ROSCREA'S unique Meet the Candidates event gave the candidates that will greet you on the ballot paper this Friday a chance to win the public's vote ahead of the 2019 Local Elections.
It's a brave decision to put oneself before a jury of one's own neighbours and peers and ask the public to put their faith in you and five resolute candidates came to the Abbey Hall last Thursday night to engage in what was a refreshingly old fashioned and personal style of pre-election debate hosted by the Roscrea Community Development Council (RCDC).
The well attended event had some heated exchanges and saw several member of the audience express strong feelings about the thorny issues their future local representatives are going to have to tackle in the Roscrea town area should they be successfully elected.
With a population of approximately 5,550 and a voter turnout in the last local elections of a little over 60%, the approximately 3,000 valuable votes in the town area are hard fought for and with an anticipated tally in the region of 2,000 and five candidates based in the town seeking votes, it's likely to be neck-and-neck near the finish line.
Two Fine Gael candidates, first-timer Jonathan Cullen and veteran Noel Coonan, Independents, Shane Lee and Tommy Murphy and Fianna Fail's Michael Smith attended the event and gave a very good account of themselves – making up an interesting panel of young-blood and old-hands and everything in between.
Disappointingly no female candidates are running in the Roscrea and Templemore Electoral area, with only one female candidate in the Nenagh area, two in the Thurles area and four in the Newport area making up the seven women out of a total of 37 candidates running in North Tipperary.
The future of the Dean Maxwell Community Nursing Home in Roscrea remains the priority issue raised by people on the doorstep was the consensus among all five candidates, with each candidate also addressing the audience in detail on issues they feel particularly motivated about.
Each candidate was afforded a five minute slot for an opening address, followed by a questions and answer section and first to speak after names were drawn randomly was Noel Coonan.
Mr Coonan, who described himself as having “been around the block a few times before,” is one of the best known politicians out of the entire 79 candidates running for one of the 40 seats in Tipperary, having previously worked as a Senator and member of the Dáil.
His late wife Pauline, who died after a battle with cancer in 2016, was also a Tipperary Councillor and Noel told the audience that should he be elected he plans to carry on the fight for several issues that Pauline was passionate about and have since become neglected.
“This is the most important election I can remember for Roscrea and a time when the town needs a strong voice. The focus in Tipperary has drifted away to the West and South of the county since the amalgamation of north and south Councils and this end of the county is being neglected,” Mr Coonan said.
Roscrea is faced with several complex issues, he said, citing the lack of a hotel in the centre of the town, housing and insufficient accommodation issues, a shortage of leisure and amenity sites and the lack of support for mental health as being some of the most pressing issues facing Roscrea.
Next to address the sizeable crowd that attended the event was outgoing Councillor and Clonakenny native Michael Smith, who reiterated the future of the Dean Maxwell home as the salient issue on the doorsteps of Roscrea and said he hasn't heard much evidence of progress on the issue since attending the large public meeting in the Muintir na Tire last month with the Tipperary TDs.
“We heard platitudes from them, but I still haven't heard anything about some money to make some progress,” Councillor Smith said and highlighted how he has worked closely alongside the diverse range of community groups active in Roscrea to further their progress.
“This election is about who you can trust and I have the track record, the skill-set and dedication to work for you and a vote for me is a vote for Roscrea,” Cllr. Smith said.
Shane Lee was the third candidate to speak and echoed the previous speakers about the importance of the Dean Maxwell home in Roscrea, and focused on the impressive level of voluntary work and community activism present in Roscrea, telling the audience “if volunteerism is taken out of Roscrea all that is left is an empty shell.”
Mr Lee, a native of Cois Carrig in Roscrea who narrowly missed out on winning a seat on his first time running in 2014, told the audience that when he failed to be elected he publicly gave a commitment to work hard as a volunteer and try advance the range of problems he can see in Roscrea.
Since then he has become the Chair of the St Patrick's Day Committee and played an important role in organising several events, including the very memorable Soap Box Derby, the Halloween Festival and the Horse and Pony Family Festival among others.
“Traditionally we always had two Councillors from the Roscrea area and last time we ended up with just one and it wasn't good for a town our size that has over 5,000 people. In 2014 I was young and naïve but I have learned a lot since then and anyone claiming that I'm safe in this election is wrong, so please come out and vote and have your say,” Mr Lee urged the public.
