The Phoenix opinion column, which has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years
ELEVEN people are fighting it out for the 52,000 or so first preferences that the 80,000 registered voters of Waterford are likely to cast next Saturday. If the polls and bookies are to be believed, all the political energy of the past few weeks will result in no change here. Waterford will probably return one Sinn Féin, one Fianna Fáil, one Fine Gael, and one Independent TD. By Monday or Tuesday next week four of eleven will be temporarily happy, until the weight of Waterford’s expectation lands on their shoulders. In recent times that has not been a happy burden.
People in Waterford believe the real story of GE2020 is not who is running, rather who ran away. The three Government parliamentarians, John Deasy, Minister John Halligan and Senator Paudie Coffey quit before their time. Coffey was a particularly bad loss. In emotional interviews on WLR both Halligan and Coffey highlighted the personal toll that politics took on them. Relatively young men, all three quit politics as they were squeezed between the hard place of Waterford expectations and the rock that is their party’s approach to Waterford. Moving the ETB headquarters to Wexford, giving control of Waterford Regional Hospital to Cork, reneging on the promise to make WIT a university, halting the Carriganore development, overturning the statutory boundary commission on Waterford City, threatening to move the Garda divisional HQ, the appalling mortuary saga, stalling the North Quays, getting crumbs in the flagship €116 billion Ireland 2040 plan, cheating the council for the cost of The Greenway, destroying council rate income and of course the absolute failure to deliver 24/7 cardiac care is some track record for nine years in power. All political careers end in failure, but Deasy, Halligan and Coffey never experienced much success. Fine Gael shafted Waterford and Waterford’s representatives.
‘She wants to sell her party to Waterford, rather than effectively selling Waterford to her party.’
Despite this, even on a bad day, Fine Gael expects a seat here. ‘Project fear’, suggesting that only Fine Gael can be trusted with the economy and Brexit, does not work in Waterford. Fine Gael cannot be trusted with the South East economy. Their political marketing masterstroke is the foot dragging that slowed the North Quays down by two years into a hostage that only they can free. If they really were committed to the North Quays they would fund it before they lose power. They have been doing that for the past few weeks with projects up and down the land. The bookies think Damien Geoghegan rather than John Cummins will be the rookie to represent our interests in Dublin. That should be fun!
Political ruthlessness is also evident in Fianna Fáil. Eddie Mulligan, the great hope of Waterford City, came undone in a well-orchestrated political hit. It might not have changed one voter’s mind, but it sets back his ministerial ambition. Mary Butler, meanwhile, is running with her mouth shut, no promises, no comment on Waterford’s big issues, nothing but creepy loyalty to the party leader and some old school haymakers about Sinn Féin. Her campaign relies exclusively on posters and distracting bluster. Her thin-skinned comments about the infamous 24/7 picture suggest she has caught the disease that saw off Conway, Deasy, Halligan and Coffey. She wants to sell her party to Waterford, rather than effectively selling Waterford to her party. Bookies see Mary Butler coasting home (if we’re that gullible, heaven help Waterford) and with little vote management going on, Mulligan being the under bidder for the fourth seat.
It is one of the safest predictions that David Cullinane will do very well, thus consolidating a strong personal and urban left vote for the party. If Sinn Féin is ever to be more that an angry party of opposition, they must exploit moments of advantage to bring in second candidates! They should be cultivating someone in west Waterford.
The sequence of fallers will become very important in the bloodbath scramble for the highly unpredictable fourth seat. Ronan Cleary of Aontú and Bernadette Phillips will be lucky to poll over 1,000 each and are likely to be quickly eliminated. Uná Dunphy is also unlikely to top 1,500 votes. Marc O Cathasaigh should poll and transfer well, but Green wave or not, it is hard to see him topping Grace O’Sullivan’s 2,250 votes in GE2016, so he is also likely to be eliminated.
These candidates are unlikely to transfer to party men, John Pratt, Damien Geoghegan, Eddie Mulligan or John Cummins, so will probably benefit Matt Shanahan. It is hard to see John Pratt recreating a Labour seat. Ciara Conway won on east and west support that seems long gone. So, the fourth seat is likely to be a three-horse race – Eddie Mulligan, John Cummins and Matt Shanahan. The sequence of fallers and the distribution of votes between them will sort out this seat. Unencumbered by the poisoned pill of party support, the bookies see Shanahan winning.
