A look at the Wexford constituency as polling day approaches

By Jim Hayes

Published 24/02/2016 | 00:00

Ballot box voting
Ballot box voting

There's a famous scene in Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' where Reg, leader of a group of freedom fighters, asks what the Romans have ever given back to the people, at which point the other members of the group outline a long list of positive things from the Roman occupation.

'All right,' says Reg. '...but apart from the better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order...what HAVE the Romans ever done for US!'

That scene must come to mind when the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform or any of his troops hear the refrain 'What has Brendan Howlin ever done for us?'.

'You mean, apart from a new hospital A&E and a new Garda HQ and new courthouse, and schools in Wexford, Adamstown, Gorey, Enniscorthy and New Ross, and a natural gas pipeline and the bypasses of New Ross and Enniscorthy and the redevelopment of Wexford quayfront and the Johnstown Castle refurbishment and a primary care centre and Enniscorthy Athenaeum...'

Even the Labour faithful are not so blinkered as to believe Howlin personally responsible for all of the above, and even they must accept he's obliged to share at least some bragging rights with Paul Kehoe, but there is an undeniable truth - without Brendan Howlin's seat at the cabinet table, some of those projects would not have seen the light of day.

It's this track record that Howlin is counting on to see him back in the Dail after polling day, even with the expected public decimation of Labour through the ballot box. He has held his seat comfortably for 28 years and the feeling on the ground in Wexford is that if Brendan Howlin loses his seat in this general election, the Labour Party is in deep, deep trouble nationally.

Labour's vote in Wexford plummeted over 12 per cent - from 20.5% to 8.4% - between the 2011 general election and the local elections three years later, but general elections and local elections are very different animals and Brendan Howlin's personal vote is expected to considerably bridge that gap on Friday.

He will need a strong first preference vote and he should get that in Wexford town at least. He has no running mate this time and that's a double-edged sword: yes, he'll have the Labour vote to himself, but if that's substantially down he won't have the wad of distributed votes from the elimination of a second Labour candidate to help him across the line.

The decision of Dr. Liam Twomey not to run in 2016 is a fillip to the Howlin campaign, as his replacement on the Fine Gael ticket, Julie Hogan is a newcomer without the profile to really threaten.

Independent Ger Carthy is maybe a more potent prospect in the Wexford district. He topped the poll in Wexford at the local elections in 2014 and is the current Mayor of Wexford, a title that carries little weight politically but plenty of public exposure.

Following in the footsteps of his late father Leo, a well liked councillor for many years, he should take a reasonable south Wexford vote but probably needs a significant dip in support for both Brendan Howlin and Mick Wallace to assemble the votes he needs to mount any kind of a challenge for one of the five seats.

The man in pink was, of course, one of the stars of Election 2011. Wallace had 2,300 votes to spare over Brendan Howlin as he cruised home at the top of the poll. He was an unknown quantity in political terms then, and much water has passed under the bridge since. The five years have given local voters the chance to form a more informed opinion - one way or another - and there are indications that his vote will be down this time. Even so, to lose his seat, Wallace would probably have to shed at least half his vote and that looks out of the question.

Any poor showing for Wallace would be good news for Johnny Mythen, the Sinn Fein candidate who some political observers feel could take a first Wexford seat for the party. Wexford was a big disappointment for Sinn Fein in 2011 as their share of the vote fell a couple of points from 2007, and Anthony Kelly exited after the fourth count with around 5,000 votes. Sinn Fein point to the 2014 local elections, where they polled over 12% of the vote, as a better indicator, but for a similar performance to that on Friday, they would have to more than double their 2011 vote here. One plus point is that they have good party organisation in all four districts having gone from a base of zero to five council seats in 2014,

Mythen, the very last chairman of Enniscorthy Urban Council, was second only to James Browne in the Enniscorthy electoral area vote in 2014. Recognition is not as strong outside the Enniscorthy area, but Sinn Fein hope that won't be a key factor if the party vote in Wexford mirrors the opinion polls.

The convergence of 1916 nostalgia, Sinn Fein momentum in Wexford, and their national ratings could just be the perfect storm that lifts Johnny Mythen into the top five.

