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Meath East by-election: Here are the candidates and here's what they're saying

With the by-election less than three weeks away TheJournal.ie spoke to the main candidates this week to find out what they’re hearing on the doorsteps and what they’re telling voters…
Mar 9th 2013, 8:30 AM 11,371 177

THE DATE IS set and all the main parties now have their candidates in place for the Meath East by-election on 27 March.

In what is shaping up to be a key test of support for the coalition government, Fine Gael will be hoping to retain the seat vacated by the late Minister of State Shane McEntee counting on the name recognition of his daughter, Helen.

But Fianna Fáil will hope their pick, Senator Thomas Byrne, can capitalise on anti-government sentiment and his own name recognition in the constituency where he was formerly a TD to take the seat.

But enough of the hopes and dreams of the parties, what are the candidates saying?

This week TheJournal.ie spoke to the main party candidates and a number of others in the running to get their views on the campaign so far and the issues they’ll be talking to voters about…

Direct Democracy Ireland – Ben Gilroy

Pic: Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland

“To be honest, we’re shooting in the dark. I could come in with 200 votes, or 2,000,” says Ben Gilroy, whose previous interventions at attempted evictions have gained him some noteriety. Direct Democracy Ireland is a new political movement which calls itself “a political service” and claims to have “a couple of thousand members”.

A resident of Navan, Gilroy says that the party had intended to spend the next few months concentrating on building its organisation but has decided to enter the Meath East by-election with the intention of getting its name out there before competing properly at the next general election.

“Our main goal will be the general election,” he explains. “The way the parties are you could have a hung Dáil. Even if we had five or six TDs, we might hold the balance power.” He rejects the claim that his party has no issues or policies by pointing out that its campaigning against household and water taxes, is calling for a 70 per cent reduction in all family home mortgages and for business rates to be reduced.

He says the reception so far on the doorsteps has been positive, adding: “We don’t have much money, we are on scraps of donations but the only thing is that we have a lot of manpower and we have a lot of canvassers.”

Green Party – Seán Ó Buachalla

The 31-year-old youth development officer with Conradh na Gaeilige ran for the Greens in the 2011 election. The strong anti-Green Party sentiment in the wake of its disastrous coalition with Fianna Fáil no doubt contributed to him picking up just 461 first preference votes but as part of the Greens’ overall process of rebuilding he’ll be hoping to do better this time around.

“I am standing in this election to offer an alternative to the people of Meath East to the old ways of operating and the unrealistic approach of being opposed to everything that the current government does,” Ó Buachalla this week in a statement confirming his candidacy.

Party leader Eamon Ryan told us last month that the by-election was another step on the road to rebuilding the party which lost all of its deputies in 2011. “We need to double and triple our vote, so that’s the scale of the response and support we’ll be out looking for,” he said.

The Greens will not win in Meath East but an increase in their vote on 2011 would be a boost to the party.

Fianna Fáil – Thomas Byrne

Pic: Conor McCabe/Fianna Fáil

“People seem to be browned-off with all of politics,” the senator says of his doorstep visits so far. The 35-year-old is hoping that the government’s “broken promises” will benefit his party but acknowledges it will take a lot for him to regain the Dáil seat that he lost in the last election, coming fourth in the three-seat constituency.

“A lot of people who are part of what you might call the squeezed middle are really setting out their stall to us. They just feel they are taking all of the burden,” Byrne says. “They are contributing and they’re being asked to contribute more all of the time. The whole fairness thing is coming up.”

The senator has carved out a niche as an effective opposition spokesperson on matters such as the economy and household debt and has contributed to a number of Fianna Fail policies and draft laws on debt management and home repossessions. He points out that he was against the property tax even when Fianna Fáil was in government but would not be drawn on the potential benefit to his party electorally in Meath East by the arrival of letters from the Revenue in the coming weeks.

Byrne, who got over 8,000 votes in 2011, says that it’s hard to judge how he will do this time around given a winning candidate needs 50 per cent plus one but he insists that the feeling from the voters he has been speaking to is that “at least Fianna Fáil would have been fairer” if it was in government right now.

Fine Gael – Helen McEntee

Pic: Fine Gael

“I’m female and we don’t have too many of them in Dáil Eireann,” says the 26-year-old who would become one of the youngest TDs in the Dáil if elected on 27 March. Having worked for her father both locally and in the Department of Agriculture she is well versed in the current state of politics.

