Marian Harkin takes in tales of despair and recovery in dogfight for a Euro seat
Marian Harkin proffered a leaflet to a man on the street of Ballinasloe, but he shook his head. "I'm not living here – I'm from Ferbane," he explained.
Marian thought for a few seconds, and then her face brightened. "But Offaly's part of my area," she assured him.
"Is it? That's some area," he reckoned.
And it is indeed some area. The new Midlands-North-West constituency is a monster, gobbling up 14 counties, sprawling from Donegal to Mayo to Cavan to Kildare. And it's left the Independent MEP with an uphill battle on her hands – having topped the polls in the two previous Euro elections in 2004 and 2009, Marian is now embroiled in a fierce contest for one of the four seats up for grabs.
Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness and Sinn Fein's Matt Carthy look the most likely to bag two of them, but the remaining two will be a mighty scrap between the rest, with Marian pitted against Luke Ming Flanagan for the Independent vote – the polls place her a couple of points behind the Roscommon TD, but she is regarded as more transfer-friendly and in this dogfight, every second- and third-placed vote will count.
In the last frantic days of the campaign, the pace has increased for all the candidates. Ms Harkin took part in RTE's late evening 'Prime Time' debate involving the Midlands-North-West constituency, and by lunchtime yesterday she was west of the Shannon, canvassing in Ballinasloe.
She had a small team of canvassers with her – a couple of local volunteers and also Independent local candidate Tom Broderick. "I used to have a busload of canvassers, but they ended up tripping over each other in the towns, so now I deploy them more carefully across the constituency," she explained.
She walked slowly along the Main Street, chatting to people at a leisurely pace. And people had plenty of issues to discuss. This is a town, like so many others, awash with a declining faith in the politicians who appear at election-time promising regeneration for the west, but still the young people leave, and still businesses struggle in the teeth of the recession, which continues to blow through Connacht.
"Are you going to get the pot holes filled, get our country back and save our maternity hospital?" enquired local woman Mary O'Connell.
Like many in the area, she was angered over reports that maternity services are to be downgraded at Portiuncula hospital. "There are actuaries sitting in Dublin making things up who have never set foot outside the Pale," she told Marian.
A bit further town the road, another woman expressed similar fears. "Ballinasloe is a dead town. We're sick of politicians, sick to the back teeth," said Noreen Kenny.
"I want to fight, but I feel like giving up. Thirty-six shops have closed in the town since 2007," she explained to Marian.
Noreen, a retired psychiatric nurse, was also irate over the threat to hospital services. "What can you do for us?" she asked.
Marian was wise enough not to offer platitudes in return. As a candidate for Europe, she can't influence the fate of the local hospital.
"As far as the hospital is concerned, I can do nothing," she explained. "But would you really want Europe to be involved in those sort of local decisions?" she asked, eliciting agreement from Noreen.
"What I can do, which I have done, is petition the Health Minister and write to the minister and try and make him see sense," Marian said.
"You've picked a desperate job," the woman smiled.
"No, I love it, I really do," the candidate insisted.
And it's not all bad news in Ballinasloe – after the canvass, Marian dropped out to local company EasyFix, which manufactures rubber agricultural products, including hurdles used in the Grand National race.
It employs 25 local people and managing director Michael Earls has plans to try to expand the area into an industrial park. "I'll be knocking at your door; we need people in Europe who know what legislation is planned," he told Marian.
Afterwards, Marian pointed out that this was typical of what's happening in Ireland – recovery in some places, despair in others. "When I was talking to that woman today and she was asking me straight up what could I do for her, I feel a huge responsibility, because if that woman votes for me – and she might – somewhere in the back of her mind is, 'well I'll give her a chance and see what she can do', and that's not a responsibility I take lightly," she explained.
"I can't help her with all her problems, I can't keep a hospital open, but maybe there's something I can do somewhere to dislodge some of the road-blocks. People are at a point where they don't know where to turn."
Marian concedes that she's in a tough fight. "There's real Euro-scepticism around, there is a sense that Europe is partly to blame – and it is. Europe not only failed Ireland, it failed itself. But there's a fine line between trying to fix it, and throwing everything out at the same time," she said.
It's a fine line Marian has to walk, over a mighty big stretch of land.