Leahy relishing tucking into election campaign as he represents Renua
Renua's John Leahy was sitting in Emma's Café in Birr, explaining why he was used to working long hours in a business where everyone wants a quick word, when a chap on the street spotted him through the window. He buttonholed him for a quick word about a campaign to bring Offaly's inter-county hurling matches back to the town's ground, St Brendan's Park. John assured him of his support, then sat back down to drink his tea.
Independent councillor John Leahy (pronounced Lahy) works full-time with Offaly GAA as coaching and games promotion officer. "I'm used to people ringing me with requests," he said. "I wanted to get involved in politics because it's similar, with people contacting you for help to get things sorted out or maybe looking for advice. I genuinely like dealing with people."
When new party Renua unveiled their starting line-up, anyone expecting a stellar cast of celebrity candidates was disappointed. The fresh-faced 36-year old Kilcormac man who flanked Lucinda Creighton and financial specialist Eddie Hobbs at the launch would have rung few bells of recognition.
And yet when Renua deputy leader Billy Timmins contacted John last December to set up a quick chat, the resulting two-hour conversation promptly led to a meeting with Lucinda and an invitation to join the fledgling party.
For a political movement looking to make its mark outside the main urban centres, John Leahy represents the ideal candidate. Immersed in both sport and in the work of voluntary groups, he's firmly of the belief that living in a community and working on behalf of it are one and the same thing.
First elected to the local council in 2009, he ran as an Independent in the 2011 General Election, landing almost 5,000 first-preference votes.
"I knew it was too soon to win a seat, but I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to run and to set my stall out - letting people know I'm serious about this," he said.
Although he was criticised by some when he joined Renua rather than stay Independent, he is happy with his decision. "During the [local election] campaign last summer, people told me that they wanted to vote in the next General Election for somebody who has a chance of being around the Cabinet table, and they didn't feel that would be an Independent," he said. "There was no point in codding myself that I would be knocking on doors in 2016 and saying 'I'm going to be strong in opposition'. That would be like training for the All-Ireland, going to Croke Park, and then not playing on the day."
According to John, he was approached by a couple of other parties, but he chose Renua "because I would be part of the decision-making process" and would be "front and centre at providing a voice for rural Ireland".
He is critical of the Government for what he perceives as its failure to tackle the problems facing rural communities, including cuts to emergency services, the closure of post offices, fire stations and Garda stations. "It's not a case of throwing money at the problems - that's the easy, populist approach," he said.
"For instance, a lot of a garda's time is spent bogged down in whole layers of administration, so that needs to be looked at. Throwing money at problems often ends up increasing numbers in administration rather than on the frontline of the services."
He believes he has a chance at taking a seat in next year's election, when the county becomes a three-seater constituency. "The ball has hopped in the right direction for me, with the constituency now being all of Offaly and North Tipperary," he said. John believes Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen is "a shoo-in" to be returned, most likely alongside Fine Gael's Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. "So there is one seat up for grabs," he added.
He is relishing the forthcoming campaign - even though he knows it means that his wife Lavinia and two children, 19-year-old Lee and 11-year-old Clodagh will see even less of him. "I'm the first to admit it - political life strains your family," he says. "At Mass, my daughter tries to get me out the door after Communion before the crowd leaves, because she knows someone will nab me and say: 'Do you have a minute?'."