Sunday, July 08, 2018

Viewpoint: Time to be thinking about local elections

Prior to the last local elections, we held a ‘Town Hall’ meeting to which the candidates were invited, to discuss with us how they considered Kilcullen and what part they might play in the town’s future development, writes Brian Byrne.

The exercise was partly that we could have their answers on record, with a view to chasing them up during their tenure, and also to be a basis for a ‘report card' when they came canvassing our votes once again.

That’s all for nought now, given how we are — again — being shoved into a different electoral area for next year’s poll. None of our area's existing councillors are likely to be on the next campaign in Kilcullen.

No one here is happy with the way the town is such a ‘political football’, but we can hope that the community at least won’t be divided when the actual boundaries are drawn. Like when we were partly Naas and partly Athy prior to the last elections.

Will it be positive or otherwise being attached to Newbridge and whatever other communities are in its orbit? It’s hard to tell at this point, but the new situation will be similar to when I ran for the Council myself in 1974. Kilcullen then was incorporated with Newbridge, the Curragh, Ballysax, Usk and, at the other edge, Rathangan.

In a way Kilcullen then had two candidates … myself for Fine Gael and Paddy Aspell for Fianna Fail. Though Paddy had by then been a resident of Newbridge for a number of years, that hadn’t diminished his grĂ¡ for Kilcullen, nor his connections in it, notably in GAA and Boxing Club circles. For my part, I was embedded as a fourth generation family in the town, active in social and business matters.

I didn’t get a seat, Paddy beat me by a few votes on the tenth count for the last one. His success was partly due to the fact that the army in those days voted solidly Fianna Fail, and Paddy had most of these votes sewn up in the Curragh Camp.

A story I’ve often told since — a true one — is that every time I met him afterwards I thanked him. It is also true that Paddy, who held his seat in most subsequent local elections, was always available to try and help Kilcullen interests, even when the town had later been shifted out of the Newbridge electoral area.

Down those decades, Kilcullen had other ‘champions’ too, such as John Dardis as councillor and senator, and in more recent times with Cllr Martin Heydon, now a TD, and Cllr Ivan Keatley even though he is out of the the area in which Kilcullen is currently located. But there were also times when, as the grounds shifted beneath us in the various rejigs, we certainly were a 'deserted village' in political clout terms. Especially in the 1992 General Election, when Kilcullen wasn't even in the Kildare constituency, having been controversially attached to Wicklow.

At that time the Kilcullen bypass was being planned. The late Pat Dunlea knew business would be adversely affected, especially at the north end, because the plan offered only one access point to Kilcullen, where it is today at the southern end. To highlight the case, and to try and have a north link access, with the encouragement of many individuals and business people in Kilcullen, he ran for the Dail in 1992. Garnering over 1,300 votes, probably every voter in the then much smaller settlement, he only got a tiny level of transfers and dropped out on the fifth count with just 2.5pc of the vote.

Pat had run as an Independent under the very local banner of ‘Link or Sink’. Obviously he didn’t win a seat, nor did we get our northern motorway link. But at the time he was blazing a trail for what later became a significant entity in Irish local and national politics, the single-issue councillor and TD, generally separate from established political parties.

With the vista of our village grown bigger now having to look towards Newbridge as our local political base, the suggestion of fielding a Kilcullen ‘community’ candidate has again been raised. Is it worth considering? Well, here are some pros and cons.

One, we don’t have any allegiance to the current set of councillors in the Newbridge-Kildare MD. Two, They don’t have any allegiance to us. Yet. Though they will surely be making contacts over the next year to build up a voting potential. The other side of the coin is that our existing councillors in the Naas MD will be trimming their interest in us while looking to a revised support base.

We have a certain advantage in running a community candidate, because the voting base in Kilcullen is now much more substantial than it was when I was a contender. This time, the ‘new’ Kilcullen is a political force to be both courted and reckoned with. A careful selection of such a candidate, and a really strategic and tactical effort to support one, could pay off.

The caveat is that it’s very hard to break past the political parties, which have both the experience and the resources to put behind their own candidates. You can be sure that at least one or two of these will be Kilcullen area people.

Also, even if we were fortunate enough to have our candidate gain a seat, the power of the independent against the ‘let’s keep the toys to ourselves’ habits of main party groups is extremely limited. With four solid parties in play — FF, FG, SF and LAB — it’s easy for them to keep independents out of the playpen.

Still, none of these negative aspects should stop us from at least considering the possibility of fielding a true Kilcullen candidate. Especially when the elections are being held in the year we are celebrating our 700th anniversary of the building of the first bridge here. In 2019 we will be generating a very strong sense of place, in our history, in our heritage, in our today and our tomorrow.

We already have a reputation of being prepared to do things for ourselves when things were tough down the decades and also in the better times of today. Should we try and leverage all that to have our own seat at the table of power?

Maybe a glance at a virtual report card on the current lot is worthwhile. It shows that, because of sheer population, most of their attentions were on the area's 'magnetic centre' of Naas itself. I receive the monthly lists of motions and reports from the MDs and the full Council, and the mentions of Kilcullen in them have been sparse enough. (However, I must acknowledge that two or three councillors have shown some consistent interest in us, and also the current support of the Council officials for the proposed major market square redevelopment.)

Now, while in social and commercial connections — and indeed many transplanted familial ones — we are much closer to Newbridge, that 'magnetic centre' situation will likely be the same next time around. The bulk of the MD councillors will be from Newbridge, and primarily interested in their main support base. We do need to keep that in mind as we look to our future.

This piece is simply my attempt at laying out the position. It is too soon for any conclusions to be worked out. But it is definitely not too soon for us as a community to be thinking seriously about it.

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