Byelection: Big Phil still casts a shadow

Throughout the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection right now, there is a large shadow hanging over the race. So big it comes all the way from the Office of the EU Agriculture Commissioner in Brussels.

He may be gone, but Big Phil Hogan is still a major talking point in a constituency the former Fine Gael environment minister represented until his move to Europe last year.

Most candidates readily accept his Irish Water legacy will be a factor in Friday’s byelection, with five contenders in the 13-person race pledging to scrap the utility.

However, Fine Gael is understandably choosing to focus on other matters.

“The only people asking me about Phil Hogan are the media,” party candidate and councillor David Fitzgerald told the Irish Examiner during a canvass of bustling Kilkenny City businesses.

Keen to instead show off those green shoots of recovery and push his policies of tax cuts, jobs, and spreading regional prosperity, the auctioneer nephew of former TD Kieran Crotty and grand-nephew of former TD Patrick Crotty took journalists on a tour of local shops.

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There was the aptly named Nine Lives; an electrics store where the candidate makes headway by discussing a voter’s issues about, of all things, gun control; and a new cafe whose staff say “we always vote Fine Gael at home”.

Buoyed by the response you couldn’t have planned if you tried, Mr Fitzgerald spotted a US tour group — another clear sign of recovery — and went over to explain what the byelection is all about, throwing in an explanation of proportional representation for good measure.

Local voters can be more difficult, however, particularly when Irish Water bills are landing.

When talk finally turned to that issue, Mr Fitzgerald defends Mr Hogan for bringing “investment” and argues “if we want investment in water, and we do, it’s either through higher taxes or treating water as a utility”.

He said Irish Water is a “solution, not a problem” and that, as Carlow-Kilkenny has a 50:50 urban-rural divide, “half of voters are already paying” anyway”.

“I’m a new candidate, I represent a new start, and a new generation,” he said.

Speaking at a rally in Ryan’s Bar in Kilmanagh in rural Kilkenny last night, Taoiseach Enda Kenny appeared nonplussed about the Hogan factor, saying that he has not seen much blow-back on Irish Water and that the real focus is on benefiting from a “stabilising” economy.

By the end of the week, we’ll know if they are right.

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