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Political rivalry, departed friends and a new perspective as Fine Gael set out their stall in Portlaoise

Thomasina Connell, Cllr Willie Aird and Cllr Mary Sweeney will be the Fine Gael team in the Portlaoise Municipal District in this year's Local Elections

The Fine Gael Local Election selection convention for the Portlaoise Municipal District was held in the Killeshin Hotel on Wednesday night – with the party’s three candidates setting out their stall ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Cllr Willie Aird and Cllr Mary Sweeney will once again go forward for the party and will be joined on the team by Thomasina Connell, who ran for the party in the 2016 General Election but for whom this will be a first local battle.

While there was no vote needed on the night following the withdrawal of Jim Ring, each candidate was afforded the opportunity of speaking for five minutes.

Cllr Willie Aird, who will be going for his eighth election, remembered his “good friend Kathleen O’Brien”, the long-serving member of the party who died in 2017. She lost her seat in 2016 and was described by Cllr Aird as “one of my only friends in politics – you don’t generally have friends in politics”.

“Since we last contested the election in 2014, we sadly lost one of the hardest working and well respected public representatives in Kathleen O’Brien,” added Cllr Mary Sweeney.

“Tonight, I want to acknowledge her contribution to the Fine Gael party in Laois and indeed her considerable public service to the people and town of Portlaoise.”

Cllr Sweeney, who was the first female Fine Gael Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council in 2013, said she still has the same enthusiasm for the role as she did when she was first elected in 1999.

“I put myself forward once again for Fine Gael on a platform of experience and  energy. I retain the same enthusiasm for this position that I had when I contested my first election in 1999.

“The big difference between the candidate I was then and the candidate I am now is the experience I have garnered from 20 years working with people and communities across the Portlaoise electoral to deliver on their behalf.”

Thomasina Connell, the new name on the ticket, said “that politics is moving on; old ways of voting are dying out”.

“Expectations have changed,” she added. “Fianna Fail are stuck in the past and struggle to be relevant. By comparison, Fine Gael have a clear path to delivering for our future generations. Sinn Fein of course cannot erase their past as much as they might try; history cannot be airbrushed.

“I think everyone in this room will agree that we need a strong team to represent us on Laois County Council. I can bring a new persepective as part of this team with Councillors Mary Sweeney and Willie Aird; to tell our stories on the streets, the doorsteps, the highways and byways and of course on the Twitter machine.

“We need a candidate who is well known and who understands the needs of the voters within this District, both rural and urban: the commuters, the farmers, the working families, the elderly. I am that candidate.”

And while Willie Aird welcomed Ms Connell’s addition to the Fine Gael team, there was a clear sign of the in-party rivalry that the new candidate will have to deal with.

“When no other public representatives would walk with you (during General Election canvassing in 2016), I went with you,” he said.

“But the houses I brought you to the last time, you won’t get a vote there this time,” he added to much laughter from the crowd.

“But I’m delighted you’re standing with us and we want an extra seat.”

SEE ALSO – Election Countdown: Who’s in and who’s out of the sitting County Councillors ahead of the 2019 Local Elections

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Steven Miller is owner and managing editor of LaoisToday.ie. From Laois, Steven studied Journalism in DCU and has 14 years experience in the media, almost 10 of those in an editorial role. Husband of Emily, father of William and Lillian, he's happiest when he's telling stories or kicking a point.