‘Euros, what Euros?’ as election race fails to catch fire

WHEN the planes went into the Twin Towers on 9/11, Brian Fagan realised it was time to hightail it out of Afghanistan.

‘Euros, what Euros?’ as election race fails to catch fire

Like thousands of others in the Taliban-run state, he knew it was only a matter of time before American bombs would begin to rain down, seeking retribution.

The border with Pakistan was quickly closed, so the Mullingar man hit out cross-country, exiting into the dark and mysterious Turkmenistan. Fagan recalls those turbulent days as he sits in a Mullingar café, hours after lodging his papers to seek election as the next Dáil member for the Longford Westmeath constituency.

“There is a protest vote out there,” he says. “The big thing is to get people to actually come out and vote. The seat belongs to the people, not to political dynasties.” The latter reference is a little cut at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have respectively nominated a sibling and offspring of former TDs to run in the by-election.

The Euro elections are up the pole in Mullingar, but don’t feature on any radar. On entering the town, images of Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher and Ronan Mullen smile down from ESB poles, like sentries sent out to warn weary travellers that they are now entering a cluttered campaign area.

It’s only a few more metres before Thomas Byrne hoves into view, closely followed by Marian Harkin. And looky there, at Máiréad McGuinness and Jim Higgins sharing a poster for their Fine Gael party, showing a degree of esprit de corps that is obviously beyond Fianna Fáil’s Gallagher and Byrne.

Apart from the posters, you’d be hard pressed to find any interest in the Euros. Mullingar may be geographically in the heart of the Midlands North-West constituency, but the election is on the margins of any political agenda here.

“More people would be talking about the loss of the town council in the local elections, than anything to do with the Euros,” according to Dick Hogan, editor of the Westmeath Topic. “The other thing then is that there are very few strong candidates from this side of the constituency for the Dáil by-election.”

The big political issue is visible all around the town’s main arteries. Here and there scarred and tarred strips on the streets provide evidence of recent trenching required to install water meters. Traffic queues and knots of workmen in luminous vests bear witness to the ongoing work, as the air is filled with the rat-a-tat-tat of Kango hammers, boring into the concrete, into the pockets of hard pressed citizens.

“You can say that the water charges are only a few euros a week, or whatever,” says Fagan. “But for some people, that’s the difference between eating properly.”

Fagan came home to Mullingar after nearly 30 years abroad, a chunk of which was dedicated to aid work in the more stricken corners of the globe.

He opened a pop-up charity shop nearly a decade ago. Between that and other activities he says he’s closing in on his target of raising €1m. Politics is a natural next step for him.

As for the Euros, it’s a question of, what Euros? “Nobody really knows any of the candidates, you’d never see them around here much,” says Fagan.

Thomas Byrne was spotted at the St Patrick’s Day parade. There was a rumour of Labour’s Lorraine Higgins at the dog track one night. Marian Harkin and Ronan Mullen popped into the offices of the Westmeath Topic, but these sightings were sporadic, and brief.

Mullingar has been hit hard in recent years. The closure of the local army barracks was a blow, and led to Willie Penrose resigning from Labour, although he has since crept back into the fold.

Tattered industrial dreams can be seen on the outskirts of the town where an IDA park is in danger of being overgrown. They built it, but nobody ever came, apart from a local farmer who rented back some of the land and grew corn.

Of course it ain’t easy being a candidate in a constituency of 15 counties. The concerns of the fishermen of Killybegs are far from the everyday hassles of residents of south Meath, living within spitting distance of the M50 that rings the capital.

Pat the Cope is the oldest swinger in this constituency, and he uses his experience well, pointing out that he is the best man to keep delivering. Marian Harkin is also a wily campaigner, looking to hold onto her seat. The other two incumbents, Fine Gael duo Máiréad McGuinness and Jim Higgins are also going at it hammer and tongs.

Matt Carthy is the young man carrying the Sinn Féin baton in these parts, and is expected to be in the final shake-up. “Nobody knows much about him, except that he’s a good-looking fella,” according to one sage in Mullingar.

The observation hits at a trend among the Shinner runners in this election. Where once the party’s candidates were required to be veterans of bombing and shooting, these days it seems tender years and a good moisturiser are seen as the main prerequisites for selection.

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is the dark horse. He has a national profile, although he did dirty his bib over the penalty points double standards. But he has been the one national figure to make endangered bogs as a main policy plant.

“He’ll raise the bogs in Europe,” says Dick Hogan, and that is something that will resonate with those who want to keep digging turf on the raised bogs to the point of exhaustion.

Mullen is another who could surprise. He is a well-known figure among conservative Catholics. To make it over the line, however, he would require a broader constituency to view him as a viable alternative to the main parties to make it over the line.

Pat the Cope survived the recent Fianna Fáil massacres, and name recognition may see him home one last time. Fine Gael will require serious vote management to retain their pair. Marian Harkin will always be in with a shout, but this time she must also compete with Ming in particular to make it home. Quite possibly, both will do the job at the expense of either Higgins or McGuinness.

The line-up

There are 14 candidates contesting four seats in Midlands-North-West:

Jim Higgins (FG): The MEP of 10 years is best known for raising allegations of Garda corruption in Donegal which were later the subject of the Morris Tribunal. He dismissed reports the party had asked him to step aside from this campaign in favour of fellow Mayo man John O’Mahony.

Mairead McGuinness (FG): The former farming journalist and presenter of RTÉ’s Ear to the Ground entered politics in 2004 when she won a European Parliament seat despite an internal party battle with another Fine Gael MEP at the time, Avril Doyle.

Lorraine Higgins (Lab): A barrister, she was nominated to the Seanad after unsuccessfully contesting the 2011 general election in Galway East.

Thomas Byrne (FF): Once dubbed “Bertie’s Man” because a video of the former Taoiseach backing him during the 2007 general election. A solicitor, he served one Dáil term before losing his seat in 2011 which he failed to win back in the 2013 Meath East by-election.

Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher (FF): A former TD and junior minister for the marine, he joined the EU parliament in 1994. He has been involved in poster wars with Byrne who is infringing on his turf.

Marian Harkin (Non-Party): Topped the poll to win a Dáil seat for Sligo-Leitrim as an independent in 2002, before joining the European Parliament in 2004.

Ronan Mullen (Non-Party): An independent senator and barrister from Galway, he was a staunch opponent of recent abortion legislation and a proposed referendum on marriage equality.

Matt Carthy (Sinn Féin): The 36-year-old father-of-four is a member of Carrickmacross council since 1999 — when his claim to fame was he was the youngest elected representative in the country,

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (Non-Party): The “legalise cannabis” campaigner turned independent TD, who has been an outspoken critic of an EU-imposed turf-cutting ban has decided to run for an EU seat because he believes “we have gone too far with this European project”.

Ben Gilroy (Direct Democracy Ireland): Surprised many by finishing with 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 Meath East by-election.

Cordelia Nic Fhearraigh (Fís Nua): From Donegal, she has not taken part in televised or radio debates as she is sitting exams.

Mark Dearey (Green): The former schoolteacher served one year in the Seanad during his party’s time in Government.

Mark Fitzsimons (Non-Party): Dundalk-based candidate, who is blind, is campaigning against evictions and in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis.

TJ Fay (Non-Party): The oldest candidate in the election at 72, he is proposing a new form of governance through local conventions, which he says is “radically different from the sham ‘democracy’ that we are used to”.

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