Location is probably the biggest obstacle standing in his way, and in the end that could be Sinn Fein's Achilles heel. His core vote will be in his native Enniscorthy, and that's also the home turf of two heavy hitters, Fianna Fail's James Browne and Fine Gael's Paul Kehoe.

John Browne was one of the few stars in a very black Fianna Fail firmament in 2011, thanks to a personal vote that had served him well in the Wexford constituency since the November election of 1982. Son James should capitalise on the family name and the swing back towards Fianna Fail, but it will be a hard-fought fight in a key battlefield.

Malcolm Byrne, who has been patiently waiting in the wings for a shot at Leinster House, and comfortably topped Gorey district in the local elections, is regarded as a very able political performer and will take a large chunk of North Wexford's vote for Fianna Fail. Wexford's Ivan Yates, the Newstalk presenter and former FG Minister for Agriculture, is among a number of observers predicting that Browne and Malcolm Byrne will take two seats for Fianna Fail in Wexford.

Their third candidate, newcomer Aoife Byrne (daughter of former TD Hugh) has mounted a strong campaign and saw her odds shorten dramatically at the bookies towards the end of last week. She's from the New Ross area, and should poll well there, and she lives and works in Wexford, so geography is in in her favour, but the FF vote will not produce three seats and she would have to leapfrog Browne or Malcolm Byrne or both to win a seat - an unlikely scenario.

For Fianna Fail to do the double, Fine Gael would surely have to lose one of their two seats. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe is on the receiving end of the coalition backlash, but his support base is solid, particularly in rural areas of Enniscorthy and New Ross where he has a constituency office.

Gorey's Michael D'Arcy was the biggest loser in 2011 and is putting up a strong fight to regain the seat he lost in that tense count centre final seat drama. Liam Twomey is out of the picture this time, but a resurgent Fianna Fail and stronger Sinn Fein could see the North Wexford Senator come up short again.

New Ross is the only one of the four council districts not to provide a party candidate in 2016, with Michael Sheehan (FF), Oisin O'Connell (SF) and Willie Fitzharris (FG) all losing out in their respective party's selection processes.

John Dwyer, the ex Sinn Fein councillor who has contested three previous general elections (2002 and 2007 for Sinn Fein; 2011 as an independent), is from Ryleen and the only one of the 17 runners living in New Ross. He arrived very late to the campaign last week, giving himself a near-impossible challenge to improve on his 2011 first preference total of 908 votes. But his entry into the race will not have been welcomed by the Johnny Mythen camp as Dwyer will draw some of his old SF vote in Ross.

Four of the five female candidates have New Ross area links: Julie Hogan is a Fethard native, living and working in Wexford, while Aoife Byrne, who also lives in Wexford, is from Saltmills. Postmistress Caroline Foxe, who is running as an independent and whose campaign had at the outset a particular focus on preserving the future of rural post offices, is from Horetown, Foulksmills, while the Green Party's Ann Walsh, who has lived in Castletown for 18 years, is a native of New Ross.

The other woman candidate standing for election in Wexford is Anti Austerity Alliance - People Before Profit's Deirdre Wadding, the Wexford councillor living in Kilrane who has been active in the anti-water charge protests. She took the final of ten seats in the Wexford borough local elections but could do proportionally better on Friday if firm support in socially disadvantaged areas translates into votes.

While gender quotas have ensured more woman candidates in Wexford than in any other election since the foundation of the state, Avril Doyle is still expected to be the only women elected a TD here after the dust has settled on election 2016.

As well as all those mentioned above, the Wexford list of candidates also includes Social Democrat Leonard Kelly, from Clonard, in Wexford; David Lloyd from Wexford, representing Direct Democracy Ireland; and Independent Emmet Moloney, also Clonard in Wexford.

Prediction:

Seasoned election campaigners expect a battle royal in the St. Joseph's count centre next weekend. Outgoing TDs Wallace, Howlin and Kehoe should hold their seats, but nothing is certain and not one of them will be waking up Saturday morning with the thought that a return to Leinster House is a foregone conclusion. It's difficult to see John Browne's seat going anywhere but to his son James.

The possibility of a major shock from an independent such as Ger Carthy, or raw newcomer Aoife Byrne, is always there, but the last seat will probably go to the wire, with three in the mix: Michael D'Arcy, Johnny Mythen and Malcolm Byrne. Byrne is probably favourite, but not by much.

Wexford People

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