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To boldly go where no TD has gone. . . in five years

NO man is an island? Don't believe it. Come election time in the West and Eamon O Cuiv is the man of all the islands.

The outgoing Fianna Fail minister (Social Protection, Defence, Environment, Heritage and Local Government, at the last count) will take the overwhelming bulk of the votes available off the Galway coast.

Between the three Aran islands and Inishbofin, there are 1,155 votes to be won. The number ones opposite his name will swamp the 17 other Galway West candidates put together.

And that's the view of all parties.

But he has had to work for them. Thursday was spent in Inishbofin and yesterday he flew from Connemara Airport to press the flesh in Inis Meain (electorate 158), the middle of the three Aran Islands.

"I do take a high percentage of votes on the islands, but then again, the people in Inishbofin tell me that in the last five years no other TD in Galway West has visited the island," he said.

Between the islands and Connemara every house will be visited -- maybe not all by him personally, but by someone canvassing for him, he insists.

Accompanied by Connemara Councillor Sean O Tuairisg and his brother- in-law, Tom Concannon, he made the seven-minute trip to Inis Meain on an Aer Arann chartered plane.

He even had time to poke fun at himself over last Tuesday's front-page photograph of him snoozing his way through the Fianna Fail manifesto launch.

As photographer Andrew Downes snapped him looking down on Galway Bay yesterday, Mr O Cuiv remarked: "At least this time I'm awake".

A couple of locals provided the transport for Team O Cuiv on Inis Meain and first stop was Cniotail Inis Meain. A remarkable success story, the company employs 16 -- far and away the biggest employer in Aran -- and exports knitwear to high fashion houses around the world.

Founded 37 years ago by Tarlach de Blacam, the business is going from strength to strength.

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Then it's on to the home of Dara Beag O Flatharta and his wife Teresa. Dara Beag is an institution on Inis Meain.

Storyteller, poet and singer, he once entertained Charlie Haughey -- the photo hangs on the kitchen wall to prove it -- as well as a host of VIPs at the opening of the new €12m pier by Mr O Cuiv, when he was minister with responsibility for the islands just 17 months ago.

And over tea and fruitcake, the conversation turns to the absence of a guide light at the new pier.

The pier is regarded on the island as more important to the community than the M6 is to people living in either Dublin or Galway. But two locals lost their lives at the old pier some years ago and a guide light is essential.

"The easiest thing for a minister to do is to sign a piece of paper for a big multi-million euro contract. The hardest things are the little things.

"We're still talking to the County Council," says Mr O Cuiv.

Mr O Cuiv then puts the value of island life into context.

"If you take these islands out of Galway you destroy the tourism industry in the region. What you have here is what they are spending vast amounts of money on with the Blaskets."

The Aran Islanders will go to the polls on February 24 (weather permitting).

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