IF FINE GAEL’S cosmopolitan leadership could manufacture a candidate under laboratory conditions, the result would probably look a lot like former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh (31). The US-born Mayo native will make her political debut in May as one of two Blueshirt candidates for the European Parliament in the Midlands-North-West (MNW) constituency. Is she up to the challenge?
The familiar refrain in political circles is that Walsh has no political experience to speak of and that she is a celebrity candidate bereft of a pedigree. She is unlikely to take a seat, but there are other long-term factors in play here.
Fianna Fáil’s decision to run two candidates in 2014, Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher and Thomas Byrne, was a disaster. It split the party vote in the huge MNW constituency and kept both just out of the winner’s enclosure. Received wisdom suggested that, this time, sitting FF TD Brendan Smith would benefit from the weakness of his running mate, Galway East TD Anne Rabbitte. This would see Smith, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and FG’s Mairead McGuinness returned in the four-seater, although not in that order (see The Phoenix, 5/4/19).
That was until Peter Casey entered the race last week. Of the parties, FG and SF have the strongest hand in the constituency and McGuinness and Carthy look certain to retain their seats. It’s impossible to divine how the unpredictable Casey will fare but, on paper, it looks like Smith is the most likely to suffer. Last time out, over 75% of SF transfers went to FF’s Pat The Cope, the only strong candidate based in their Donegal heartland. This time, Casey is the only candidate of note from the Forgotten County.
Provided he can keep up the momentum from his presidential run, healthy first preferences in Donegal coupled with transfer friendliness to SF voters there and a general protest vote in other parts of the MNW constituency could see Casey home in May. In this scenario, Carthy, McGuinness and Ming would retain their seats.
It’s hard to see where Walsh could squeeze into this pack, but there is a genuine belief in FG that the one-two combo of Walsh and McGuinness could play very well with voters. European Parliament vice-president McGuinness has been able to transcend grubby party politics with her image as a highly qualified agricultural technocrat. Crucially, she also benefits from a national media profile. In a European mega constituency – it stretches from Malin Head down to Gort, Co Galway and all the way to the Dublin commuter belt – that sort of thing matters.
Walsh doesn’t have McGuinness’s CV, but she has a profile bordering on minor celebrity. A year before the marriage equality referendum, Walsh captured the nation’s imagination when she came out to the public following her 2014 Rose of Tralee win. Media outings and soft focus profiles abounded after that. She even presented TV3’s version of The Late Late Toy Show in 2015.
There is also a more cynical logic for running Walsh. For one, the Blueshirts are desperate to get women on the ticket and to detract from the fact that in Mayo, where Walsh is based, just four of the 18 local candidates are women.
In reality, Walsh is from Shrule on the border with Galway, which is part of the Galway West Dáil constituency. FG has already selected three Mayo candidates for the next general – Walsh’s biggest backer, Minister for Rural Development Michael Ring; as well as senators Michelle Mulherin, who lost her seat last time out; and former Mayo footballer Alan Dillon.
Provided she has a decent outing in May, the next step for Walsh could be a Dáil tilt in Galway West. Two of three Blueshirt candidates were successful last time out – junior minister Sean Kyne and Hildegarde Naughton, both of whom have been selected to run again. The party had hoped that the third, former Mayo football manager John O’Mahony, could capitalise in 2016 on his cross-border appeal with voters in the Mayo salient. He came seventh in the five-seater, but took a seat in the Seanad and looks likely to stay there. This means there is currently a vacancy for a third candidate.
Naughton is considered a capable electioneer, but she barely scraped by last time, with O’Mahony’s transfers pushing her just over the line. Walsh would have a lot of work to do, but her celebrity factor – and perhaps a healthy showing in May – could boost her prospects.
In some respects, farmer’s daughter Walsh is a ready-made candidate who ticks a lot of boxes for her party. Thanks to her Rose triumph, her backstory – born in the US to Irish parents before returning to the auld sod, where she was reared and schooled at Presentation College Headford – is well known. Walsh also has a very polished media presence, with a media degree from Griffith College and experience at various advertising companies in Ireland and the US.
Walsh is just the kind of uncontroversial social liberal that FG are desperate to attract in the Varadkar era, as distinct from the stuffed Blueshirts that Young Fine Gael tends to produce. She runs her own event management business, Juniper & Berry, and tweets about how hard life is for a 30-something start-up owner. She campaigned for marriage equality and also supported the Yes side in last year’s abortion referendum.
Of the 13 Dáil constituencies that make up the MNW electoral area, all but one (Donegal) voted to legalise abortion last year, with an average Yes vote of 63%. Walsh probably doesn’t fear a backlash against her cosmopolitanism, but that hasn’t stopped her hedging her bets. While she is gay and says that she is a “big advocate for social issues,” Walsh – a pioneer since the age of 12 – also recently described herself as a believer in “traditional values”.
Although perhaps a bit light on policy (especially compared with her running mate, McGuinness), it didn’t take long for Walsh to find her Blueshirt shooting boots. In an interview with Village magazine last week, she took an obligatory cut at Mary Lou McDonald for appearing behind an ‘England out of Ireland’ banner during St Patrick’s Day festivities in New York this year. “I don’t think anybody who [does that] on St Patrick’s Day in a big city like New York is in their right state of mind to bring this country forward,” Walsh opined.
Shots like that should find the back of the net with traditional FG voters, but perhaps not many more.