Sinn Féin Louis O’Hara: On the general election campaign trail

By Sharon Dolan D’Arcy

For Sinn Féin party candidates canvassing in their respective constituencies, it has been a mixed bag of a week – riding high on the opinion polls one day, defending their colleagues the next.

In this pre-election week a debate erupted around Sinn Féin and its handling of Conor Murphy’s comments claiming Paul Quinn, the murder victim of an IRA criminal gang in 2007, had been involved in criminality and smuggling. The Galway Pulse went on the East Galway canvass trail with Sinn Féin.

First-time general election Sinn Féin candidate, Louis O’Hara does not engage in defending his party’s actions this week. On the contrary – he says he believes Conor Murphy should apologise, and later on the day of his interview with The Galway Pulse, Murphy apologised.

Louis O’Hara’s canvass takes place in the townland of Castlelambert, 6 kilometers from Athenry. The new M17/M18 motorway now sandwiches through the famous fields altering the geography of the area as if trying to separate it from the medieval town.

Castlelambert comprises small farms and large one-off houses and is adjacent to the site where the Apple plant never got started. Unusually, Apple (or the lack of it) is not a strong topic Louis O’Hara is hearing on the doorsteps.

However, the 21-year-old candidate, like many in Athenry, has an opinion on the controversial subject explaining: “We think there is great potential still for the site. Apple is gone now at this stage, but we’d like to see another business moving into the site. The West of Ireland, like this area, in particular, isn’t really being promoted for business at all.”

With regards to attracting business to Galway East, he says, “We think there should be more supports given to business and if there’s more promotion of rural Ireland as a destination for business because most of the investment that comes to Ireland goes to the big cities – it doesn’t come to places like this.”

Jumping in and out of his red Skoda car and driving from one house to the next, Louis O’Hara only calls to the homes without closed gates, and the various dogs that greet him en route certainly do not deter him.

This brings him to a subject Sinn Féin is comfortable with – rural crime. He maintains that one of the biggest problems this constituency faces is the lack of Garda presence in the area. Without a full-time Garda in Athenry and with a station that opens occasionally, Gardai must travel from elsewhere in the county to attend to a crime scene, and response times can be slow.

He acknowledges the increased incidence of break-ins lately with the advent of the motorway and knows his party’s line on this: “We’ve noticed it going around canvassing, that people are actually scared to open the doors at times, especially older people which is really a sad way for people to be.”

He explains further by quoting facts and figures, “We need more Gardai on the ground, we’ve had rural Garda stations all over the country closed – we’ve had 159 in the last 13 years, so it’s just in need of more investment to solve this issue.”

He also argues on implementing more stringent sentencing guidelines saying, “it’s the same people committing these crimes over and over again. They’ve not been held accountable; it’s a revolving door system – so that’s another thing we’d like to see addressed.”

The subject of crime ultimately leads us to his party’s link with the IRA. When pressed on why his generation has forgotten the atrocities committed by the Provisional IRA, his party’s links to the illegal organisation and now plans to vote for Sinn Féin, he says, “We see the past as the past. There were wrongs committed on all sides. I mean, there were wrongs committed by the IRA too; I wouldn’t deny that.”

Asserting that we should focus on the present, he says, “I think most young people are very frustrated to hear in the media, you know all these attacks on Sinn Féin over the IRA. They are interested in talking about housing and mental health and about the issues that matter to them. They don’t want a history lesson, and we need to be looking towards the future and not the past.”

And looking towards the immediate future of the general election, it’s all systems go for Louis O’Hara as he leaves for 2 canvasses in Ardrahan and Gort in south Galway. The last constituent he meets in Castlelambert is an older farmer, John Kelly, who is breaking stones on his land.

A former Fine Gael supporter, Mr Kelly, is dubious about Fine Gael’s prospects this time around yet is coy about where his vote will go in 2020, telling O’Hara: “I don’t think Fine Gael will get anywhere this year. It’ll be between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail. The timing (of the election) was wrong. What are they at, at all? Sur’ they never were going worse. Fine Gael now made a few blunders. They won’t be at the races this year. No matter who’s elected, I’ll still be breaking stones; that’s where I am.”

Already acting the consummate politician, Louis O’Hara takes the positives from his last encounter, remarking that desire for change is something he is hearing more of on the East Galway canvass.

He says, “It’s such a rural constituency; I suppose it’s very conservative or whatever. I’m very taken back by the amount of older people who’ve been supporting us this time around, which usually isn’t the case; they are usually kind of stuck in Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.”

The Brexit bombshell in the UK, perhaps hints that age groups will also define Election 2020 in Ireland. One thing for sure is to coin the Castlelambert farmer, the change word often bandied about doesn’t always filter down to the common John or Jane. Those hard, grey East Galway, West of Ireland stones on the land will still need to be broken, day-to-day.

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