As her campaign team hit the streets of Ballydehob, West Cork, Holly Cairns could lay reasonable claim to having the country’s youngest canvasser on the job.
Baby Elodie, all of nine months, had a Holly badge on her woolly hat as she was wheeled around by her dad, Rob, mid-afternoon, just one more volunteer as they criss-cross the massive constituency of Cork South-West.
Cairns, who pulled one of the biggest surprises of last year’s local elections bysecuring the last seat on Cork County Council for the Social Democrats by a single vote, certainly appeals to young people, but is hopeful that she can create another shock on February 8.
Dishing out badges bearing the words ‘More Mná’ and ‘Give it Holly’, she describes the first week on the campaign trail as “super” and is particularly delighted that her Gofundme donations have soared, since she doesn’t have a huge party machine behind her.
Another boost was the 60 additional volunteers who have signed up to assist her, with her campaign manager, Clare O’Reilly, outlining how it is “more of an air campaign rather than a ground campaign”, with the hope that the relative lack of boots on the ground will be compensated for by savvy use of social media.
Since pipping Finbarr Harrington to the last council seat, Cairns has been appointed Social Democrat spokeswoman for agriculture, drawing on her background as a farmer and her masters degree in horticulture.
She has also come in with what she describes as “fresh eyes” on council business and procedures, often outlined in her regular Inside The Chamber podcasts.
As recently as this month, she again called for changes in the way the council provides documentation to councillors ahead of votes, railing against a practice where vital information is only provided hours or minutes beforehand.
A formidable presence since her election, she has been unafraid to speak her mind and then outline her reasoning to those who got her into County Hall in the first place.
In a hotly contested three-seater and amid a crowded field, repeating her 2019 success will be difficult, but the warm reception affordedto her on the doorsteps in Ballydehob illustrate her transfer-friendly appeal.
She polled 1,274 first preferences in the local elections, ultimately taking the last seat, to almost everyone’s surprise. Seeing her engage with people in Ballydehob, it’s easy to imagine her being in with a chance again, even if it means multiples of her vote last time out in what could be a contrary constituency.
“It’s nice to see those gorgeous eyes in person,” says Cathy O’Sullivan, a local woman heading into the Whole Food Cafe. “I’ll bevoting for you anyway.”
Ms O’Sullivan, like many others encountered in Ballydehob, seem prepared to give first or high preference votes to Cairns and outgoing Independent TD Michael Collins, with the main party candidates going largelyunmentioned.
Ms O’Sullivan says theenvironment and mental health are two of the mainissues for her, and says her daughter is a big Holly fan.
It’s a similar story up the road, where Lorraine Swanton in Martin Swanton Properties pledges her support. She jokes of her dog, Buster: “He’ll keep Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael away.”
Ms Swanton also mentions Collins, alongside Cairns, as having an appeal that other candidates don’t, describing the main parties as “a waste of time”.
“Their grassroots are all of an age that they are not ever open to change,”she says. “A lot of them have inherited their seats, whereas Independents and the likes of Holly are passionate about it.”
One of Cairns’s assertions is that “lots of people are Social Democrat voters, they just don’t know it yet”.
In Ballydehob, she is keen to stress that the partyalready has some achievements to its name, such as its work on the parental leave bill and its support for Sláintecare, and party co-leader Róisín Shortall’s role in developing it.
“For change to happen, it has to start somewhere,” she says. “We are a young party.”
She believes the short campaign isn’t a help for parties with smaller networks, and she admits the late entry into the Cork South-West field of Bernie Connolly for the Green Party may spread that vote, given her own strong green credentials — although she adds she is glad to have someone she can give her own second preference to.
“I think there is a general knowledge that we are not leaving it to the next generation,” she says of the impact of climate change and efforts to tackle it, but adds: “When things like the health services are so distracting, it’s difficult. We need to get politicians who say what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.”
While she is complimentary to many of her colleagues, she did take issue with Michael Collins’s “insulting” comments from last year on “looking after our own” when it came to the housing crisis, while she summed up Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as “two identical parties with a different civil war hero”.
It is undeniably a curiosity that she is in a relationship with Fianna Fáil candidate Christopher O’Sullivan, and she bristles at any perception that this non-political relationship could have any impact on her day job.
“I am surprised I am in a relationship with someone I wouldn’t vote for,” she says.
Cairns previously joked that she felt like she was in “a bad romcom” and doesn’t feel the situation should or would have any impact on transfers.
“It’s a little frustrating, comments like ‘she’s just Fianna Fáil’,” she says. “If I was Fianna Fáil, I would just join them. I have had to work for every single vote I have ever gotten.”
Clearly wanting to avoid any distractions, she says once O’Sullivan was put on the Fianna Fáil ticket, another councillor joked that she “would want to get used to the housewife role”.
That idea was given short shrift and she says: “I came into politics from a different place.”
Her campaign team certainly believes her broad political appeal is resonating on the doorsteps and as she strolls from shop to garage to cafe she meets one of her biggest fans — her dad, Clem.
With three Holly badges on his jumper like buttons on a coat, he says the demographic has changed in the constituency and that “anyone who knows her is positive” about her chances.
“Holly has an extraordinary effect on people on an individual level,” he says in Budd’s cafe, where staff have already pledged their support. “Holly can get a high vote.”
February 8 will reveal just how high.