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Limerick's lady-in-waiting for election

I ARRIVED ahead of time for my appointment with Jan O'Sullivan, the Labour party candidate for Limerick city and spokeswoman on Health. I have known Jan for a number of years in her capacity as chairwoman of the Cara Housing Agency, but this was my first time on the political campaign trail with her.

I am always curious to know how candidates canvass their constituency. Each has their own style of communicating with the electorate and, of course, Jan being Labour, I was interested to see if the wind was indeed at her back.

Our meeting place was St Munchin's Community Centre, Kileely Court, Kileely, Limerick city. The rain was lashing down, so I decided to head on in to await her arrival, and hopefully get a feel for the place before the fuss of canvassing began.

St Munchin's is a warm and inviting place, efficiently managed by Lynda Ledger. In true Irish welcoming tradition, the first thing she offered to do was feed me: bacon and cabbage, followed by apple pie and cream. Delicious. The centre provides breakfasts, lunches and dinners to the local community. Kids can call for breakfast before school, and senior citizens are served dinner at one o'clock on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

It was Wednesday, and the centre was packed with senior citizens. An excellent choice by Jan O'Sullivan to start her afternoon canvass.

The set-up would remind you a little of the ballroom of romance. The men were grouped around two tables, while the ladies sat together. I approached four very glamorous-looking women in the corner of the room to see how they felt about the forthcoming election, and how they proposed to vote.

Their exasperation and frustration at the state the country finds itself in was palpable. They were angry because no banker has been brought to book, but most of all they were extremely sad at the fact that young people have to emigrate yet again.

They genuinely didn't know for whom they would vote. In a society that has become increasingly self-centred, the unselfishness of the older generation is refreshing. They are worried about their sons, daughters and grandchildren, not about themselves.

A number of the ladies recognised me, and greeted me by name. Thankfully Jan arrived just in time to save me from having to respond to one woman's quip "he was an awful fool to let you go . . ." My mother always told me "a shut mouth catches no flies." For once I heeded her.

Jan proceeded to work the room, while her weary canvassers were fed by Lynda Ledger and her staff. Time and again, Jan was quizzed on job creation and politicians' pay and pensions. She never failed to get a dig in to the outgoing government. Jan O'Sullivan does broad spectrum digs -- she also sideswiped Fine Gael's policies on cuts, taxation and the EU/IMF bailout. No Mullingar Accord here. On the contrary, what was happening was determined brand-building: "We may end up in Government with Fine Gael, but at this point, there's no downside to giving them a poke."

But then, according to Joe Kemmy, Labour's Director of Elections for the constituency, this is an unprecedented election. He's never seen one like it. "Fianna Fail are not canvassing to be in government," he told me. It's like a great big chunk has been taken out of the campaign -- "the campaign is completely different".

He's right. The campaign, whether in media or on the ground, matches nothing I've seen before. In earlier elections, voters quite liked to watch politicians point-scoring. Not this time. They come to the door loaded: they want answers, they want solutions and they know more than any previous electorate knew.

We said our goodbyes in the centre, and headed on foot over to Ballynanty Road, to canvass in the shadow of Thomond Park. Rugby is very much part of everyday life in Limerick, and the imposing presence of the new Thomond stadium was a fitting backdrop. Jan O'Sullivan's campaign was greatly assisted by the presence of Gerry McLoughlin, a councillor and former rugby hero.

Jan is a tiny woman with an earnest air about her. Like all politicians, she is not shy about promoting herself. Dedicated to her work and anxious to engage with the electorate, she encountered nobody who wanted any favours done. Doorstep by doorstep, they told her they wanted some guarantee of security of employment for the future.

Moving across the main road to Mayorstone, the topics remained the same, but people also discussed what she had said that morning on the Pat Kenny programme.

Canvassing during the day is always a bit hit-or-miss. You can get a run of good luck and have people answer the door in every house, or you can find the majority of residents out working or shopping when you call. Mayorstone was not very productive when it came to responses at the door. That, coupled with appalling weather conditions, prompted Jan to adjourn the canvass until evening.

She'd been met with personal warmth by people who knew her and liked her, but, because I saw no evidence of the so-called Gilmore Gale blowing for Labour, I don't agree with Joe Kemmy's view that Labour can win a second seat. The line-up looks more like O'Dea (FF), Noonan(FG), O'Sullivan(Lab) and O'Donnell (FG) for the final seat. However, that remains to be seen.

It's funny, when the possibility of victory is near it makes people nervous. Any public setback is perceived as likely to destroy everything. Some of the Labour supporters saw the TV3 debate between their leader and the leader of Fianna Fail as just such a setback. They were raging with Gilmore for not landing a substantial punch on Micheal Martin in the debate the night before. I can understand their disquiet; the general consensus among the constituents was that Micheal Martin did very well in the debate.

Not enough for people to change their vote, but enough for their attitude to soften for the future. And enough to make the Labour canvassers seriously edgy.

Sunday Independent