Countdown to the Wexford By-election
At face value it may seem strange that a woman who previously served as a councillor in County Kilkenny is now running as a candidate in the Wexford by-election.
But Irish Freedom Party (IFP) candidate Melissa O'Neill (48) believes it's time the people of the South East began to view themselves as part of one region, rather than individual counties.
The Ferrybank resident formerly served as councillor in the Piltown District of South Kilkenny before losing her seat in this year's local elections. However, she believes that, rather than work against her, this experience gives her a distinct advantage over her rivals in the Wexford by-election.
'The Wexford people need to know this is a regional thing, from our airport, to our hospital, to our fisheries, it's a regional matter,' she says. 'This is something I'm going to bring to the table in these elections that no other candidate will because I have worked with Kilkenny Council, Waterford Council Wexford and Tipperary Council, I would have more experience on the regional side than other councillor running.'
But what of that region, what areas of it, which facets, does Ms O'Neill intend to represent, to fight for should she take up Mick Wallace's seat in the Dáil?
'I have been working with the fisheries, it's a big thing for me. I'm involved with the Three Sisters group and have been helping them to get funded, they're in an awful state at the moment,' she says.
'One of our policies is to take back our waters, but there's a wind farm being put in along the South East coast which will interfere with the fishermen. People don't understand the struggle of the fisherman and what it means to have fish on our tables, fresh fish. This windfarm, you can only work so close to them, all the fishermen's space is going to be limited because of it.'
In addition to those working at sea, the IFP has set its stall out to support small Irish farmers, independent, family-run farms which have been impacted most by the recent beef crisis.
And Ms O'Neill says the mooted solution to this crisis was not fit for purpose.
'The independent farmers' voice wasn't heard, all that was offered was a task force. The fact Fine Gael came back and said put a task force together is complete and utter rubbish. Saying they'd create a taskforce to speak on behalf of the farmers, when our 13 MEPs out there have no say whatsoever? No MEP has a voice out in the European Parliament right now, not even the man we're trying to replace.'
As a certified Euroskeptic party it's not surprising that Ms O'Neill is so dismissive of Europe and its influence on Irish policy. Furthermore, she not only wants to see a united, 32-county Ireland, she also believes it will happen sooner rather than later.
'I do believe it will happen in my lifetime. Absolutely. We do need it to be a sovereign nation not under the EU and that's what we'll be looking for as a United Ireland. We could survive the problems they have in the UK currently. That just shows the power of the EU, and also shows they have no respect for their people. And I think Ireland is waking up to this.'
This return to a sovereign state would, in turn, allow greater control of our borders and greater control of who comes in and out of the country, something which Ms O'Neill is keen to discuss.
However, far from being anti-immigrant, she says the IFP are focused on illegal immigrants, non-Europeans who come to Ireland from countries which aren't embroiled in warfare.
'We have to look after our own first. We have Europeans here, Polish people, but they work, Nigeria, Albania, Georgia, they are the three places with the highest amount of illegals, why are we letting them in? There is no vetting.
'We see the majority of immigrants coming in from Albania and Georiga, where there is no warfare, why are we, the Irish people, paying for them out of our taxpayers' money? They get €40 a week I believe, three meals a day, living in a hotel, and the majority are single men. Meanwhile, I have people ringing me up saying they can't get domiciliary allowance, carer's allowance.'
She is equally keen however, to stress that those fleeing war-torn countries, such as Syria, are a completely different case and should be treated as such. 'The Syrian refugee project was separate, that's where there's confusion with the likes of People Before Profit who I don't think have done their homework. In Kilkenny for example there was 140 Syrian refugees and we opened our arms to them, They were genuine refugees. I've met those families. But what's happening now with the provision centres I'm totally against.
'Nearly 80% of the people there are illegal, our government served them with deportion papers but didn't check or deport them. And may I make it very clear, it's the Irish taxpayers money that's paying for these centres.'
Stating that she will stay in Wexford and run in next year's general election if she is unsuccessful in the by-election, Ms O'Neill believes it is up to parties like her own and politicians such as herself to tackle the conflict of interest rife in Dáil Eireann, conflict which she believes has been a major factor in the current housing crisis.
'When I was a councillor 20% of all private developments went to social housing, then they knocked that down to 10%.
'At the time there was a loophole, that it was 20% social housing or a brown envolope, unfortunately Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael took the brown envelopes. That's one of the major contributing factors to the lack of social housing today.'
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.