Sunday, May 24, 2009

No grassroots no vision no votes posters and paid campaigners will not elect Ganley

Higgins leads crowded field
Sunday, May 24, 2009
If Declan Ganley fails to win a seat in the North West constituency, it will effectively be the death knell for his Libertas party across Europe.

Poll figures show that sitting Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins is the constituency’s clear frontrunner for the first European seat, and Higgins would like nothing better than to go to Brussels with Ganley’s metaphorical scalp in his briefcase. During a walk-around in Ennis last week, Ganley told The Sunday Business Post that he was anticipating a ‘‘less-than-flattering depiction in sections of the national press’’.

‘‘Fortunately, the Irish Times is not a major influence in the North West of Ireland,” he said with a smile, as he sipped a coffee in the Old Ground Hotel, waiting for the rain to clear in order to canvass an outdoor céili.

His dual role as candidate and party leader of a fledgling political party carried personal risks, he said. In the fortnight prior to his visit to Clare, Ganley had made publicity appearances for Libertas in Frankfurt, Madrid, Bratislava, Prague, Warsaw and Britain.

His outing in Ennis was generally positive, and there was a welcoming response to his core of young, smiling and enthusiastic workers, with blue Libertas jackets and umbrellas.

Unlike other candidates who can cover the full length of a street in minutes, Ganley tends to stand and talk. ‘‘He engages people in conversations about European reform and misses ten other people walking past,” said Norrie Keane, Ganley’s campaign manager.

But his campaign crew is different from his opponents in one notable way: because Libertas does not have a communitybased party structure, Ganley has few local canvassers on the ground to provide the invaluable introductions to the locals.

By contrast, Jim Higgins can call on about a dozen locals from the Fine Gael party in each large town to help him press the flesh.

This was the case in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, where Higgins was greeted with open arms reserved for a native son. He has covered every significant urban area in his half of the constituency. ‘‘Every single inch’’ he said.

The northern half of the constituency belongs to Cavan based Senator Joe O’Reilly, and Higgins wants to be allowed to canvass there to amplify the Fine Gael vote. Last week, Higgins asked Fine Gael’s national director of elections, Phil Hogan, to lift the prohibition on Higgins canvassing there, but the appeal was rejected.

‘‘Overwhelmingly, people are venting anti-government anger like I have never seen before. It is domestic issues and not European issues that people want to talk about,” Higgins said.

Resources are not a problem for the FG team. Higgins has the use of two SUVs and a bus, all emblazoned with the MEP’s face and the FG brand. By contrast, the other sitting MEP in the race, independent Marian Harkin, last week canvassed the outer region of Europe’s largest constituency in her 2006 dusty-grey Honda Civic which she drives herself. It boasts four small white megaphonespeakers which are wired to the car’s roof.

The addition of Longford and Westmeath to the North West for the first time has made life more difficult, but not impossible, for candidates. ‘‘It is more difficult for an independent when you are on your own, covering what is a huge land mass,” said Harkin, as she knocked on doors in Longford town’s Teffia Park.

In 2004, Harkin was the constituency vote-topper, but polls show her trailing Higgins and Fianna Fáil’s Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher.

But there was much encouragement for her in Longford last week. ‘‘You’re not from Fianna Fáil or the others?” local man Peter Fagan demanded, before inviting Harkin inside for a quick chat.

‘‘I know you from Shannon side [local radio],” several people told Harkin, who said she had consciously made an effort to spread her appearances on local radio in the North and Midwest.

However, Harkin admitted to being ‘‘stung’’ by Ganley’s repeated jibes that her European alliance with the ALDE Group meant that she has entered into a relationship with liberal elements who are pro-euthanasia and pro-abortion.

‘‘It does come up but not much,” she said. ‘‘I explain that I am in fact socially conservative - I just don’t shove it down people’s throats - and that claims to the opposite are baseless and misleading.”

Higgins also defended Harkin last week, saying: ‘‘Anyone claiming Marian Harkin is in some way pro-euthanasia and pro-abortion - it’s just ludicrous.

It’s totally unfounded’’. Harkin said she was more worried that Libertas had implied that some members of her ALDE Group posed a threat to Irish farming interests, saying that she had made a priority to push for the continuation of the single farm payment past the 2013 deadline.

Many in Harkin’s wide retinue of canvassers are friends, as well as supporters. Newtownforbes man Kieron O’Brien’s sister was a boarder with Harkin in Tubbercurry ‘‘back in the day’’, he said, explaining why he was giving up his evening to introduce Harkin to locals in Longford town and hand out leaflets.

Sligo-based Harkin’s campaign style involves hitting as many doorbells as possible; she is concerned at the prospect of a low turnout.

‘‘That would mean that the absolute core vote for Fianna Fáil would come out, but maybe not others who would vote for an independent,” she said.

Fianna Fáil’s Leitrim-based candidate, former senator Paschal Mooney, said he did not believe the turnout would be low and hoped there would be a large vote.

In 2004, when the North West constituency was geographically smaller, the total valid poll was 421,400 and the quota exceeded 105,000. Harkin led the first preferences at 66,664, securing 15.8 per cent on the first count.

The latest Irish Times opinion poll in mid-May put Higgins at 20 per cent, Fianna Fáil TD Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher at 19 per cent and Harkin on 18 per cent.

While out canvassing in Carrick-on-Shannon last week, Mooney also said he had not seen much anti-government sentiment, but much of his style of campaign involves meeting party delegates.

Sinn Féin’s chance of repeating its impressive 2004 first count performance seems unlikely this time, with candidate Pádraig Mac Lochlainn showing at 10 per cent, just ahead of Ganley at 9 per cent.

Meanwhile, Labour’s North West candidate, journalist Susan O’Keefe, has the disadvantage of being in a constituency with no real record of support for her party at European level.

Last time out, the party’s Hughie Baxter was eliminated after the first count with a paltry 3 per cent.

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