Friday 23 March 2018

It's a 'Tale of Two Fionas' in Newbridge town

Fine Gael’s Fiona McLoughlin- Healy is often mistaken for her Fine Fáil rival by her constituents in Newbridge, Co Kildare
Fine Gael’s Fiona McLoughlin- Healy is often mistaken for her Fine Fáil rival by her constituents in Newbridge, Co Kildare
Fianna Fáil councillor Fiona O’Loughlin
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

Kildare South isn't the first - or even the 21st - constituency which springs to mind when talking about tension-filled election counts and door-to-door combat among candidates.

But that may well be about to change when the General Election ground-war starts either this winter or next spring. For in the electoral mix are two new candidates from different parties but with disconcertingly similar names.

Councillor Fiona O'Loughlin was this week added to the Fianna Fáil ticket to run alongside sitting TD Seán Ó'Feargháíl, and Councillor Fiona McLoughlin-Healy joins TD Martin Heydon on the Fine Gael ticket. And both women are based in the busy town of Newbridge.

"It certainly did cause confusion during the local elections," admitted Fiona O'Loughlin. "People would say to me, 'why did you dye your hair blonde for the posters?'" she laughed, running her hand through her brunette bob. "And sometimes they'll confuse our surnames on the radio," she added.

In her office at the other end of the main street, Fiona McLoughlin-Healy agreed the similarity of names is "an unfortunate coincidence".

"It causes terrible confusion, but we just have to get on," she said. She pointed out that it will be pointless to print bumper stickers or to erect the small diamond-shaped election posters as they don't carry identifying photographs. "And people can get mixed up when one of us is on the radio," she added. "I suspect we're known as the Blonde Fiona and the Brunette Fiona".

Yet another thing the two candidates have in common is that both had to push hard to get on to their respective party tickets. Sitting in her bright new office just over the bridge into the town, Fianna Fáil Fiona explained she felt the time was right to put her name forward and that a gender-balanced ticket (a second Fianna Fáil TD Sean Power lost his seat in the 2011 election) was the right proposition. "I absolutely believe we need more women in the Dáil, and I believe that having been on the ground in the area for so many years is an advantage," she said.

And certainly Fiona, who was mayor of Kildare last year, is deeply rooted in the community. From a farming background in Rathangan, she taught in Newbridge's primary school for 15 years, won eight city and county council elections, and has worked extensively as a liaison with the EU to obtain funding for Special Olympics affiliated groups across Ireland.

She said it was "a big decision, but not a tough one", to run for the Dáil. At the selection convention last April, Seán Ó'Feargháil won by only five votes. There was some resistance to adding her to the ticket, but she had strong support among both fellow party councillors and grassroots members, and last Wednesday she was given the green light by Fianna Fáil HQ.

As a Fianna Fáil politician, she admits that the last few years have been "very difficult" for the party. "But for those of us who stuck with it and weathered the storm, we've come out of it wiser and stronger. The party had been in government too long and had become out of touch with the people on the ground," she said.

But now she's looking forward to the campaign, and has plenty of issues she wants to tackle, including rural crime. "Crime is up 63pc in Kildare since last year, but we have the lowest number of gardai per head of population," she pointed out.

Fine Gael's Fiona McLoughlin-Healy is also ready for an electoral scrap. And she too has a varied CV - the FG councillor trained as a nurse, studied law, set up property website, has a masters in PR and regularly appears on TV3.

She too thought long and hard before deciding to run for the Dáil after she was contacted by party headquarters in August 2013 while she was on holidays. As well as a hectic working life, she and her husband have three young children. "I had them to consider, and I know how difficult it is to get women to run for public office. We just decided to embrace the chaos".

Fiona believes that gender quotas are "absolutely necessary".

"It would be fantastic if people got there on merit. It's simply not the case women aren't in politics because they're not good enough. It's just there are too many obstacles in their way. These directives which come down from head office that a candidate must be selected from a certain area or whatever - they've been used forever to leapfrog one man over another. But when it's used to leapfrog a woman over a man, we're being compared to North Korea," she said.

Fiona believes women should have more confidence in themselves when it comes to politics. "I want to start a campaign to stop women from saying they know nothing about politics. So much of everyday life is related to politics."

Irish Independent

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