CALL it traditional, call it conservative, call it patriarchal, but don’t try and call the result in Cork South West where a handful of women are doing their damnedest to end its reign as the only constituency to have never returned a female TD.
This time around, there are five in the mix: Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony, Rachel McCarthy of Sinn Féin, and three independents, Theresa Heaney, Fiona Pettit, and Gillian Powell.
When the Irish Examiner joined Gillian Powell on the campaign trail she was in determined mood, buoyed up, so to speak, by the flooding that left her home, business, and the town of Bandon under a couple of feet of water on two separate occasions before Christmas.
“I decided to run four weeks ago when I was standing in water for the second time in a month,” says Gillian.
“It was about turning despair into something positive. We’ve had bucketfuls of promises since the last major flood in 2009 and nothing practical has been done on the ground.
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“I feel that by running I am giving a local voice to a national issue. And it is really resonating with people.”
But will running as a flood relief candidate narrow her appeal? Gillian, an activist with the Bandon Flood Group, doesn’t think so.
The neighbouring local electoral area of Skibbereen, with the town of Clonakilty, was also badly affected by recent floods.
And anyway Gillian believes that her profile as a businesswoman in the town of Bandon, where she runs The Haven Montessori school on Watergate St, will also resonate with the many women in the constituency “who have little businesses and no safety net, and have never, ever had a voice”.
“They have no [insurance] protection for their homes or businesses, they find it very difficult to make a living. I think they are really sick of the political system and find that the party system doesn’t serve them well.”
Gillian generates a positive response from townspeople during my visit.
In Reens newsagents, Robert Fitzpatrick says he’s worked with Gillian on flooding issues and that she will be getting his vote.
In Hickey’s booksellers, Eric and Breda Hickey say they’ve been flooded eight times in 36 years and that Gillian “will get a lot of votes in the town”.
“People are fed up with all the promises and no progress,” says Breda.
“She’s been flooded herself so she knows the ins and outs of it,” says Eric.
He doesn’t think any seats are a certainty — at the moment, Fine Gael holds two and Labour one — although if anyone is returned he thinks it will be Jim Daly of Fine Gael. “After that, all bets are off,” he says.
In the nearby tastefully-decorated Warren Allen Collections and Coffee Shop, Seán Kennedy says they’ve been flooded twice and that he will be giving Gillian his number one. Seán’s mother Jacinta concurs. “We’re thrilled to see women running, it’s about time. I honestly think there’ll be nothing done until women get into real leadership positions. We need strong independent women who aren’t under the kosh,” she says.
When I ask one client in the cafe if she will be voting for Gillian, she replies that she has to “consult” with her husband, doing little to rid the town of its image as one where men have traditionally ruled.
Another couple of female coffee drinkers say they haven’t decided yet.
By coincidence, Independent councillor Michael Collins from Schull on the Mizen Peninsula, also drops into the coffee shop.
He’s hoping his 25-year track record of working in a voluntary capacity for the people of West Cork will stand to him, although he and Gillian face stiff competition from former Fianna Fáil mayor of Cork, councillor Alan Coleman, who left the party to run as an Independent candidate when it became clear he wasn’t going to get the party’s nomination.
His brother John believes Michael is “in with a chance” and says Fine Gael are terrified of losing their seats.
“But we won’t know until they turn the boxes upside down in Clonakilty,” he says.