For many years Galway East was known as the dullest and most predicable of constituencies, reliably returning the same three TDs. Population growth and boundary changes saw the constituency gain a fourth seat in 1997, however, and this has given rise to some heated battles between the big two parties as well as seeing the emergence of Independent and Labour challenges.
The boundary changes that come into force at the forthcoming General Election has created a whole new level of uncertainty. Indeed they will create a brand new constituency! Insider is fascinated by the battles that lie ahead in the reduced Galway East and the new Roscommon/Galway constituency. While local factors will play a big part in the outcome, we will also see some of the key national battles play out - the battle between Independents asking the electorate to take a chance on something radical and a FG party playing the stability card; the battle between FF and these alternative groupings for supremacy in the Opposition ranks; and the battle between various groups of Independents.
All is changed
In the decade preceding the 2011 General Election, FF in Galway East was somewhat in retreat, losing ground in local elections in particular, while FG was making ground, not only regaining its second seat in 2007 but also laying a strong foundation at local level which enabled it to comfortably retain its two seats in 2011 - despite both sitting TDs retiring. FF fell to below a quota of first preferences and won just one seat. Of course, much has changed in the intervening years. The surprise beneficiary of FF's implosion, Labour's Colm Keaveney, caused a sensation by defecting to FF in 2013. The party's longstanding TD Michael Kitt recently announced his retirement and, last but not least, significant boundary changes have led to the constituency losing a seat.
The boundary changes will see a population of 20,000 people move to the new Roscommon/Galway constituency. The key areas impacted are Ballinasloe and its hinterland, plus the Glenamaddy and Mountbellew areas. The common view had been that this was especially damaging for Dep Kitt - many speculated he might even run in the new constituency - and to a degree Fine Gael's Dep Paul Connaughton Jnr. However, the changes should aid candidates in the south of the constituency, while the narrower configuration of the new Galway East might help Independents who traditionally would not poll well outside their own areas.
On that point, the last General Election saw two Independent challengers - councillors Seán Canney and Timmy Broderick - poll strongly but fall short of the winning post. Cllr Canney, who is the brother-in-law of the former Independent TD and long-time FF Cllr Paddy McHugh, had been hotly tipped but polled abysmally outside his own north Galway base, and never really got into the mix. It was a better showing from Cllr Broderick but ultimately he too failed to poll in sufficient numbers outside the greater Ballinasloe area. Cllr Canney is again being hotly tipped to challenge for a seat, but he will face the same challenges as in 2011 and Insider sees a seat as more of a possibility than a probability.
FF dogfights and FG troubles
With Dep Kitt retired, supporters of Dep Keaveney might be forgiven for relaxing a little. They can afford no such complacency however as newly elected Portumna based councillor Anne Rabbitte will accompany him on the party ticket. The new gender quotas may have led to a number of token female candidates being added to party tickets but Cllr Rabbitte certainly is not one of them. Indeed some FF sources have gone so far as to tell Insider that she is the favourite to take the party's one guaranteed seat in the constituency.
In Cllr Rabbitte's favour is that she is likely to garner more support from the FF grassroots than the newcomer Keavney. FF would also be expected to poll better in the south of the constituency - she will have her eyes on the old Noel Treacy vote - although Cllr Michael Fahy will be an obstacle in that regard. On the flip side Cllr Keaveney has a good national profile and might be seen as a good prospect for advancement within the party. He also has a strong base in the key Tuam urban area. The key question is will these Tuam votes follow him over to FF? Keaveney/Rabbitte is a strong ticket but given FF's national ratings, the party will surely take only one seat. Who wins that seat may also determine the outcome of the third seat in Galway East.
