Thursday 22 February 2018

Old dog for the hard road gets his tummy rubbed in home town

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin enjoys a steak sandwich in Mahon Point in Cork yesterday. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin enjoys a steak sandwich in Mahon Point in Cork yesterday. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney

Graham Clifford

Among the food stalls selling hummus, organic lamb kebabs, wild seaweed oil and pickled herring the old reliable held its own.

The longest queue at the Mahon Point farmer's market in Cork yesterday, during the lunchtime rush, was for the good old steak sandwich. And in that queue stood a hungry Micheál Martin.

Like the steak sandwich seller, he too has fought off the challenge of younger competitors and always believed that some day he'd be back in vogue, licking his lips. If the polls are to be believed, that day is today.

Even in his wildest dreams the 55-year-old, who lives in nearby Ballinlough, couldn't have imagined such a perfect last day of canvassing on home turf.

The sun shone, the busker played 'Crazy Love' and Micheál was love-bombed. None of the voters he met in the Cork South Central Constituency talked about the Troika, broken promises, economic collapse or a need for a changing of the guard at the head of Fianna Fail.

"Can I have a picture with you please?" asked a blushing young woman. "I watched the debates and you're the only one that made sense," said another. The older brigade patiently wait to greet him and among his own Micheál Martin's Cork accent rises many decibels. He's practically singing.

"This campaign has been a turning point for Fianna Fáil," he tells me.

"It marks a shift in realism amongst people who are wary of politicians and promises being made. We put it to the people that this is not a coronation, this is a Republic and the people must decide. Within our own organisation we became energised. The Government's rhetoric was out of touch and our arguments have resonated with people. That's clear."

Whether it is or not, there's no doubting that Martin's confidence and energy levels at this latest stage of a short, but gruelling, election campaign are high.

With steak sandwich and salad in hand he looked for a place to grab a bite. And all at once some diners evacuated their white plastic chairs. "I needed seats and there they are. It's a sign," he joked.

He's using every minute to connect with voters in his Cork South Central constituency - nicknamed the 'Group of Death'. Along with his party colleague Michael McGrath, Fine Gael duo Minister Simon Coveney and Jerry Buttimer and Labour's Ciaran Lynch he's fighting it out for one of four seats. The Sinn Féin candidate Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire is said to be polling well too.

Martin spoke of election result surprises earlier this week - could he be an unlikely victim to one of them?

"This constituency is too close to call. I lost 1,000 loyal Fianna Fáil voters from the last election because of boundary changes. We have five high-profile TDs and four seats, I wouldn't write anyone off," he says somewhat unconvincingly.

Frankie Sheahan. of Munster and Ireland rugby fame, was enjoying a quiet coffee in the heart of the market. Micheál shared a joke with him before marching on with flyers in hand to the Mahon Point Shopping Centre itself where he scared the living daylights out of a gaggle of unsuspecting women getting their hair done in a popular salon.

One woman with her head arched backwards into a sink goes pale when she realises who has nipped in to ask for a number one. "Just one last push, if you can help us out we'd be very grateful," said Micheál with a chirp.

"You'll get 50pc of the vote in my house anyway," joked one man before agreeing with Martin that they must get to see a GAA game soon, maybe in West Cork. He's among friends.

Before heading off to Douglas Shopping Centre he told me his plans for today.

"In the morning I'll vote with my family and then make my way to every polling station in the constituency - I'll be knocking around all day and night and then later on we'll start looking at turnouts which I think will be large," he adds. You get the sense he's thoroughly enjoying this and wouldn't have minded another week of campaigning one bit - what a difference an election campaign can make.

Irish Independent

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