“Dad was very popular and there will always be that aspect of it,” she says. “But look I am just going to be honest with the electorate and say it how it is and how it needs to be. The government hasn’t made easy decisions… [and]… I don’t plan on making any false promises.”

McEntee has only been canvassing a day but already the issue of jobs and unemployment has come up on the doorstep. She also cites emigration with many young people leaving for the UK and beyond. “I want to focus on keeping employment in Meath East and in our community,” she says adding that she will look to build on her father’s work as well as bring a “younger voice to the table”.

With the Fine Gael party machine behind her and her second name so well recognised McEntee is the early favourite to retain her father’s seat but much will depend on how much public anger at the government will transfer to the voting booths in Meath East in a few weeks time.

Labour Party – Eoin Holmes

Pic: Labour

“He’s got a very real understanding of what the country is facing,” Labour’s Director of Elections and Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan says of the Slane-based councillor, Eoin Holmes, who was selected as the Labour nominee at a convention last night. Hannigan points out that the father-of-four is the only candidate from the main parties who does not have a background in Leinster House.

Hannigan says that the real fight in the by-election is not between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but rather Fine Gael and its junior coalition partner. He claims that electing Holmes – and taking the seat from Fine Gael – will allow Labour to have more of an influence on the direction of the government.

“He has a clear view of what the reality on the ground is like. He knows what it is like to go to your bank manager to ask for allowances to be made in relation to repayments, he knows what it’s like to have to worry about how you can feed your family,” Hannigan says.

He also denies that Labour was bounced into the by-election and insists that it will hit the ground running in the coming weeks having erected posters last night and amassed some 10,000 leaflets ready for distribution. Labour may have been caught short by the earlier than expected announcement but it will look to distinguish itself from Fine Gael by talking about policy it has influenced such as expected X Case legislation and the consultation on school patronage.

But the anti-Labour sentiment – as demonstrated in recent polls – is likely to make it difficult for the party to do well in the constituency.

Sinn Féin – Darren O’Rourke

Pic: Gerry Adams/Twitter

“The aim is to take the seat,” insists O’Rourke, 32, who was selected by his party last month and admits that the government calling the by-election for 27 March came as a bit of a surprise. “It is a sprint but I’ve been sprinting since it’s been called and I intend to sprint for the next three weeks.”

Born and raised in Kells, O’Rourke has spent the last few years working as a health policy advisor to Caoimhghin Ó Caolain TD, the Sinn Féin health spokesperson, and now hopes that he will join Ó Caolain on the opposition benches.

The party faces an uphill task to take the seat but despite this O’Rourke reckons the “huge change in demographics” that Meath East has experienced will work in his party’s favour as many people are “not voting on tradition”.

“I feel my message is resonating,” he says. “A huge percentage of people voted for change at the last election. Eleven thousand people left Fianna Fáil on the basis that the others would bring change and the sense I am getting is that is not being delivered on.”

He argues that while Fianna Fáil may be considered the alternative opposition in the constituency given Byrne’s strong base the main opposition party’s policies are little different to those of the coalition.  ”I’m about providing an alternative analysis and alternative voice in the area,” he adds.

Workers’ Party – Seamus McDonagh

“People are very angry here in Meath,” the self-described life-long socialist says. A member of the Workers’ Party since the 70s and the current chair of North Meath’s Campaign Against Water Household and Septic Tank Charges, he says that emigration has been one of the issues he has encountered in recent days.

“People are very upset about the emigration. Their children and grandchildren are not just going to England, they’re going to Australia and New Zealand. It’s all very well for people who have Skype and all that but some of these people don’t have Skype,” he says. He encounters voters who believe politicians are “a plague on all our houses”.

“The trust is not there,” he explains as he outlines his party’s policy that a recall system should be in place for voters to effectively turf out TDs who they are not happy with. Realistically McDonagh will not be the next TD for Meath East but he says his campaign is about trying to “maximise the vote to make sure there is opposition.”

He claims: “We’re the only left-wing group standing in this constituency… Sinn Féin is opposed to austerity in the sense that it’s a popular place to be.”

Read: Labour ‘caught on the back foot’ by FG on Meath East by-election date

Read: Hogan reduces polling period for Meath East by-election

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