‘Once you don’t vote for Ursula von very Leyen’: Sinn Féin candidate tests support in heartland

Kilkenny TD Kathleen Funchion says housing and cost of living are main issues on the doorsteps rather than migration


This is not Kathleen Funchion’s first rodeo. In 2009, she contested the European election for Sinn Féin in the old East constituency. Then, she was a 28-year-old councillor, young, inexperienced, unknown outside her native Kilkenny.

She received 26,000 votes, 6.2 per cent, and with transfers from her running mate, Thomas Sharkey, she finished fifth in the three-seat constituency. At a time before Sinn Féin’s jump in the polls, it was a credible performance. But to put it into context, the winner was Mairéad McGuinness, who hauled in a staggering 110,000 votes.

Fifteen years later, Funchion will be her party’s standard bearer in the vast South constituency. This time around, she is no unknown. Indeed, some see her as the favourite to be poll-topper. A TD since 2016, she has come to prominence as the chair of the all-party Committee on Children, particularly during its work on the mother and baby homes controversy. She is also known for her willingness to work on a cross-party basis.

On a serene evening in late May, Funchion is canvassing in the postcard-pretty town of Thomastown alongside local election candidate, David Kennedy, an upbeat, engaging and loquacious former councillor from Ballyhale. The small team includes Kennedy’s 14-year-old son, Jack, his brother John and Joe Hayes, who is doing social media.

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On the canvass, they talk about the fickle nature of politics. In a poor local election for the party in 2019, Kennedy lost his seat by 50 votes. “Every vote counts,” he tells each household he meets, reminding them of his slim loss and promising he will do “savage work” if elected.

He and Funchion recall that after the drubbing Sinn Féin took in 2019, the party looked like it was on a downward spiral.

“Six weeks before the general elections in 2020, it didn’t look great. We had lost all our councillors in Kilkenny. Some felt we would lose the [Dáil] seat,” says Funchion.

Kennedy says with fond recall: “The day of the count, the moment they opened the boxes from Windgap and Tullaherin, we knew, we just knew there and then. It was all Funchion, Funchion, Funchion and those were strong Fine Gael areas. Even in Ballyhale, where [former Fianna Fáil TD] Bobby Aylward came from, we pulled 110 votes from the box.”

But the feel-good wave the party has surfed on since 2020 has lately shown signs of being becalmed. A series of poor polls has led to some doubts.

The canvass this evening is in Dangan Terrace, on the outskirts of town. When it was built, perhaps a century ago, these neat terraces of houses would have been on a quiet country road. Today, trucks and cars trundle by regularly and at speed. For the residents, the safety of the road and parking are big issues. Being Kilkenny, there is also a stack of hurleys piled neatly outside some of the doors.

Political parties tend to steer journalists towards canvasses in their own heartland areas. It’s no exception here.

“I voted for Sinn Féin last time,” says Seán, a father of young kids, “and I’ll vote for you again”. Two doors down, a man tells Funchion he will support her “once you do not vote for Ursula von very Leyen. I would not be great on her.”

That’s like catnip to a Sinn Féin representative. Funchion assures him Sinn Féin is opposed to the EU Commission president being reappointed.

Further along, James Beck hasn’t fully made his mind up but says he will read the brochure “100 per cent”. His big issue is housing. “I’m trying to get a mortgage but I’m priced out of it. Houses are going up and up.”

Funchion tells him she is determined to end the disconnect between local people and Europe – she plans to keep an office in Kilkenny.

Funchion says the big issues people are raising are housing and cost-of-living. And what of migration, which is seen as the factor behind the party’s fall in support?

“Genuinely it doesn’t come up as much as people might think. In my experience, it doesn’t come up as a top-three issue,” she insists.

It does come up, though? Yes, of course she says but adds she herself has met no hostility on the issue – unlike some Sinn Féin candidates. “People on a housing list, or waiting on a medical card, they question if it is going to affect their chances if there’s a lot of people coming into the country. It comes up in that context.

“I find you can actually have a really good chat with people on the doors about it. I tell them to look at all the people working here that are not originally from Ireland, in our hospitals, in caring, in hospitality. I genuinely think there’s a lot of goodwill but people are anxious maybe about stuff in their own lives. It comes back to the fact that we have not seen enough investment in our towns and villages and housing.”