Talking to people and learning is key to Mulherin's press for election

Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin

Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin

Once the votes were counted up last time around and all was said and done, Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin was the last one out and ended up losing the seat she had won as part of a Fine Gael wave that swept the country in 2011.

Since then Mulherin has gone on to be elected as a member of the Seanad and has served as her party's spokesperson on agriculture, food and the marine in the upper house. Now she is back on the campaign trail again - this time looking to retain the Dáil seat she previously held.

With the campaign now up and running proper, we asked her how she was finding it: "We have hit the ground running, I suppose that is the benefit of having the experience of previous campaigns, I have a good team around me and all of us have learned how to do our best.

"There is a big area of ground to cover, it is a big geographic spread, I want to meet as many people as I can and to engage with them. It is a good thing because it grounds your views on where people are at and directions we need to take or to modify."

The big issues on the doors

As for the big issues that have come up on the doorsteps, she said: "I suppose, without a doubt, there is frustration there when it comes to health, in terms of getting into the system and accessing services. Housing as well, where affordability is an issue - with the 20 per cent deposit required by the central bank making it more difficult for young people to come up with and then to go on and service a loan; the cost of building too, we are still at a point in Mayo where it is a challenge for builders to make a profit on the price they get, even though there have been improvements, the market is sluggish.

"On the positive side, there has been recognition for the projects I have been involved in, like the Digital Hub in Ballina, Cloongullane Bridge, my part in relation to driving and championing Knock airport - the biggest challenge there has been state aid rules and that involved engagement with the EU commission and every step of the way I have advocated and championed their cause with the powers that be in terms of government ministers and the former Taoiseach."

Supporting farmers and the potential for the future

Mulherin has been very vocal in her support for farmers and the farming community in recent years and it is something she is proud of taking a stance on. "What I would say, is I have stood by the farmers side by side. I fully appreciate the importance of suckler and beef farming in our region and in particular in our county, 83 per cent of our cows are suckler cows so that would show you the scale of the industry here.

"If we take the suckler cow out of the equation here and something terrible happens, our local economies would really be decimated, we wouldn't need the factories, we wouldn't need the merchants, the vets, the agricultural contractors. There is a whole network of industries there that maybe people in our towns and some villages don't see, but it is putting spending money and power into the economy. Farmers and their families have a lot of spending power in the local economy and they do spend it around."

As for the future of the agriculture industry in the county she believes it can be a bright one if there is a focus on innovating and bringing different industries and strands together: "I have a project in mind and that would be looking at our strengths, that we are very good at agriculture and light engineering in the county - we have the second biggest chicken factory in the country here, you have meat factories, quarries and I am looking at us creating an agri-tech and food hub in the east of the county. I did meet with the Ballyhanis Chamber of Commerce on it as it is a central hub, you have a number of very good companies there and I would like to see us partnering with GMIT, the agricultural colleges, Teagasc and that we start to innovate and do research and developement at what we are good at. To me investing in an agri-tech and food hub would be a very exciting thing."

Working together for the betterment of Mayo

The future progression of Mayo as a place for people to work and live in and for the county to grow, is all about the county working together and not being divided into regions, Mulherin believes, saying: "In terms of our outlook in the county and the region, I think it is not about what town is competing against another, it is about what is best for the county and the need to reinforce ourselves economically, so we can have economies of scale that make us stronger. I would like to see a lot more joined up thinking from businesses.

"I have one issue I see as a challenge and that I think Mayo County Council has to address and I have no doubt, when it comes to debating it, the councillors will be on side. At the moment, council management is proposing a plan and has retained consultants to explore linkages between Westport and Castlebar, and they have a vague aspiration to connect Ballina up with Sligo. All I see in this is that it is splitting the county. We have never claimed in this county that every town is the same, but there is a hierarchy of towns, whereas I think it is important all towns are brought along together.

"My concern is that you have a plan for Castlebar and Westport and the Government has put out a call for funding for something around this - but we don't have a plan for Ballina. The other thing is, at the moment, I'm involved in the mililtary barracks project, but it was the council that put in the application and Moy Valley Resources worked on it as well; but if I have a project for Ballina and they are tying us in with Sligo, the reality is Sligo County Council have nothing to do with us so I feel we are splitting the county.

"Also, an awful lot of the planning and spatial strategy is driven towards lifting up the big urban centres such as Sligo and Galway, but we have to find a unique formula for how we are going to sustain ourselves in rural Ireland and how we are going to grow going forward, because the natural way things have been going - not just in Ireland but in Europe - is people are migrating to the cities; and the stated objective in Ireland 2040 is that we want to redress balance, but this can't happen if we keep just pinning everything on the towns and cities without more imagination.

"This was supposed to be redressed under the regional planning strategy, so we have to put on the county jersey and say it is not acceptable that north and east Mayo will be cut off from the rest of the county. The best thing that government can do is to keep investing in infrastructure and keep reinforcing the county, which will make us more attractive for investment - because the busiest road in the morning is the N26/N58 road from Castlebar to Ballina - with people going both ways and people along the route connecting in."

Broadband can be a game changer

The issue of broadband and getting it right and available to everyone is another game-changer that could see things really take off in the county, Mulherin believes, telling the Mayo Advertiser:

"Some areas are serviced better with roads than others, but broadband can be a game-changer for everyone. In relation to the broadband plan, it has been very clear for a number of years that private companies are not going to come in and address the issue, that horse has been flogged and it became a political football. I have often said that money being spent on the plan will apply over a number of years, although it will be rolled out in the first few years, because there is a service contract after that; but the main critics have been people living in cities, whereas if that money was being spent there, it wouldn't be an issue.

"We have a problem in that most economic policies favour critical mass, which leads us into a vicious circle. No more than Knock airport, you need to invest sufficiently to begin with, to create a tipping point where things become self sustaining; you need to over-invest, you need to give it a real injection of funding.

"We have to be innovative in how we address that, we are in a global village and we are a small open economy. For us to play our best part in it and not be hindered by our geographic location, we need to connect into that world. We have seen that Ireland can do business. Irish people at home and abroad are very innovative, the British conquered by the sword and the Irish conquered by culture and a hard work ethic around the world. We have it here too - we have so much going for us, the strengths of our diospara are so strong - we need to keep tapping into that."

Meeting people, listening and learning

Asked whether she enjoys this campaigning part of politics, Mulherin says she really does, stating: "I do, I hold clinics and am always in circulation. If you really aim to represent people you have to hear where they are at; it is about having the benefit of having read reports, but also of talking and listening to people. You can't be a public representative without meeting people and listening and it is one of the most exciting things about our democracy and we should celebrate it.

"It is a humbling thing asking people to support you and put their trust in you, we are all human, but again, to me, it is about humbling yourself so you can avail of all the help, the understanding the knowledge and the people, be it professional or at the coalface, in a project. It is always about talking and the pinnacle of that is knocking on someone's door and speaking to them."

 

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