Monday 27 February 2017

Lise Hand: It's not easy being the uncrowned King of Limerick

Lise Hand

Willie O’Dea canvassing along Hyde Road in Limerick yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Willie O’Dea canvassing along Hyde Road in Limerick yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys

THE little girl skipped over to the group of canvassers who were distributing the candidate's leaflets.

"Can I have one?" she asked.

And then, leaflet in hand, she ran over to the familiar figure who was strolling along the road.

"Look, Willie," she said to him, and promptly tore up the leaflet in front of him and threw it on the ground.

One of the canvassers tut-tutted.

"Pick that up," he ordered.

"F**k off," came the unequivocal reply from the unabashed mite.

Sometimes, it's not easy being Willie. And even for the uncrowned King of Limerick, some canvasses are easier than others. But Hyde Avenue in Ballinacurra Weston isn't one of them.

For there's absolutely nothing leafy about this city neighbourhood.

This long straight avenue and the roads branching off it are a notorious gangland stronghold, the lethal home turf of both the McCarthys and the Dundons.

And even in the bright afternoon sunshine yesterday, it's a bleak spot, dotted with boarded-up and burnt-out houses and populated with hard-looking lads -- and they're just the tough detectives of the armed response unit, who are a constant presence in the area.

But even the presence of some heavy boys in blue didn't stop one young fella, who looked about 10 years old, from merrily throwing a fusillade of stones at the canvassers, before legging it through railings and into a scruffy park.

"Watch yourself there," Willie advised his team, before pointing out a spot in the park where a murder had taken place a few years ago.

"They made the man dig his own grave first and then shot him dead," he explained, not elaborating on who the "they" might be.

Willie was on his second canvass of the day. He does one in the morning, one in the afternoon and another at night.

He has to do the hard yards this time out for two main reasons: firstly because Fianna Fail is a toxic brand in this election and secondly because a redrawing of this five-seater constituency has removed a hefty chunk of his vote.

Both events have made Willie most unhappy.

"The party's very unpopular, it's the toughest canvass I've ever done," he sighed.

"Luckily, I seem to be getting a good personal vote," he added with a smile.

Modest Willie.

But it's a far cry from the heady days of the last election when he wafted to poll-topping victory, only narrowly failing to top the national poll after Brian Cowen amassed a few dozen more votes than him in Laois-Offaly.

"It's very different now. I didn't feel under any pressure in 2007. I simply floated around and made several trips to Dublin to appear in various media. But this time it's difficult. You have to stand and talk to people -- people have more problems," he explained.

And it's even trickier when he's knocking on more affluent doors.

"People want to talk about banks, jobs, tax levels, how the country got into the situation its in. So it's very slow.

"In 2007, we didn't have to persuade people, we just had to go around and show the face. It's tough work, especially when you have tens of thousands of people in your constituency," he brooded.

And not only does he have to fritter away precious high-speed handshake time by talking to people, but he reckons the reconfiguration of the constituency has left him down about 5,000 votes.

"It's very bad for me, worse than any of the others. Kieran O'Donnell's probably lost only 1,000 and Jan O'Sullivan less than 100," he fretted.

Willie's a man who patrols his massive vote with an assiduousness rarely seen outside the Korean Demilitarised Zone, even though in this election he's the possessor of one of the very few genuinely safe Fianna Fail seats.

But Willie's watchwords are 'eternal vigilance', hence the cautious canvass through gangland.

Inevitably the biggest concern among the residents is law and order. One woman points to a derelict house.

"Can you do something about that house? There are parties in it every night, young lads everywhere on drugs. I can't let my kids out," she told him.

Another man who lives next door to one of the abandoned houses told him that he's now so completely terrified of the carousing gangs who use it for parties that he sleeps on his couch every night.

Willie's well-known on these streets and he knows which houses to avoid.

He pointed out which house belonged to the Dundons or one of their extended clan and which street housed the McCarthys. One terraced house stood out due to the surveillance camera mounted in the front garden.

"I wouldn't be looking too hard at that house and definitely no photos," he warned.

But comical things seem to happen around Willie and yesterday his walkabout was overshadowed by a false report which flashed around Twitter that an outraged voter had punched him in the head during his morning canvass.

Suddenly Willie's phone started hopping with inquiries from journalists, and Willie was hopping mad.

"It's ridiculous, there was no punching at all. Sure look, there isn't a mark on me," he appealed.

"The fella just started shouting out a car window at me," he fumed.

Perish the thought that he'd ever be accused of being in some sort of affray.

But on he went along the road, carefully writing his constituents' complaints into a thick docket-book. There was little joy on this depressing road.

Bernadette Fitzpatrick, cradling her youngest child, invited Willie into her cramped house to show him the cracked kitchen windows.

"They broke the window throwing stones from the back wall," she told him. There was that "they" again.

Then Willie was off to another part of his domain. But before he went, he wanted to put the record straight on one important thing.

In 2007 Brian Cowen did poll more votes than he did, "but percentage-wise, I was higher," explained Willie. It's the little things that count.

Irish Independent

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