On the face of it, Fianna Fáil and Renua Ireland have little in common.
One is among Ireland’s oldest parties, the other the country’s youngest. One has a decades-old track record of electoral success in Carlow0 Kilkenny, the other has no track record anywhere.
And while one is leading the polls, the other until recently was considered unlikely to compete for Phil Hogan’s empty Dáil seat.
However, for all their differences one issue links them: The personal touch.
At canvasses around Carlow town yesterday, both parties stressed their candidate’s personalities, with policies instead taking a back seat. And in doing so, they may have hit on a winning formula come May 22.
For Fianna Fáil, it is all about Bobby Aylward or, more specifically, the Aylward name, which dominated the constituency from the mid-1970s until 2011.
Meeting residents in the Oaklawns estate alongside under-pressure party leader Micheál Martin, the byelection frontrunner admits that losing the seat was a “big blow” but that he wants to “redeem the name as people are engaging with us — that’s different to 2011”.
After a worrying seven doors knocked on which did not open, the engagement Fianna Fáil have outlined becomes clear, with residents happy to talk with a member of the Aylwards, who they feel served the constituency well.
“We’re strong in this constituency. When you go on doors there’s recognition and that the Aylwards are a decent family,” said Mr Martin, who needs a byelection win just as much as Mr Aylward after six defeats, possibly explaining why Fianna Fáil have stuck with a name that people know.
Not that recognition means you have it automatically your own way, with handlers clearly choosing the wrong door to knock on when they approached Wendy Holton’s home.
“I’m not voting for you, not you, not Fianna Fáil,” she shouted. “I’ve read about you, you’ve done nothing for me. You’re all just out to line your arses.”
Renua Ireland does not have the name or traditional party base, but their own candidate’s personal approach is an equally important weapon.
Patrick McKee, the 26-year-old trainee solicitor who jumped ship from Fianna Fáil to join Renua, has the attribute in abundance.
So much so, in fact, that he was even able to smooth over a calamitously organised walk-around with party leader Lucinda Creighton that saw Renua’s candidate turn up in the wrong county due to a mistake in his office.
While Carlow-Kilkenny is predicted to be fought between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Mr McKee’s “credible alternative to the status quo” angle is quietly convincing ordinary voters to turn to him, opening up the slim possibility of an unlikely surprise result.
“He’s a fine-looking thing. One of the few good-looking ones,” said Marti Nolan while leaning out of her car, presumably contemplating a wolf-whistle more than the ongoing gaps in Renua’s actual policies.
In byelection season, it’s personalities first, policies second.
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