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‘What happens if I get sick?’ Health the core issue for Waterford voters

Election 2020: Locals keen to see who delivers on rural problems they think are being ignored

"Rural Ireland is closed," says Pat "The Lawnmower Man" from Tallow in west Waterford.

He won’t give his last name – everyone knows him as The Lawnmower Man, he says. He’s “over every bit of Munster”, running his business selling golf course machinery and lawnmowers. And he’s dismayed by what he’s seeing in rural Ireland. “You won’t get a cup of tea or a bit of petrol at six o’clock in most places.”

He's having a boiled egg for his breakfast in Kearney's on Convent Street, with Sam Leech from Killarney. For both men, the issue that will get them out to vote on February 8th is the need for investment outside of Dublin. "Rural Ireland shouldn't be a place you visit from the city and then go back to work," says Leech.

Among young people, “there’s plenty of talent, but it’s draining out of it,” says Leech. What the country needs is “roads and jobs”.


He hasn’t decided how to vote yet. It will come down to who he thinks can deliver for the local area. “It’s parish pump politics,” he says unapologetically.

But at national level, they both agree they would like to see one party emerge with a strong voter mandate and vision. “If you want something knocked, you put it to committee. Give somebody a majority for five years and let them get on with it,” says Pat.

“What you need is a Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker to just pick it up and run with it,” agrees Leech.

Mary Cashman brings Leech's full Irish breakfast to the table. For her, the issues are health and housing. She is disturbed by the homelessness problem, and angry about the loss of her husband's medical card, after her job pushed her family over the income threshold. "It doesn't seem fair. It's the worry of [what happens] if something were to go wrong."

In some respects, the issues in this part of the country are the same as elsewhere. Resourcing of education is a frequently cited concern, and capital investment for the region. There’s less talk of housing here than elsewhere. Nobody I speak to suggests either climate change or the Government’s handling of Brexit will be decisive factors.

Health comes up everywhere sooner or later, and in Waterford, it's usually sooner. Here, it's seen as a local issue, with concerns about 24-hour cardiac care at the top of the list, along with the trolley numbers, and delays to the opening of the hospice at University Hospital Waterford. But the desire for a new approach doesn't seem – as yet – to be coalescing into support for an alternative candidate or party.

James O'Donoghue from Dungarvan, who operates the Local Link bus service across the county, predicts the first question people ask politicians when they turn up at the doors will be: "What happens if I get sick and have to go to hospital?"

As we board the 11am bus to Dungarvan, he feels there is “an appetite for change” in this part of the country, he says. “It’s health. Nearly everybody will have had somebody in hospital in the last nine or 10 years.”

The bus stops in Lismore, where a few students and a handful of other passengers, including Joe Brennan, get on. He frequently travels into the community hospital in Dungarvan, where he meets older people who have had to travel north of the border for hip replacement surgery. "It's not right. They've worked all their life, and then when they need something back, they're thrown on the scrap heap." He's a Sinn Féin supporter, so knows how he'll be voting.

John McWilliams takes the seat behind Brennan. For him, health and education are priorities. “I broke my shoulder recently, and I didn’t even go to the hospital. It’s not that I don’t trust them – well, I don’t trust them – but I know if I go in, you’ve a waiting time of eight hours.”

What would he like to see done in education? “I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I haven’t lived on the street, but I’ve spent time on the street.” For him, education is a way to break that cycle, and start tackling the homelessness problem at source.

It’s still early in the campaign, and the posters haven’t yet gone up everywhere, but the retirement of some high-profile candidates locally means a lot of people don’t seem sure who’s running. That’s feeding into a feeling of apathy, O’Donoghue believes, even though turnouts in the west of the county have historically been high.

He is personally frustrated by the lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to the needs of rural Ireland. He gives an example. “You could have three buses going up the same road in the morning. One goes up to bring the kids up to school; one goes up to the hospital; and then we come along and bring someone to town,” he says. They’re all operated by different Government departments, and none of them interact with each other. His efforts to get funding for bus stops – which can cost as little as €1,000 for a “a pole and a bin” or €8,000 for a shelter – have been hampered by bureaucracy. “No one knows where the buses stop.”

Back in the city, the business community has a slightly different shopping list. "The biggest five things are the North Quays, university status [for Waterford Institute of Technology], the airport, health and housing. These will be the catalyst for everything else," says Jonathan Earl, president of Waterford Chamber of Commerce.

Buying these 10 houses, a Mercedes and a boat in the southeast will cost €992,000 – less than this one house in Dublin

Elaine Fennelly, who runs Crystal Valley Tech, is like a one-woman PR machine for the region. There are posters all over her office, extolling the benefits of the southeast. One features photographs of 10 houses for sale in the Waterford area. "Buying these 10 houses, a Mercedes and a boat in the southeast will cost €992,000 – less than this one house in Dublin," it promises.

People don’t realise how vibrant the tech scene is in Waterford, she says, estimating that there are 122 firms operating in the region, with 400 skilled jobs across the southeast waiting to be filled, and another 400 in pharmaceuticals. Tech firms “want a teaching university that’s churning out the best graduates in Ireland”.

Beyond that, they want “capital investment in the city. They want a vibrant retail centre, an airport that’s working.”

Gary Walsh is just finishing up a class when I arrive at his gym on another industrial estate. There's a rule here that politics and religion get left at the door. But with members ranging from tech workers to hospital staff to young parents, he has a good handle on the issues that matter to them. Economically, "things have been never better" in the city, he says.

“When we opened in 2013, we could have chosen any unit we wanted. Now there are no empty units, and there are six other gyms here now.” Membership rates have grown steadily, a sign of consumer confidence.

But health is a worry for most people. “People want to be able to go into the hospital and know they’ll be getting the best care.”

Another major concern for Walsh is insurance. Despite never having had a claim, “we were almost left stranded this year. Our insurance was up on December 23rd and we only got it sorted on December 21st.”

The quote went up from €1,200 in year one, to €2,700 in 2019. “Our quote for 2020 was €12,800 to have the same policy as last year. We could have got insurance for less, but with no kids and no outdoor pursuits. Luckily, Lloyds from the UK came in, and we got it for a little bit less.” He’s already worried about next year if something isn’t done nationally.

There are two primary school teachers at the gym this afternoon. Separately, they cite resourcing for special needs assistants as election issues. One of the teachers, who only gives her first name, Dervla, went without pay over Christmas because of payroll issues. She’ll be voting for a change of government, and probably for an Independent. For her, “the issue that’s really prevalent in teaching at the moment is the lack of resources, especially for children with special needs. There’s a huge lack of funding and a lack of care by the Government. They just shy away from dealing with it, and pump money into things like that stupid surf thing in Dublin.”

Childcare worker Julie Nolan has just finished her 4.30pm class. She'll vote based on whichever party or candidate convinces her it can do something about the waiting lists for speech and language or occupational therapy. "My son and his fiancee have three-year-old twins. One has Down syndrome, Isobel, and the other, Jacob, has an autism spectrum disorder."

Isobel will get help when she starts school. But it’s more difficult for her brother, who doesn’t yet have a clear diagnosis. “Early intervention is so important.”

The Government is hoping people will vote based on of the economic recovery and its handling of Brexit. Does she feel the Brexit issue will matter to voters in this area?

“No, no, no,” she says. “We’re talking about what we need now. It’s now. It’s today. Come and live in our shoes to see what it’s like.”