Countdown to the Wexford By-election
Some would argue that George Lawlor has been in campaign mode for some 15 years. Regarded by many as the perennial master of the photo-op, he's put in the hard yards over a long number of years in the role of councillor. However, now the Wexford town man is taking on a different challenge, as he sets his sights on Dáil Éireann.
With Labour leader Brendan Howlin regarded as perhaps the closest thing the party have to a genuine 'banker' to take a seat in a general election, he has taken the decision to endorse his friend and long-term assistant to take the seat vacated by Mick Wallace's election to Europe.
An ever-present in local politics, for the majority of people in Wexford, it always seemed an inevitability that Lawlor would emerge from Howlin's shadow and run for the Dáil himself.
'Well I enjoy working in the community,' Cllr Lawlor said. 'I enjoy working with people and I enjoy problem-solving. There's an awful lot of problem-finders out there. It can be difficult and frustrating at times, but that's what my forte is. For 15 years I've been doing that. I suppose you always, when you're involved in politics, have aspirations to go a bit further and try to effect a bit of change for good.'
However, Lawlor's selection as the Labour Party's by-election candidate has raised a major question for political observers. With both he and Howlin coming from the same stronghold of Wexford town, will it mean only one of them going forward whenever a general election is called and could this mean Brendan Howlin calling time on his political career?
'As we've said before, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,' says George, chuckling at the notion of being Brendan's successor. 'It'd be a lovely difficulty to have. It wouldn't be the first time ever Wexford had two Labour TDs. We had it back in the 60s I think, so it wouldn't be without precedence. That's what we're hopeful of having.'
However, splitting the Labour vote in town between Howlin and Lawlor could be seen as a bold strategy.
'We haven't decided a strategy,' Cllr Lawlor replies, remaining coy. 'We're looking at this one election at a time. I'm just looking for the endorsement of the people for the work I've done over 15 years and for the work I've done as Mayor in representing them. It would be an interesting few months in the build-up to a general though.'
'In other political parties, you see a lot of in-fighting and rivalry. We actually don't have that. As well as being political allies, we're also very good pals. We'd go for a pint together; we'd go to a match together. That certainly won't change, no matter the outcome of the by-election or a selection convention for a general election. We're just a united front, which would be an attractive proposition in terms of battling for Wexford. I've seen Brendan's tenacity for Wexford and that's what I also want to bring to the table.'
While giving off his usual jovial demeanour, it's been a trying few weeks for the Mayor of Wexford. The passing of his father, George senior, just over a month ago was a tough blow for his family. In the midst of this, he's also had to face down allegations of financial impropriety relating to a cash payment made to fellow councillor Frank Staples as a result of the Mayoral pact in 2014. The issue was brought by Sinn Féin councillor Tom Forde who was unhappy with the findings of a subsequent report into the matter by Wexford County Council that found that Cllr Lawlor was not in breach of local government regulations. While Cllr Lawlor conceded at the time that perhaps a payment of €400 to Cllr Staples 'didn't look great', he vehemently denied any form of wrongdoing and hopes that report clearing him will be the end of the matter. When discussing it, he still seems to carry the scars of what he views as a 'personal attack'.
'Let's be honest, the whole thrust of that discussion was not to find the truth, it was to discredit me. It wasn't about seeking openness and transparency, that had nothing to do with it. It was all about discrediting me and my character on the eve of a by-election. All I can do is tell it exactly as it happened. I think people know me well enough and know my family and my roots and what I'm about well enough to know there was nothing in it.'
'I found people extremely supportive. You'll always have people on Facebook who describe everything as corruption, but I'm confident that people know me and know my credibility and my style and they take this for what it was. I've certainly put it to bed, but if moves can be made to discredit me further, I'm sure that's what they'll do.'
Cllr Lawlor disagrees with the contention that these kind of skirmishes are part of politics. He says that while he has clashed with councillors of all backgrounds over the years, he has never experienced anything quite like this in his 15-year career.