The penultimate speaker on the night was Ashbury's Tommy Murphy, who has earned a reputation as a very outspoken champion for the less privileged in Roscrea and a man unafraid to publicly call out local representatives and Dáil Deputies when he perceives any failings.
Tommy Murphy co-founded the Community Action Partnership (CAP) in 1996 which paved the way for a multitude of services and capital investment projects in Roscrea and at the public meeting he said Roscrea's dearth of transport infrastructure has led to the town failing to capitalise on its midlands location.
“I was born in Roscrea in a hospital that is long gone and I grew up and lived in a town that once was busy and thriving, but the Council fails to do anything about employment, which is what this town needs the most,” Mr Murphy said.
If elected, Mr Murphy promised to tackle anti-social behaviour and teen crime in the town and to fight for a better resourced and manned Garda presence in the town, adding that a Family Resource Centre, similar to the four already created in Tipperary, would be of major benefit to Roscrea where care and assistance can be tailored to the individual.
Rent hikes and essential repairs on local authority houses are also a major issue for Mr Murphy and on the issue of the Dean Maxwell's future he voiced his belief that what he sees as the best next step is to “fill ten buses with people from Roscrea and take the fight directly to Leinster House.”
“Nothing will be done about the Dean Maxwell until 2021 and there is only a 50-percent chance of the new building going ahead in Nenagh. With the HSE overrun on the Children's Hospital they haven't the budget for new builds.
“Protesting in Roscrea is no good, we need to go to Dublin and speak to the Minister directly ourselves,” Mr Murphy said concluding his address before the final speaker, Jonathan Cullen addressed the audience.
A native of Moyne-Templetuohy, where sitting Fianna Fail Councillor John Hogan has decided not to contest this election, Mr Cullen is a newcomer to politics and received the backing of Fine Gael after sitting Templemore Councillor, Joe Bourke, also decided to step away from politics.
Mr Cullen, who is also Chairman of the Mid-Tipp GAA Board and who has a son with special needs, is very passionate about issues of inclusivity and health care and described himself to the audience in Roscrea as a “no nonsense individual who is not afraid to speak out.”
Although not as well known in Roscrea as the other candidates on the panel, Mr Cullen received a warm welcome after expressing his feelings on the threat to the the Dean Maxwell's future provision of long stay beds after 2021.
Stemming the numbers of people ending their lives through suicide and the creation of a youth forum were also issues raised by Mr Cullen, as were tackling the excessive waiting times families must endure when waiting for essential items such as wheelchairs from the HSE, issues which he said he is “acutely aware of.”
Following the candidates opportunity to present their address to the audience, the panel were asked questions from the audience, with several pressing issues raised for debate. Former staff member of the Dean Maxwell and founder of Age Friendly Roscrea, Anne Keevey provided some very insightful perspectives on how Roscrea needs to prepare itself.
Calling for a more holistic approach to the future, Ms Keevey stressed that the Dean Maxwell is one facet of a larger situation and lies at the heart of a town where the population aged over 85 is set to double by the year 2030.
“We urgently need to look at a range of issues, there is no good just focusing on one – the aged population of the town will have doubled by 2030 and so that means we will need to double the number of beds.
“We knew seven years ago that we needed a development plan for the Dean Maxwell, but we never got it. I am enthused by the passion shown by the candidates for the Dean Maxwell, but it is not a political issue. We have to start thinking about the town as a whole and about its future,” Anne Keevey said.
Other issues raised from the floor included unemployment levels, anti-social behaviour and the availability of illicit drugs to teenagers, while the concerns of many parents in attendance included social-media bullying and the lack of amenity facilities for children who are not interested in sport.
Two candidates were unable to attend the debate – Sinn Fein's Roscrea based hopeful, Michael 'Chinny' Donovan and Templetuohy based Fianna Fail candidate, Willie Bergin. They sent their apologies to the RCDC Board and following the debate Chairman John Lupton, Hon. Secretary Steve Crofton and Treasurer Liam Shanahan wished all the candidates well on this coming Friday's elections.
Polling stations will open at 7am and close at 10pm and all the candidates contesting in the area urge everyone to get out and cast their vote on Friday.