TDs have thick skin but it’s not often you get their tattoo artist to confirm it.
Sinn Féin Cork North Central TD Jonathan O’Brien, who sports several tattoos on his body, smirks as we bump into his tattoo artist, Marcel Gaines, during a lunchtime canvass in Blackpool Shopping Centre on the city’s northside.
He laughs as he tells Marcel that he has turned down several of my requests for photos and an interview on his love affair with ink.
“They’re personal. They’re for me,” Mr O’Brien says, as I shake hands with the man he trusts to stick tattoo needles in his body.
But Marcel, who works in Pins and Needles on Thomas Davis St, doesn’t give much away either.
“He takes it really well,” is as far as he goes.
“I work with Peter Dunleavy who did most of the work. He kinda let me know that Jonathan was in the politics game when he first rocked up. But we didn’t really know much about it.
“He’s just a really sound bloke, he’s a good laugh. Everyone likes to see a politician in the hot seat but he takes it really well. He’s just a really sound guy. It’s takes a bit of the pleasure out of it when they’re not screaming,” he jokes.
Marcel, who is from South Africa, and his English wife, Charlotte, are a young couple who moved to Cork about 10 months ago. They don’t have a vote here on Friday but they are very conscious of the issues facing the Irish electorate, particularly those in Cork North Central.
Housing and jobs, they say together. “Housing is a major issue. It’s a bit shocking to tell the truth,” says Marcel.
Charlotte says when they first moved to Cork, they spent two months living in a hostel because they couldn’t find a house.
“We eventually had to settle on where we are now because we just couldn’t bear to live in a hostel anymore,” says Marcel.
“What really got to us was, when we first arrived, was the stories of other people we met in the hotel.
“They’d been living there five and six months. Everyone was looking for the same thing. It’s like a housing mafia in this country.
“We’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m from Africa. I’ve travelled all through Asia and Europe, and have never in my life seen such a grip on housing. It’s not even that bad in Africa You just can’t get a house here.”
Charlotte said their one- bedroomed house is the size of a converted garage and both agree that they couldn’t, even though they have discussed it, start a family there.
“It’s just not up to scratch, it’s not big enough, we just don’t have the space. We don’t see that happening here in Cork,” says Marcel.
And Charlotte, who works in the food industry, said she hasn’t seen any signs of the recovery being heralded by Fine Gael and Labour.
“You go to work every day, you get the minimum wage, and you spend all your money paying your bills — that’s it,” she says.
The 2011 poll-topping Mr O’Brien, and his running mate, 2014 local election poll-topping Cathedral Rd-based city councillor Thomas Gould, who have strategically divided the constituency in a united bid to take two Sinn Féin seats, hear similar stories as they canvass the shopping centre together.
Nothing about the fiscal space, nothing about their party leader’s links to the IRA, nothing about his vague grasp on their economic policies.
It’s the bread-and-butter issues affecting a constituency which, apart from the recent 1,000 jobs boost at Apple, still has some of the highest recorded unemployment and deprivation rates in the country.
Mr Gould, a father of two, a logistics manager with a food manufacturing company in Churchfield and a stalwart of St Vincent's GAA club, meets Debbie Birrane, whose son, Adam, six, was diagnosed with autism aged two and a half.
Debbie says because there was a two-year wait for a HSE assessment, she had to pay for a private assessment to secure a school place for Adam. She criticises the lack of resources and support services for children like him.
“It makes me really cross when I hear talk about the recovery because I’m trying to hold down a job,” she says. “I’m training with the assistance dogs, I’ve gone back to college and I have three children, and I feel really cross, because now, they are diagnosing, diagnosing, diagnosing, but there is no early intervention. It’s not there.”
Patricia McCarthy, who is there with her daughter, a secondary school teacher, and her granddaughter, said she and her family haven’t seen signs of the recovery either: “I don’t see a recovery, and neither do the people I shop with,” says Patricia. “For us, there is no recovery. And for the people like me, we didn’t squander, we didn’t go off our heads.
“Our children are emigrating, and if they do come back they are cut out of everything in their own country.
“What are they coming back to? It’s a low-wage country, an employer’s paradise.”
She expresses frustration with political parties and their promises, and says she’s willing to give Sinn Féin a chance this time.
“Could do they any better? We hope they will. But they can’t do any worse,” she says.
“They are new, they are young, they are outgoing, and they will say it as it is, whether we like it or not.
“The last crowd got in and they said ‘we’ll fix the trolley crisis, we’ll fix the waiting list’, and look where we are.”
Another woman who says she traditionally voted for the person, rather than the party, slated Labour for how it treated Róisín Shortall.
“It was disgraceful. They sold their souls to stay in power,” she fumes.
Mary O’Rourke, from Ballyvolane, is involved in a water meter protest in her estate.
She said as well as health and housing, water charges are a big issue for her and her neighbours.
“It’s another form of taxation. There has to be some give somewhere,” she says.
“Where’s the recovery? I haven’t seen any of it. They are crucifying us. It has to stop. It can’t go on any more.”
Feedback like this makes the pair believe that despite a strong left challenge from AAA councillor Mick Barry, they are in with a chance to winning two seats here on Friday. Mr O’Brien has no immediate plans for a celebratory election tattoo. The only mark he’s interested in at the moment is a clear “number one” next to his name on the ballot paper, and a number two next to Mr Gould’s name.