And then we wait to see the shape of the Government and whether the thwarting of Waterford’s aspirations can be halted by these brave new fighters. Given Halligan and Coffey’s dejection at the end of the political chapters of their lives, perhaps next Saturday’s losers will not rue their loss. The winners from the eleven will carry the weight of our expectations. Win or lose, democracy needs people willing to put themselves forward. But it is shockingly hard to make an impact.
The GE2020 announcement sent a cold wind of uncertainty howling through plans to develop the North Quays. The project has moved forward in fits and starts, driven by Waterford City and County Council, from the day the announcement of Special Development Zone (SDZ) status for the area was made. Local councillors suggest the council is in for close to €10 million for work carried out to facilitate the development. Planning has still not been resolved. The project is not mentioned in FF’s election manifesto and its local “representative” (using that word advisedly) Mary Butler has always been notably cool or ignorant of the project.
From the start Fine Gael indicated its support for the project and its current election manifesto mentions it. Unfortunately, this “support” has never been really matched by funding. The developers, Falcon Real Estate, apparently believe that mention in the manifesto is enough to have us all run out and vote headlong for Fine Gael, but sceptics abound. Leospeak of “millions being available for the North Quays” is crass. If he was going to do it, he would have done it! Beware electoral promises.
The funding decision for the North Quays was pushed out from November 30 to January 31, 2020. That deadline is fast approaching and the local council is silent. Indications that politicians seeking re-election, secretaries general in various departments and semi states like the IDA “are fully supportive” of Waterford are meaningless. Delay has been the tactic. When was the last new company for Waterford announced by the IDA? Its regional manager seems like a decent man, but in reality, Waterford is grossly dependent on a very small group of multinational corporations. Failure to diversify, as happens in Galway with a multiplicity of medical device companies, renders Waterford’s economy extremely vulnerable to international events, Trump, Brexit, OECD policy, EU taxation changes etc. We are sick of the cant, of being told how wonderful and important we are, but find little by way of government funding backing up those sentiments.
Ireland, according to national economists, is in the middle of an economic boom. Yet what real indication do we see of it locally? Unemployment in the South East is the highest in the land. The Action Plan for Jobs targets have not been attained. Planned investment in the South East in Ireland 2040, at less than €100m, is risible when compared with a single item of nearly €100m on a hospital in Sligo. The good people of that small town are entitled to anything they get.
The half million in the South East must survive on gruel. The North Quays is the government’s headline project for Waterford in the Ireland 2040 plan, yet funding has been abject. The €6m each thrown at both Waterford and Kilkenny (Abbey Quarter) showed where loyalties and political influence lies. We have had nine years of Fine Gael government and the overriding feeling locally is that our city has been thoroughly downgraded in that period.
Anyone who researches “Waterford University” will find FG Education spokesman Brian Hayes on the local papers in the run up to the 2011 election almost with a shovel in his hand ready to start work. Nine years later, where is it? Those who suggest that the Tech Uni merger with Carlow is the answer to our long campaign should recall Matt Cooper’s “Last Word” interview with Labour’s Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education on January 22, 2014.
“MC: And does that mean that if the Institutes of Technology do decide to merge to become Technological Universities that you will require them to give up those courses that are not technological?
RQ: Yes. In my view they have to concentrate on their mission. The intention is that they focus on that. What we’re looking for, Matt, really is an intensification of the relationship between a technological university, which will get ‘into bed’ in every sense of the word, with local industry. It will not have a law faculty, will not have a medical faculty, it will not have a lot of other ‘liberal arts’ type components. Its entire focus and this is written into the legislation, will be to commercialise existing potential research and existing research findings. We want in particular that there would be, insofar as it is possible, in the South East area of the country, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, and Waterford, a top-rate Technological University kind of facility, and that is in the programme for Government.”
So there you have this government’s policy for WIT. Give up any courses that might impact on the “real universities” and get back in your box.