The value of a vote

In the ten years since he was first elected to the Dáil, Denis Naughten has become one of the most experienced members of the Fine Gael front bench and would be widely expected to hold a senior portfolio should Fine Gael be in pole position when it comes to forming the next Government. A member of a well-known political family in south Roscommon, 33-year-old Denis lives in Roscommon with his wife Mary and their son Liam. Pauline Scott met Denis and heard about the issues on the doorsteps, the help he’s receiving from family and friends and of course, the possibility of a ministerial Merc being sighted in Roscommon town  Denis Naughten knows the value of one vote and during the present canvass in the run-up to the general election, he’s unlikely to forget the importance of garnering each and every possible vote. In February 1987, when Denis was 13, his father won a seat by one vote, defeating fellow Fine Gael running candidate John Connor in what was the longest count of that election.             The untimely death of Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Liam Naughten in a car accident in south Roscommon on November 16th, 1996, catapulted his son Denis from the relative obscurity of life as a PhD student in Cork, to a Seanad seat in January 1997 and a Dáil seat five months later.             A farmer, Liam Naughten from Ardkeenan, Drum, contested his first general election in Roscommon/Leitrim in 1977 and was unsuccessful on that occasion. He went on to become a Fine Gael TD from 1982 – 1989, losing out in 1989 to his running mate John Connor, in a spectacular result in Roscommon, which saw former Justice Minister Seán Doherty lose his seat and the election of HAC candidate Tom Foxe.             Liam Naughten was again elected to the Seanad following the 1992 general election. In 1995 he became Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, a position he held at the time of his death on November 16th, 1996. 23-year-old Denis was then elected to the Seanad in January and five months later was elected to Dáil Éireann.             After his election as a TD, Denis became the party’s Deputy spokesperson on Education and later on public enterprise, which covered transport, energy and communications. He has also been the Fine Gael spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, transport and has been the party’s spokesperson on agriculture since autumn 2004.             Asked about growing up in a political household, Denis recalls, ‘My abiding memory is the 1987 election, February 1987. That was the most nail-biting election. My father won the seat by one vote. There were two separate re-counts. On the first re-count, he lost by two votes and on the second re-count he won by 18 votes.   My one abiding memory is that long count in 1987.             ‘Our house would always have been a political hub. I wouldn’t have recalled the ’77 general election, I was only four at the time, but I do remember the ’81/’82 elections and our house was a hub of activity at that time. People were coming and going, canvassing and packing envelopes, at all hours of the day and night and people calling about individual problems.             ‘I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was great excitement. It was a very difficult time for the family, three elections in 18 months and that brought a lot of additional pressures on any family. Looking back on it now, I can smile in that I was too young to realise the full implications.’             Denis Naughten was born in Drum and was educated at St. Aloysius College, Athlone, University College Dublin and University College Cork. He was in the middle of his research for a PhD in Food Microbiology at the time of his father’s death, when he left behind the promise of an academic career for the rocky road of politics. Does he ever regret making the switch?             ‘No, I always took the attitude that you shouldn’t have regrets. If I didn’t get involved, I would have always regretted that. It was going to be eight months to the general election. I said I’d take eight months out and see how it went. I was lucky in that the people of Roscommon and Longford voted me in on that occasion and subsequently in 2002. I hope to God the people of Roscommon/ South Leitrim will do the same on this occasion.’             One advantage of growing up in a political household is that there should be a great understanding of the pressures of canvassing. So, are the family rowing in behind Denis in terms of practical help as the election looms? ‘My brother John is a councillor and he is very much involved in the campaign, as is my wife Mary. My sister Marion works in Galway and she helps every evening. My mother is out canvassing as well. Seamus is on a flight back from San Francisco to get involved in the final run-in. My brothers-in-law Larry and John and uncle Seamus and his wife Briege are also helping and everyone is giving us a dig-out.’               With just two weeks to go to polling, how is the campaign going? ‘It seems to be going OK. The last person you could ask would be the candidate. We’re getting a very positive reaction on the doorsteps. One big benefit is the work that I have done seems to be paying off. People see me as a hard worker and someone that has worked for them and the constituency.             ‘I suppose it’s difficult to read, especially in a three-seater constituency, which is normally a bloodbath. You can top the poll and still not be elected. One positive indication is that we have a huge amount of people willing to get involved, canvassing, putting up posters, far more so than either of the two previous campaigns. We have a well organised team of people, some are involved in the Fine Gael organisation, some with no party political affiliation, who are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved.’             What are the big issues this time around? ‘The single biggest issue on the doorsteps is health, not just the County Hospital in Roscommon. People are reassured by Enda Kenny and his written commitment is going down well on the doorsteps. People are concerned that surgical services can be removed. They also want to see new services, so that people don’t have to travel for basic treatment and investigative procedures. Enda Kenny has committed to retaining services at Roscommon County Hospital.             ‘The broader issue of health is coming up very frequently on the doorsteps, as well as waiting lists, overcrowding and the fact that there has been a lack of investment in community services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy.             ‘Our proposals for 2,300 additional hospital beds and 1500 rehabilitation beds, free GP care for children under five and health insurance for children under 16 is going down very well on the doorsteps. People feel we have the right idea to address the problems in the health service.’             Getting elected is one very important step for Denis Naughten, but surely as party spokesperson on agriculture, he must also be looking at the possibility of being involved in the next Government. ‘Based on opinion polls there at the moment, although there’s only one that counts, it looks like ourselves and Labour will have the numbers to form the next Government, but at the end of the day it’s what people decide on polling day that will count.             ‘People feel that this Government has been in office for ten years and it’s time for a change and fresh ideas. That is coming up quite frequently on traditional Fianna Fáil doors. If we can convert that into votes, I think ourselves and Labour will be in government.’             Should Fine Gael and Labour form the next Government, is Denis eyeing up the position of Minister for Agriculture? ‘That will be a decision that the party leader will have to make. I suppose I have been lucky enough in that I have held a lot of high profile offices and am one of the most experienced members of the front bench, even though I’m one of the youngest. I am one of the youngest members to have held an economic portfolio, only beaten by Michael Collins. From that point of view I have plenty of experience. I have been in five different departments, but that’s a decision Enda Kenny will have to make.’ I’ll take that as a yes then!             The canvass goes on full steam ahead. On Sunday last, the FG team was in Enfield, Monday saw them in Cloverhill, on Tuesday, Kiltoom was the target, while Ballintubber was canvassed on Wednesday. Changing lifestyle patterns have even affected the canvass programme. In thirty percent of homes visited after 5 pm, there’s no-one home. ‘It’s difficult to get people at home. We are not canvassing prior to 5 pm because people are not at home. Traditionally, we canvassed rural areas during the day and towns in the evening, but we have taken a strategic decision not to canvass during the day. Even canvassing after 5 pm, it’s difficult to get people at home. Up to 30 percent of people are not at home and we are trying to call back, but it probably won’t be physically possible.’             Leaving Denis Naughten’s office on Abbey Street, I pondered on the burning question. Should Denis be re-elected and should Fine Gael form the next Government, where the hell will you park a Ministerial Merc on Abbey Street?