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Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
# Eyes on the Prize
How's the 'Ming' by-election shaping up?... We hit the trail in Roscommon-South Leitrim
The ten candidates are facing-off tonight in the heated atmosphere of an RTÉ studio. We spent the morning at the mart, and the afternoon at the races, to check the temperature on the ground…

UNLESS YOU LIVE in the area, there’s every possibility you may not have realised there was a Dáil by-election going on in Roscommon-South Leitrim until the last few days.

That was before Shuffle-gate controversy (we’re using the ‘gate’ suffix ironically here – we think) blew up over the weekend….

And if you plan on watching this evening’s Prime Time, there’ll be no escaping the vote either — the ten candidates vying to take the vacant Dáil seat will come face-to-face (to face, etc.) in the RTÉ studios tonight for a Miriam O’Callaghan-hosted debate.

So who’s in the mix? 

Voters in the massive constituency go to the polls in less than two-weeks’ time, on 10 October.

The election was automatically triggered by Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan’s ascension to Europe. But the outspoken Independent’s influence is still apparent, all over the rolling hills of Roscommon… Michael Fitzmaurice, leader of the turf-cutters association, is one of the front-runners in the race — with rivals fearing he’ll take votes from all of the established political parties.

The Fianna Fáil candidate, auctioneer Ivan Connaghton, is favourite to take the seat.

On the trail…

Never an outlet to take the easy option, decided to start its day-on-the-trail with one of the outsiders in the race… 22-year-old Emmet Corcoran’s chances are being rated at 40-to-one by one well-known bookmaker.

The Strokestown native, who describes himself as an ‘entrepreneur’, is mounting a budget campaign — but he’s hoping to win people over with his youthful, optimistic message.

Travel will be his biggest cost, he says — after arriving into Castlerea in a station-wagon driven by his mother, Caroline, who’s helping run the campaign.

After leafleting few houses in an estate on the town’s outskirts, first stop on Main Street is Hester’s Bar and Restaurant — which is doing a brisk early-lunchtime trade in soups and sandwiches.

“You better not be a Fine Gaeler,” comes a greeting from an elderly man parked at the bar — but on the whole, locals seem happy enough to have their meals interrupted by the independent candidate (this is ‘Ming’ country, after all).

Over at Castlerea’s famous Livestock Mart, there’s a similarly warm welcome from a group of farmers gathered outside the salesroom.

“People are sick of this cute-hoor politics,” one of them tells, after stopping for a chat with the candidate.

Enda Kenny’s handling of the John McNulty affair isn’t going down well with voters, he says.

We’re not eejits. We know what’s going on. I thought Enda Kenny and Fine Gael was above all this… They hounded Fianna Fáil for years, but obviously it’s still going on.

“I’ve voted for Fine Gael in the past, but I’m going to give it to Emmet this time out.”

Corcoran — and other Independents like him — are hoping to capitalise on the anti-party sentiment in the area…

Issues like the closure of the Emergency Department at Roscommon hospital haven’t won Fine Gael any new fans in the last few years — while, in spite of the positive odds being given to the party’s candidate, some voters say it’s too early for Fianna Fáil to mount a successful comeback just yet.

“Job creation,” is the young candidate’s number one priority, should he get into office, he says — before launching into a detailed explanation of his plan to kick-start the tourism sector in the area.

We’ve already started the ball rolling — myself and another businessman from Longford — on a National Park bid for the Slieve Bawn Mountain and the mountain boglands.

Inside the mart, Corcoran sets off on another round of glad-handing. But most of the farmers gathered inside have their focus fixed solely on what’s happening inside the ring. He chats for about two minutes with two elderly men leaning in the front row.

“What did you make of his pitch for your votes?” we ask, afterwards.

“I couldn’t really hear him… Actually, I can’t really hear you.”

It can get loud, down in the mart…

Liam Reynolds / YouTube

A day at the races…

30km-or-so down the road, two of the other by-election candidates are pressing the flesh at Roscommon Racecourse — which is (by our estimation, anyway) doing a booming business for a slightly damp Monday afternoon…

[ Brophy]

There’s no sign of that anti-Fine Gael sentiment we’d heard so much about as the party’s hopeful, Maura Hopkins, meets and greets racegoers in the company of junior minister Tom Hayes… At least five punters promise her their first preference over the space of a few minutes.

Recently elected as a councillor for the Boyle area, the 30-year-old is insisting she won’t simply disappear into the parliamentary party, if elected to the Dáil.

I want to be an effective representative. I want to raise the concerns of residents within this region.

“I also want to try and influence decisions — and that’s why I’m looking for the support of the people in order to do that.”

Healthcare is a huge issues in the area, Hopkins says. And, after dealing with a question or two on Scuffle-Gate [you can read her comments here], Hopkins outlines how she plans to fight for improved emergency services.

“Ensuring that the air ambulance service is made permanent,” is a key priority. There are also “huge black spots” in the road ambulance network that need to be addressed.

Maura Hopkins placing a bet (on a horse, not on the election). [Daragh Brophy/]

As Hopkins heads off to Dublin 4 to continue preparations for the Prime Time debate, has a chat with the final candidate on our list…

John McDermott — the hospital campaigner who was one of the main players in Friday’s Taoiseach-adjacent scuffle — seems a little ill-at-ease with the crowd-work.

“I’m not a politician,” he explains (several times) after chatting to groups of voters.

That considered, he’s surprisingly unperturbed at the prospect of facing his political opponents — and Miriam — in the heated atmosphere of an RTÉ studio.

I know all the issues. I know what I’m talking about… So I’m not overly concerned.

John McDermott meets some prospective voters. [Daragh Brophy/] 

There’d been much speculation in area over whether the hospital campaign group would enter the race. McDermott finally decided to do so, with his group’s backing, earlier this month.

“Basically, the reason I threw my hat in initially was that none of the other parties’ candidates, when they were being interviewed, would even mention health.

That was it — I said I’m going to make health an issue here.

And the former VEC worker insists he’s not just a single-issue candidate….

“What we’re saying to people is — if you elect a community candidate like myself, in 12 months’ time the political parties are going to come back to the people in a General Election — and they’re going to have to start providing services here.

We need a focus here on agriculture, agri-business, SMEs and socio-economic projects.

McDermott, too, is hurrying off to make the debate.

There’s just time for a quick canvass of the lingering race crowd before we join him on the M6… As you might imagine, every stripe of Irish voter is represented — from a self-categorised “huge Ming fan” in her fifties to a man who says he’s voted Sinn Féin for the past 35 years.

It’s going to be an interesting next week-and-a-half.

Here is a list of all the candidates running in the Roscommon South Leitrim by-election. 

The Prime Time debate kicks off at 10.35pm.

Read: Fine Gael TD’s involvement in scuffle was “unacceptable” and “embarrassing”… says FG candidate

Read: The Man Who Would Be Ming: Meet the turf-cutter tipped to take a Dáil seat next month

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