'I've never encountered anything like this before,' he said. 'The notion that you'd have a councillor who is acknowledged as hard working and honourable like myself, who they tried to tear down, is something I have never experienced. I've had battles with many councillors over the years, but we've always worked together for the betterment of Wexford.'
'Sinn Féin did so badly in the local elections that they're lashing out wherever they can. They can't handle my work ethic. They can't handle my passion for this place. They can't handle the fact that my work ethic and passion and resilience has been rewarded by poll topping performances, so they will try whatever they can.'
Having topped the poll in the Wexford Borough District in the local elections last time out, Cllr Lawlor clearly has a strong base in town to work from. Sitting in the Starview Café in the National Opera House overlooking the harbour for an hour, this popularity is evident as a flood of people stop to say hello, making their way to their tables, each one a potential vote.
However, if he's going to make it across the line in the by-election, he'll need to pull in votes from the other main towns and rural areas across the county.
'Wexford town and district is our heartland, always has been going back to the time of Brendan Corish' (whose Dáil career started in Wexford's last by-election in 1945). 'Will it translate? Obviously we're not going to be as strong in the areas of Gorey, Enniscorthy and New Ross. We do certainly have pockets of support in those areas that we're very appreciative of, but we will be fighting for every vote and asking for every vote. We won't get to everyone because we're a small crew. We won't have the resources that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have. They will plough massive resources into this by-election. We don't have that. I'll be doing a lot of the pulling and dragging myself. We have a small but committed team and our members in those areas will be active and we'll look to maximise as much we can.'
Nobody can deny that Labour are in a difficult position nationally. Since taking over the party leadership, Brendan Howlin has had a difficult task on his hands to try and bring about some form of renewal. The local elections didn't bring Labour a lot of joy. While Lawlor topped the poll in Wexford, North Wexford party stalwart Robbie Ireton crashed out, losing his seat. Hopeful of earning the party another Dáil seat, George Lawlor believes that Labour is in its current position as a result of having to make difficult decisions.
'You either take the hard decisions, lance the boil and heal the situation to grow again, or you let it fester for generations,' he said of Labour's time in government. 'The decisions made were really, really hard and they were made in a crisis as well don't forget. We were fighting a fire every day. It's very difficult to stand and be cognisant of everything that's going on around if you're fighting a fire and that was the difficulty we had, but I think we're in a much better place now.'
One thing is certain. In the wake of the by-election, the successful candidate will hardly have long to bed in. The probability is that a general election will be called at some stage late spring or early summer when the spectre of Brexit is no longer hanging over proceedings. Leaving aside decisions to be taken about the combination of himself and/or Brendan Howlin in a general election, Lawlor thinks it's going to be a fascinating one.
'Personally, I think Leo (Varadkar) has made a mistake in not going for a general election,' he said. 'To be fair they've performed well throughout the Brexit process. I think it would have been in his interest to go to the country. If he has to go through a "winter of discontent" - the likes of another Storm Emma, massive hospital crises or a trolley crisis, people may not be as open to them. I think the general election for Fianna Fáil will be an interesting one with four candidates. I can assure you that I'm the only candidate running that has the full support of his party. It will be a really interesting by-election when it comes, but we are where we are when it comes to the by-election and time will tell.'
Already putting long hours into the twin roles of Mayor of Wexford and county councillor, the support of his family is something which is clearly vital to George Lawlor as he takes the step from local into national politics. His wife Yvonne and their three daughters are extremely supportive of his political career.
'Yvonne and the girls are very tolerant,' he smiles. 'Yvonne always says if she wants something from Pettitt's in a hurry, she doesn't send me because I could be an hour at least talking to people. Yvonne and our daughters Sarah, Rachel and Ruth have been very supportive and they understand completely what I'm trying to do. It's been a difficult few weeks with the passing of my father. I suppose one of the sad things about this whole by-election thing is that he'd have loved to have been in the thick of it. He'd have loved to have been out canvassing as he strolled up the aisle in Bride Street Church on his way to Communion. Sadly that's not to be, but I'm sure he'll be working in other ways for me.'