THE election date has been called, the battle lines have been drawn, the gloves are off, so let the games begin.
As the last Fine Gael candidate in the Limerick constituency to enter the ring it was apt that Cllr Bill O’Donnell kicked off his Tuesday night campaign trail at the ‘The Weigh Inn’ bar in Ballysheedy. Flexing his political muscles with the Kilmallock- based councillor was the family political heavy-weight, former MEP and government minister, Tom O’Donnell who is an uncle of the election candidate. Tom’s wife Helen, local councillor Leo Walsh and Cllr O’Donnell’s brother Thomas completed the Tuesday team for whom long black overcoats were de rigueur on a biting cold night.
It’s just after 6pm and publican Gearoid Murphy is having the banter with a scattering of locals around the counter of the Weigh Inn bar.
“It’s very tough times,” he admits, “between the rates and the VAT charges”. Cllr Bill O’Donnell is the second canvasser to call - “I think we had a chap here from Labour – Heffernan,” he says.
The Rhebogue resident, who is undecided on how he will vote, feels the Government “have left us down, terribly so. I am not too bad at my age but my children and people who have bought houses recently - I was reading on the paper this morning about people who have left their houses - just left their houses.”
John Ryan is next door in Ballysheedy Hardware – a “one man show” as he describes it. Cllr O’Donnell is the first politician to enter the store looking for a vote. If body language is anything to go by then Bill might have a No 1 here. There is a firm handshake, a few wisecracks but more importantly John is adamant that there needs to be a change of Government.
“People are completely disillusioned with what’s going on,” he says before giving an insight into his own situation. “There was a shop here before, I had it leased out – it was a supermarket – it just went out of business. I couldn’t let it so I decided to start a hardware business myself which is developing along. It’s slow but we are getting there.”
The door may be painted blue at the home of student Niamh Keating in Ballyclough but the 24-year-old hasn’t made her mind up on what way to vote. College fees are playing on this student’s mind as well as children’s rights seeing as she is studying for a degree in early childhood care and education at Mary Immaculate College. “I am looking forward to meeting the politicians when they come to the door and asking important questions,” she says as Cllr O’Donnell makes his way up red brick steps. And she is through to her word. After some brief introductions, it is Niamh who is setting out her stall. “It’s alarming,” she says, “that Ireland has dropped substantially in literacy and numberacy from I think fifth to 17th in OECD countries - I mean, that is absolutely shocking.”
“Fifteen year olds – one quarter of them are illiterate – it’s shocking, really shocking and I personally believe that early childhood care and education lays the foundation for children’s education and I feel that there isn’t enough acknowledgment of that.”
Cllr O’Donnell listens intently, tells her that he is “very interested” in what’s being said and assures Niamh that education is something that he would be putting to the forefront if elected. “I am very interested in meeting people like yourself who have views and who can articulate views because that is what is important,” he tells her, before going so far as to ask her if she ever was involved in student politics.
The response is ‘no’ but the question further fuels Niamh and she gets more off her chest. She tells how she recently did an interesting placement in St Gabriel’s school, where “they are doing fantastic work” but there is need for special education needs assistants. “I mean there are children in schools in classes of 30 with one teacher at the age of four and five- It’s absolutely shocking,” she goes on.
As the O’Donnell machine rolls away, the Leader asks Niamh her opinion on the first candidate to knock on her door. “He definitely listened and took on board what I have said,” she says still not giving an inch on where her vote will go.
The big concern for Maeve McDonnell of Ballyclough is “how the hell is somebody going to take more money out of my pay packet next year?”
“Fine Gael have a very strict policy as regards taxation – that is that there will not be an increase in taxation,” Cllr O’Donnell responds. “You really can’t,” Maeve interrupts. “So if next year – if you get elected – where will I find you if they take more off my pay packet?” she asks before articulating her concerns for her pension. “There is the universal service charge plus another four per cent for the health levy which is taken off before it ever hits my pension fund,” she continues.
Maeve works with a private company and has four children - the eldest is nearly 17, two are nearly 15 and she has a 10-year-old. “They are talking about getting consumer confidence back - the problem is the money just isn’t there. It’s not a lack of confidence - it’s just a case of people trying to make ends meat really,” she says. She seems pleased enough with the responses from Cllr O’Donnell, so the Leader teases out how she will respond should Fianna Fail candidates come a-knocking? “I would prefer not to say,” says Maeve. “I actually don’t think they will come. I cannot see how anybody would come to the door, I really don’t - I mean, how could you come? I would find it very hard to face them.”
As Cllr O’Donnell sets of to press the flesh some more, there is the small matter of the Paddy Power odds to bring up. He’s all of 5-1 making him the rank outsider in terms of the main party candidates.
“It’s not something that concerns me in the slightest - all I’m concerned about is two seats for Fine Gael,” he says. “We have worked very hard over the last two weeks to put our organisation together and I’m confident that the campaign I will mount will be a big campaign and at the end I will be far from the rank outsider.”