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pounding the pavement

Hitting the road in the unpredictable urban/rural battleground of Cork North-Central

The constituency sees just two TDs seeking re-election, one of whom was elected only months ago.

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CORK-NORTH CENTRAL is notable for a number reasons.

As examined before, three of the four candidates elected in 2016 are not running this time out. Padráig O’Sullivan is seeking re-election less than three months after winning a by-election for Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael also has to deal with the fallout from the Dara Murphy controversy.

Solidarity-PBP’s Mick Barry is the only TD from four years ago who’s running again, and he’s also in a battle to keep his seat. Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien is not seeking re-election.

The constituency is also noteworthy because boundary changes have altered the dynamic somewhat, making it a true mix of urban votes in the city and more rural votes northwards towards Mallow.

Most of the candidates running in the race are city-based but went out canvassing in both urban and rural areas to see how the race is shaping up.

Fine Gael Senator Colm Burke is one of two candidates the party is running in the constituency and is party’s main hope of keeping a seat.

A former MEP who was also Lord Mayor of Cork, Burke is having to deal with questions about Murphy, who was largely absent from the Dáil over the past two years.

Murphy resigned in December last month in highly-controversial circumstances after claiming his full allowance while he was largely absent from Dáil over the past two years. 

20200129_122010 Colm Burke canvassing in Bishopstown. RónánDuffy / RónánDuffy / /

The candidate was out canvassing in the city suburb of Bishopstown when he first brought up the issue, referencing “the vacuum created by the non-performance of my former colleague”.

Burke claims he was forced to pick up some of Murphy’s slack and that he had been raising the issue for years. He says he tried to force his way onto the party ticket in 2016 but that he was blocked by the party.

“I’m getting a fair bit of, I suppose, backlash about the fact that he was elected, but remember, they stopped me running the last time.

I wanted to run, they gave me a commitment that if I identified a female candidate I would be added, and I identified a female candidate myself. They did an opinion poll showing I was way ahead of Dara Murphy and that a lot of my number twos were going back to them and then they decided not to put me on the ticket. 

“I was left high and dry but my attitude about politics is that you get up and you get up to shake off the dust and you and start all over.”

Burke is joined by a team of about six or seven canvassers during a wet afternoon calling to doors in the area. He’s keen to talk about jobs, a situation he says has been transformed in the last decade. 

Asked about housing, he says this remains a problem and that the country needs to be building 35,000 home a year to keep up with demand. One of the problems, he says, is that construction has got so expensive that it’s hard for developers to find investors.

“The big problem that we have with the building of apartment blocks is the cost of building them, it appears that the return of them is only about 2% per annum. And pension funds are not prepared to invest and we need to look at how do we get money into the building of blocks and make it investor friendly,” Burke says.  

The senator adds that he’s spoken to one local developer who is finding it hard to get construction companies on board: 

He’s applied for planning permission for a 25-storey block with 200 apartments and he’s made it very clear to me that it’s going to be difficult to get an investor to buy into it. He is bringing a lot of people and companies and the one thing they’re looking for is not only office space, but they’re also looking for residential accommodation their employees.

Even then, Burke says there are problems with people getting mortgages and he feels banks should use a renter’s history of paying rent as evidence of their ability to pay.

20200129_130527 Burke (second from left) with canvassers in Bishopstown. RónánDuffy / RónánDuffy / /

Of the people who are around to speak to the candidate, some raise the pension issue while others talk about health.

One man who spoke to said that the media is too focused on negative stories within the health service and that improvements should also be reported on.

Burke says that while improvements have been made, there is certainly an overcrowding problem in hospitals that is only going to get worse as the population gets older.

He makes specific reference to elective surgeries being cancelled in the nearby Mercy University Hospital due to an overspill from emergency departments.  

“The population in Ireland is going to change demographically in that we have about 640,000 people over 65, that’s going to change to a million people within 10 years which is a short very short time period,” he says.

We also have the problem in that 51% of all hospital beds are occupied by over 65s, so it’s not only about pensions, it’s also about responding with appropriate medical care and support care and home care.

20200129_145126 Pádraig O'Sullivan's car near Clogheen Cross. RónánDuffy / RónánDuffy / /

A 20-minute drive from Bishopstown and across the River Lee is the Clogheen Cross area. It’s not far from the Hollyhill Industrial Estate and looks over much of the city but it’s mostly rural.

