Council poll a launch-pad for ambitious FG new blood
Local elections will give a glimpse of future as three newcomers roll the political dice, says Fionnan Sheahan, Group Political Editor
Published 19/01/2014 | 02:30
SEPARATED in age by less than three weeks, two women are tipped to go head-to-head for the hearts and minds of the Fine Gael voters in Garret Fitzgerald's old stomping ground.
The leafy suburbs of Dublin's southside are set to be the scene of a monumental face-off as the Fine Gael organisation goes up against its former shining light.
After creating a buzz internally, Ms O'Connell, a pharmacist and mother of two, is the leadership's favourite to be the candidate -- provided she can make her mark in the local elections and get on to Dublin City Council.
But she's not the only contender to be the running mate with sitting TD Eoghan Murphy in 2016. Fine Gael has a trio of new candidates fighting it out on the Rathgar-Rathmines Ward: Ms O'Connell, Samantha Long and Dr Paddy Smyth. Jump this hurdle and there's a place on the ticket in sight for one of the three.
"We are making every effort to get people elected to replace her [Ms Creighton]. We are going to help them in every way and resource them," a senior party source told the Sunday Independent. Party grandee Kevin O'Higgins, the party's legal adviser and a member of Fine Gael royalty, laid out the position at the party's selection convention last September.
He said picking the right local election candidates will have huge ramifications for the next general election.
"I firmly believe that we are also selecting someone who, if of the right calibre, may become our next TD, in a constituency which has always been the barometer as to how well or otherwise the party is doing nationally," he said at the time. The demands for female candidates give Ms O'Connell and Ms Long an edge over Dr Smyth.
Living in Rathgar for the past decade, Ms O'Connell juggles her career with raising her two children, three-year-old Pierce and 18-month-old Nancy. She is married to Morgan, who she met studying pharmacy at university in England.
"We were lab partners and we fell in love over a Bunsen burner," she says. Running the Rathgar Late Night Pharmacy, she says she sees the huge difficulties facing people every day. Involved in the party locally, she has been urged by party members for several years to run for Dublin City Council.
"I see the whole system as very inefficient," she says. "I wonder why a city so small requires such bureaucracy. I have a strong sense of civic duty."
On the question of running for the Dail, she says she wants to see how the council run goes first: "It's not ruled out."
Ms O'Connell comes from Fine Gael blueblood stock in Co Westmeath. Her father, Michael Newman, is a former councillor, who is looking to win back his seat in May's local elections.
"My family have been involved in Fine Gael always. Nobody actually ran until daddy. But that was the religion. I am involved in politics all my life," she says.
By stark contrast, Ms Long has no history with Fine Gael.
She only got involved in the party two years ago and was approached to run after speaking from the floor at a conference on 'How to elect more women', run by Junior Minister Kathleen Lynch.
The Labour Party also came knocking on her door.
Her motivation to join Fine Gael was an admiration of long standing of Garret FitzGerald and his commitment to social justice.
"I think I had a mid-life crisis and joined Fine Gael," she says, laughing.
But Ms Long does have the personal experience of campaigning for a decade for Magdalene Laundries survivors. She and her twin sister, Henrietta, were born in a Laundry, before being raised in Sligo and Dublin by her adoptive family. Her mother, Margaret Bullen, passed away a decade ago.
"Wouldn't it be an amazing story if a daughter of a women who was in a Magdalene Laundry ended up sitting on Dublin City Council," she says.
Coming from a working-class background, she's not the typical Fine Gael candidate for the area, but party strategists see this as an advantage as she offers something different from the normal list of members of the professions lining out for the party.
"I really do think there should be more ordinary people at the decision-making tables. There isn't enough diversity," she says.
A former hotel manager -- she was the first female trainee manager in the Doyle Group in the early 1990s -- she is now a carer.
She feels this gives her another platform on disability and access issues. But Ms Long says her best attribute is her ability on the doorsteps.
"People are angry at all the parties and they have a right to be. Listening to them is so important," she says.
The 41-year-old lives in Terenure with her husband Derrick and two children, Julian, 10, and Joni, five.
Although running for the council was a "family decision", going further isn't being ruled out.
"If I get on to Dublin City Council, who knows where I'll go from there," she says.
Dr Smyth was also previously apolitical and joined Fine Gael after the last general election.
The heavily qualified doctor is currently working in the pharmaceutical sector and is half way through his training as a GP.
Originally from Terenure, the 33-year-old lives in Sandymount with his wife Cairenn and their two children, Connor, 17 months, and Ava, four months. He says his primary motivation for entering politics is the arrival of the property tax and the influence councils will have in setting the rate.
Dr Smyth says the current property values were set at the low point of the market so homeowners will end up paying more in three years time when they have to revalue their house. "The homeowner needs to be protected," he says.
"My fear is Dublin City Council will sit back and see the money flowing in. The easy thing for them is to do nothing if there is a rise in property values. If property values do go up, then the percentage property tax must come down."
Dr Smyth says he doesn't want to leave the decision-making to left-leaning councillors who won't seek efficiencies in the operation of the council. He's already ruling himself out of even wanting to be a general election candidate.
"My short-term and long-term interest is Dublin City Council. The fact that councillors are getting more powers makes it a really exciting time to get involved in politics."
Notably, none of the trio has a bad word to say about Ms Creighton and say the issue of her departure from the party isn't coming up with voters anymore.
Come the next general election, that attitude will surely change for candidates and voters alike.
Roll on the Rumble in Rathgar in 2016.