Renua taking on 'Old Firm' of FG and FF in feisty local campaign
Boby Aylward and David Fitzgerald can agree on just one thing only: the battle for Carlow and Kilkenny is between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Through the decades, this five-seat constituency epitomised Ireland's "2.5 party system". Labour, through Seamus Pattison, and before him his father James P Pattison, held one seat from the early 1930s until 2007.
From tomorrow, the real battle starts to choose the replacement for EU Commissioner Phil Hogan in voting on Friday, May 22. And the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael "Old Firm" might not have things entirely their own way.
In a temporary election HQ on Patrick Street in the heart of Kilkenny city, Wicklow TD and former army man Billy Timmins studies a sheaf of Ordnance maps and "canvass sheets" for Renua Ireland's hopeful, Cllr Patrick McKee.
"It suits the two 'big parties' to characterise this as being between them only. But people are extremely hungry for change and we have an excellent young candidate offering something different," the former Fine Gael TD argues.
Renua leader Lucinda Creighton meets the candidate and his supporters in Callan to the south of the city to begin a day's canvassing. The 26-year-old Kilkenny city councillor has put his solicitor training on hold for the duration.
Patrick McKee's quarrel with Fianna Fáil has been well publicised after his shock "defection" to Renua on March 30 last. He says it began with difficulties about his refusal to take council expenses and insists that this is part of his attraction to Renua.
"We need to do things differently and better. We need more transparency and efficiency in the delivery of public services," he tells the Irish Independent.
On KCLR local radio, Aylward and Fitzgerald had a gutsy political debate enhanced by feisty contributions from Independents Cllr Breda Gardner and Dave Holohan. The fervour of the two heavy-hitting candidates, the promised challenge by Renua, and the enthusiasm of many of the candidates classified as "independents and others", could deliver something Ireland has not seen in decades: a full-on by-election.
Both front-running candidates have considerable local political pedigrees.
There has been an Aylward in Kilkenny politics since Bob Aylward Senior first contested an election in 1945. The affable Bobby Aylward was a long-time councillor, who followed in his brother Liam's footsteps and was elected a TD in May 2007. He wants to regain the seat he was unlucky to lose in the February 2011 electoral meltdown.
Cllr David Fitzgerald has been in elected politics since 2009 and served as Mayor of Kilkenny. His uncle, Kieran Crotty, was a Fine Gael TD for the constituency from 1969 to 1989, and before that his granduncle Patrick Crotty had held the seat since 1948.
Aylward is running a traditional campaign, stressing the "two-tier recovery" and lack of jobs. Fitzgerald says he is the only one who will be able to bring local concerns personally to Government.
Fitzgerald also talks of the potential return of sugar beet processing to Carlow and surrounding areas thanks to the Fine Gael Agriculture Minister. "The beet industry...which Fianna Fáil closed," Fitzgerald offers provocatively.
Aylward is definitely not having that. The Carlow sugar beet operation was closed by the sugar company, Greencore, and EU policy implemented by lavish funding.
All candidates are conscious of the "Carlow factor", since the front-running candidates are all Kilkenny-based. Admittedly, this was originally a "Kilkenny seat" and Kilkenny has two-thirds of the constituency population.
Local observers say that Sinn Féin was first to wake up to the Carlow potential and their candidate, Cllr Kathleen Funchion, has been among the first to canvass the county. All party strategists concede that Funchion is an unknown factor and definitely will have a "strong vote". At this stage, they are contemplating the destination of her transfers and are careful not to alienate those likely to give a number one to Sinn Féin.
There is big stuff at stake for many contenders. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is due to come to the constituency 11 times in the remaining 18 campaign days. He must stave off his party's seventh consecutive by-election loss.
Fine Gael has to at least be in the final shake-down and all the heavy-hitters will be there to support the campaign marshalled by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan.
Above all, it is Renua Ireland's first ever electoral outing. Much responsibility rests on the shoulders of Cllr Patrick McKee.
Bobby Aylward, Fianna Fáil
David Fitzgerald, Fine Gael
Kathleen Funchion, Sinn Féin
Breda Gardner, Independent
David Holohan, Independent
Elizabeth Hourihane, National Citizen's Movement
Patrick McKee, Renua Ireland
Conor Mac Liam, Anti-Austerity Alliance
Malcolm Noonan, Green Party
Peter O'Loughlin, Identity Ireland
Willie Quinn, Labour Party
Adrienne Wallace, People Before Profit
Noel G Walsh , Independent
*May 22 by-election to replace Phil Hogan, appointed Ireland's EU Commissioner in November 2014.
* Four other sitting TDs: Pat Deering, Fine Gael; John McGuinness, Fianna Fáil; Ann Phelan, Labour; John Paul Phelan, Fine Gael.