The constituents there share some of the same concerns of people in the city, with crime causing particular unease, but farming issues are also likely to be raised. 

Fianna Fáil’s O’Sullivan is on the campaign trail for the third time in eight months after being previously elected in the local elections and then the November by-election. 

Several of the people canvassed by the deputy said they would be voting for him again, seeing as they did so only two months ago.

O’Sullivan is honest enough to admit that some of them would be committed Fianna Fáil voters anyway, but with the party running three candidates in the constituency, he’s not necessarily guaranteed their number one. 

20200129_150843 Duelling posters in Cork. Rónán Duffy / Rónán Duffy / /

“There’s a big shift away from the government,” O’Sullivan says when asked what he’s been hearing on the doorsteps. 

There’s a focus on a change of government and the government TD that was sitting here too. They had one TD out of four seats and I suppose Dara Murphy’s involvement in the last Dáil hasn’t gone down well here. So there’s a swell of anti-government support here.

O’Sullivan is a Glanmire resident and was first elected as a councillor in 2014 before briefly joining the Dáil ranks in November. 

Several candidates have suggested that Fianna Fáil could be in with a chance of a second seat here.

It’s a constituency where it routinely won two before and, in the 1997 election, some excellent vote management meant the party took three out of the then five seats.

O’Sullivan says two seats “is not beyond the realm of possibility” but that the party will need “a good day” and upwards of 30% of the vote.

This is perhaps made more difficult by the presence of Cllr Kenneth O’Flynn, himself a former member of the party who’s now running as an independent.

20200129_142624 O'Sullivan leaves a flyer at a house on the Blarney Road. RónánDuffy / RónánDuffy / /

Of the canvassers who speak to O’Sullivan, some say they’ve made up their minds while one says he’s “going for Mary Lou” despite not usually being a Sinn Féin voter.  

One woman who will be voting for O’Sullivan said that her daughter is a GP and is not happy with the expansion of free GP care for under 13s.

It’s grand saying free, free everything but most GPs are talking now that in the afternoon it’s all kids. They’ll go on a Monday, it’s a sniffle, they go back on a Wednesday, but what if you were paying? She (her daughter) would often have 25 patients and three might pay for the day. 

Moving from door-to-door along a busy main road with no footpath, O’Sullivan mentions that improving access is also an issue.

“A third of our voting population here is very rural and we did three debates during the by-election between Ivan Yates and all the rest and we were asked one question about rural issues.”

The vicious nature of some crimes in recent months has also caused concern. O’Sullivan mentions a specific incident where a man was doused with petrol and set alight in nearby Mayfield, saying that what happened shocked the community.

On housing, he favours councils being given more of a role to build by removing obstacles preventing them from borrowing money. 

“Obviously we think we have the track record on it historically, that we can deliver, but look we need to get local authorities building houses.

I was a county councillor for six years and this craic of waiting for 12-18 months to get sanction from the department, that needs to be eradicated, it’s just red tape. Let local authorities borrow more money and let them build houses.

With O’Sullivan and Burke both expected to be returned and Barry battling to hold on, Sinn Féin councillor Thomas Gould is the bookies favourite to top the poll. 

The party is riding high in opinion polls and is Gould is the party’s only candidate. 

Gould is running to hold the Sinn Féin seat first won by the popular Jonathan O’Brien in 2011. O’Brien confirmed last month that he won’t be seeking re-election but promised to campaign for the party to retain its seat. 

Gould is in a good position to do just that after winning 19.7% of first preferences in the recent by-election and eventually finishing in second place with transfers. 

Full list of candidates in Cork North-Central: Mick Barry (Solidarity-People Before Profit), Colm Burke (Fine Gael), James Coughlan (Workers’ Party), Tony Fitzgerald (Fianna Fáil), Thomas Gould (Sinn Féin), Sinéad Halpin (Social Democrats), TJ Hogan (Independent), Ger Keohane (Independent), John Maher (Labour), Oliver Moran (Green Party), Sandra Murphy (Fianna Fáil), Diarmaid Ó Cadhla (Independent), Stephen O’Donovan (Independent), Kenneth O’Flynn (Independent), Seán O’Leary (Independent), Lorraine O’Neill (Fine Gael), Pádraig O’Sullivan (Fianna Fáil), Finian Toomey (Aontú).

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