam, writes Juno McEnroe

An impassioned mother tells Dáil hopeful Paul Gogarty:

“The whole village knows Sam, the whole village backs him. And if you are shouting from the rooftops for him, Rathcoole will back you.”

It’s less than a week to polling day in the Dublin Mid-West byelection. Election posters snake up and down lamposts across towns. Not even monsoon-like November rain washes away the polished smiles on the placards overlooking the drenched locals.

Independent candidate Paul Gogarty parks his electric car — plastered with his name and face — in a local estate, Foster Hills, an enclave off Rathcoole’s main street. He’s late, some of his campaign team haven’t turned up, and doors aren’t opening.

“This has been a disastrous campaign. Some of my team didn’t turn up when it was postering day. Fine Gael might have 50 or 60 people working on their campaign, I’ve got six,” he confides to me.

Despite the pessimism, Gogarty is considered the second favourite for a seat in Dublin Mid-West, after Fine Gael councillor Emer Higgins. Both are competing to win the seat vacated by Frances Fitzgerald, who was elected to the European Parliament as an MEP in May.

Shadowing him as he drops leaflets in letterboxes and knocks on doors, I notice Gogarty’s ability to listen — and to resist overpromising.

One personal battle that has gripped residents of Rathcoole is that of little Sam Bailey. The local nine-year-old has a rare fatal muscle-wasting disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). In a wheelchair, he can’t lift a pencil, much less hug his sisters.

Flu could kill Sam. Another 25 children have SMA. His family and locals are fighting for funds to access a life-changing but costly drug — Sprinraza. The HSE approved it for Sam and others in June, but nothing happened and some have been told the delay is now down to “resource issues”.

Local resident Selina, 39, tackles Gogarty about Sam’s deplorable situation on her doorstep. Flyers in hand and standing under the heavy rain, the former TD listens attentively.

“Give them a life, give them a chance. They’ve stopped [it]. It is heartbreaking,” say the young mother.

“This boy, like others, was promised the sun, moon and the stars [with Sprinraza]. Now he can’t get the drug. It is like giving Christmas to a little boy, then taking it back.

“You need to scream about this, to help. You have the authority,” Selina tells the silent councillor.

Gogarty says, as a Green TD, he managed to get help for a man on hunger strike outside the Dáil. He can’t promise anything, but he’ll try and get answers for Sam and the Bailey family.

“If I get in, I’ll certainly raise it,” he tells Selina.

Issues like this unite small towns. Even pupils from Rathcoole’s Scoil Chronain made a video to campaign for their classmate Sam.

Unlike general elections that are often dominated by economic or national matters, constituents here are worried about traffic, local housing needs, public safety, proper planning, and cases like Sam’s.

Gogarty moves on to the local Tesco to hand out fliers. Shoppers press him about traffic gridlock, crime, and the lack of gardaí on duty, as the local station is only open part-time.

The Independent’s strongest support in the constituency lies in Lucan and Palmerstown, areas he has roots in. His green credentials will also help across both the urban and rural areas.

Gogarty campaigned against a planned incinerator in Rathcoole as a former TD and is currently opposing development on a local woodlands. He also wants to see a State-backed retrofitting scheme for hundreds of thousands of homes.

His biggest challenge will likely be passing out the Fine Gael candidate, Emer Higgins, who Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said would have a “hotline” to the Government if she wins the seat.

Cllr Emer Higgins (right) with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Commercials Hurling Club in Rathcoole. Picture: Damien Eagers Photography
Cllr Emer Higgins (right) with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Commercials Hurling Club in Rathcoole. Picture: Damien Eagers Photography

Higgins is likely Fine Gael’s best hope of winning a seat in the four byelections.

In a local store, a final-year UCD politics student muses who could top the poll.

“Higgins is well known, Gogarty too. But it will be Fine Gael,” insists Centra worker Luke Longworth.

The pressure is on Higgins. A PayPal employee and two-time councillor, she pledges that, if elected, she would campaign for stronger rights for tenants. Immigration, while a hot topic nationally, is not coming up with voters. But there are big public transport problems.

“Issues coming up are about delivery, including infrastructure and buses. People standing at Lucan bustops are seeing full buses go by. Services are under pressure,” explains Higgins.

The Dáil hopeful says that she spoke to Dublin Bus and luckily (especially during a byelection), two new services — the 69 and 25 — were launched recently.

Like the other candidates, she says housing is an issue:

“There are over 9,000 new units coming on stream for Clonburris, that’s for over 22,000 people. When finished, that’ll be a new town the size of Athlone based between Lucan and Clondalkin.”

Given the existing public transport pressures and local demand for services, Ms Higgins says planning for this new town has to be right. She also recognises that everyone can’t afford to buy.

“I’m a renter and have lived in Lucan for six years. I’ve a good job, but still can’t afford to buy. It is important to have that perspective in the Dáil. Now, you are more likely to hear from landlords than renters in the Dáil.”

Ms Higgins says renters should have stronger rights, and she backs the idea of 10-year leases.

Nonetheless, she is realistic about her chances, especially as Gogarty will likely be transfer-friendly.

“Governments have only won three byelections in 35 years. I’m hoping to reverse that trend. It is a challenge, but an opportunity too.”

An additional hope for Higgins is that she is campaigning in a four-seater that already has three male TDs.

Another well-known candidate in Dublin Mid-West is former two-time TD Joanna Tuffy. The Labour councillor has a strong track record in the constituency, but there are several other left-wing candidates vying for votes, including Sinn Féin councillor Mark Ward, People Before Profit’s Kellie Sweeney, and independents.

Green Party councillor Peter Kavanagh should poll well, given the recent ‘green wave nonetheless, the Clondalkin journalist is realistic about voter support in a constituency of working and middle class voters.

“The green wave has just barely washed up on some shores here. The constituency is vast and diverse.”

Although Kavanagh does believe RTÉ’s recent week of climate change programmes will help him, he concedes both he and Gogarty could split their core support.

For Fianna Fáil, it would be a big ask for newly elected councillor Shane Moynihan to add to the tally in the Dáil.

One matter that comes up, again and again, is turnout. Campaigners fear that it may be low on Friday, given the time of year. If that’s the case, many expect candidates with big bases, such as Higgins in Lucan, to do well.

Dublin Mid-West is tough to call. A Fine Gael defeat would be a big loss for them. Turnout and transfers will decide the winner.

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