“IT’S an honour and a privilege to represent the people of Carlow. I know that my father would be very proud of me today. Everyone has a dream and mine is to be a TD in Carlow,” Jennifer Murnane O’Connor told The Nationalist moments after she took the fourth seat in the Carlow/Kilkenny constituency.
The 2020 general election was Murnane O’Connor’s third attempt at getting elected after contesting the 2011 and 2016 elections. The latter saw her polling very well in first preference votes but she ultimately failed because of poor transfers.
Undeterred, she immediately set about a countrywide campaign to secure a seat in the Senate and was successful in that attempt at national politics. However, the senator kept her eye on the Dáil prize and travelled every by-road in the country on her canvass for this election. After her experience in the 2016, she knows every vote is sacred.
As a deeply religious woman who serves as a Eucharistic minister in her local parish church of St Clare’s in Graiguecullen, Murnane O’Connor took no chances and even ferried the Poor Clares, an enclosed order of nuns, to the polling station on Saturday.
“Jennifer doesn’t have any other interests, other than politics. Politics is her life,” commented cllr John Pender, her director of elections.
Fianna Fáil is in her blood. She first got into politics when she was co-opted onto Carlow Town Council in 1999 and was later co-opted onto the county council when her father, Jimmy Murnane, passed away.
Her personal victory came as the Sinn Féin tsunami swept all before it and became the story of general election 2020. An emotional Kathleen Funchion was clearly overwhelmed to top the poll with 23% of the vote and 17,493 first preferences.
Last May, the party lost five of its six council seats in the constituency. A few weeks ago, the Kilkenny politician had been viewed as a potential casualty. On Sunday, Sinn Féin might well have taken another seat if they had run a second candidate.
Funchion’s first preference was close to double her vote in 2016, when she was elected for the first time and included over 7,000 Carlow votes.
The Sinn Féin TD outpolled Pat Deering in the county and even in a box from his home place of Rathvilly. In some Carlow town boxes from areas viewed as conservative leaning, deputy Funchion was pushing senator Jennifer Murnane O’Connor hard.
“I never thought I would be in this situation. I have been in many counts many times on good days and bad, but nothing like this,” said deputy Funchion.
“I think it finally means change in Irish politics. It’s taken 100 years, but the stranglehold of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been broken up,” she added.
According to canvassers, whole households in Carlow were promising their vote to Sinn Féin before the election. Sinn Féin councillor Andy Gladney recalled receiving messages from voters suggesting there was no need to call to the house, that the votes were already destined for Sinn Féin.
Deputy Funchion added that she had a stronger presence in Carlow than people gave her credit for, with a weekly clinic at Sinn Féin’s Bagenalstown office. “I think people wanted genuine change. We were asking people to give us a chance,” she said.
Although unsuccessful, cllr Adrienne Wallace was happy with her showing.
“We started off with a kitty of just €700 and very little resources, so I’m very happy with the results and the fact I held my vote on 2016,” said the People Before Profit councillor.
“Definitely the huge surge to Sinn Féin took away from our vote, but I have a very good base here now and something that we can grow on. The growing in popularity for the left has been fantastic,” she added.
Green Party candidate Malcolm Noonan was another surprise package of the election. The Kilkenny city candidate polled 6.7% on the first count but proved to be a transfer hit.
“Everyone uses the word ‘rollercoaster’, and it has been. There are highs and lows. We thought we were gone yesterday, but we were back again from Independent Alan Hayes and then that whopping transfer from Adrienne,” he said.
The Green Party had a dedicated Carlow team canvassing across the county and received help from former government minister, Borris’s Mary White, while Liam O’Brien in Bagenalstown spearheaded local efforts.
Renua Ireland’s Helena Byrne was also unsuccessful, but proud to have been part of democracy at work. “We need to regroup now and build our party,” said Helena.