Dep Kitt's retirement probably aids Dep Connaughton (pictured above celebrating his election to the Dáil in 2011 ) and he looks favourite to take the one guaranteed FG seat. Can Dep Ciarán Cannon retain the party's second seat? It will not be easy as the party is not at the high levels of 2011 nationally. Recent polling does however show FG polling close to the 30 per cent mark nationally, with good support among farming voters. As noted earlier, FG has been on an upward trajectory in Galway East and it will certainly be in contention. In addition to winning the bulk of the party vote in the south and gaining strong transfers from Labour’s Lorraine Higgins, the key for Dep Cannon’s hopes is for Dep Keaveney to win the FF seat, thereby severely hampering Cllr Canney. On the other hand victory for Cllr Rabbitte will give Cllr Canney a good chance.
The new constituency is shaping up to be even less clear-cut! Again FG has been on an upward trajectory in Roscommon - since the creation of the Roscommon/South Leitrim constituency in 2007 the party has held two of the three seats. Dep Dennis Naughten's defection over the perennial Roscommon Hospital issue, together with Dep Frank Feighan's retirement, mean neither of their sitting TDs will contest in the blue colours. Instead the party will run a single candidate, Ballaghadereen Cllr Maura Hopkins who polled modestly in last year's by-election. This has worried party workers in the Galway end of the constituency.
FF were wiped out in 2011, losing their sole seat to the now MEP Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. The party topped the poll in the by-election after Ming's election to Europe but fell short of victory. The defeated by-election candidate Ivan Connaughton had threatened to leave the party but now appears to be seeking a nomination! FF's precise strategy is still unclear - rumours of Conor Lenihan seeking to run have come to nothing - but hopes seem to centre on Cllr Rachel Doherty (daughter of the late Justice Minister ) from Boyle.
Of course, that by-election saw Independent candidate Michael Fitzmaurice win the vacant seat. This was no mean feat as Cllr Fitzmaurice was a complete outsider, being newly elected to the Galway County Council. He would be expected to benefit from the addition of the Galway votes this time - indeed that was part of the thinking behind his contesting the by-election.
Roscommon/Galway is also where we will see some of the battles between groups of Independents. Dep Fitzmaurice is a key part of Dep Shane Ross's Independent Alliance - this group sees itself as playing a role in government negotiations and may even be prepared to accept ministries. A number of deputies, mainly those from a FG or FF 'gene pool' have decided to run as pure Independents however, figuring Enda Kenny is far more likely to turn to them and form a loose arrangement, akin to that entered into with Independents by Bertie Ahern in 1997 and 2007. Dep Naughten belongs to this group.
FG family divided in victory?
What then is the likely outcome? When the boundary changes were announced in 2012 most felt they were a gift to Dep Naughten who is likely to poll well in Ballinasloe, and in his home county. Notwithstanding the Galweigan Fitzmaurice complicating matters, Dep Naughten does look favourite for the first seat. Furthermore, despite the loss of its sitting TDs, plus its woes over the hospital issue, and a poor enough local election result in Roscommon last year, FG's current poll ratings, and being the only plausible option for government supporters in the constituency, mean Cllr Hopkins is likely to take a seat.
This leaves Deputy Fitzmaurice fighting with FF for the last seat. The recent MRBI poll in The Irish Times showed FF on 29 per cent in Connacht/Ulster, just behind FG. It also indicated that Independents were not as strong in the west as elsewhere. This might augur poorly for Dep Fitzmaurice. On the other hand, despite the likelihood of Dep Naughten polling well in the area, Insider senses there must be a seat at the Galway end. Insider also regards Dep Fitzmaurice as someone who would likely appeal to soft FF voters. The party has prevaricated over its selection of candidates and may just have handed too much of the initiative to the Glinsk native.
There is one final fly in the ointment - what if Cllr Timmy Broderick, who polled so well in the last General Election in Galway East and in last year's local elections throws his hat into the ring? Might he and Dep Fitzmaurice cancel each other out and let FF through the middle or might he win the seat himself? With this level of imponderables - and we haven't even mentioned Renua or Sinn Féin, who will poll solidly, even if not enough to contend for seats in either constituency - it is no wonder that elections in east county Galway are no longer the tedious affairs they once were!