Catherine Connolly came agonisingly close to winning a seat in the 2011 General Election, but five years on, with Labour's decline and despite the rise of Sinn Féin, will 2016 finally be the year she makes it into Dáil Éireann?
While the high levels of support for Independents has fluctuated in recent months, as voters focus on the question of who they want/will tolerate seeing, in Government, Independents remain between 23 and 26 per cent, according to opinion polls. In five seater Galway West, where the quota is 16.67 per cent, at least one Independent will be returned, with the figures high enough to make two seats a real possibility. The best placed of the 10 'Independents and Others' running, are left city councillor Catherine Connolly and TD Noel Grealish.
Cllr Connolly is arguably the strongest of the city based candidates. Not only does she command the lion's share of the Left vote, but she has other factors in her favour. Given her main competitors are the near invisible Sen Hildegarde Naughton (FG ), Dep Derek Nolan of a struggling Labour Party, and the new face of Social Democrat Niall Ó Tuathail, still an unknown quantity. This presence in Galway city gives her a clear advantage over her main Left rival, Sinn Féin's Sen Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, as he risks being squeezed in Connemara by FF's Dep Éamon Ó Cuív and FG's Seán Kyne.
The bad news for Sen Ó Clochartaigh is that he risks being further squeezed by Cllr Connolly who has a good support base in Connemara and is extremely transfer friendly. This is confirmed by examining the 2011 figures from Galway West, where she almost doubled her vote from the first count to the last – and that was with no running mate. Indeed her transfer performance was almost on a par with Fine Gael's Brian Walsh - and he had two sizable party eliminations to draw votes from.
Comparing Cllr Connolly's performance with the other three major candidates in 2011 who had no running mates - Dep Grealish, Sen Ó Clochartaigh, and Cllr Tom Welby - the figures recall how close she ran Dep Grealish (9,829 votes to Cllr Connolly's 9,095 ) having originally got a first preference vote of 4,766 - 1,463 fewer than Dep Grealish. She comprehensively outpolled Sen Ó Clochartaigh, who took 3,803 and was eliminated reaching 4,683 - a tally of 4,312 fewer than Cllr Connolly.
Granted Sen Ó Clochartaigh was starting from a lower base than Cllr Connolly then, which will not be the situation now. However, despite the advances SF has made in the intervening five years - including an excellent 2014 local elections - the above figures, Cllr Connolly's support levels in Connemara, and the unforeseen rise of Dep Kyne, will worry the party, and SF may yet regret not having Cllr Mairead Farrell as a running mate in the city to maximise the vote.
Returning to the 2011 election stats, they also reveal that across the board, Cllr Connolly drew transfers from FF, FG, Greens, and Right and Left Independents, as well as an ability to poll across the constituency.
Mike Cubbard - a dark horse challenger?
Galway West is a large constituency, and one of the State's most diverse. For Independent/small party candidates to take a seat, they need either a profile across the constituency to compensate for no running mates, or to poll an astonishing number in their core area. Cllr Connolly can expect to poll well in the city and solidly in Connemara, but Oranmore is a weak-spot. Yet, it is worth noting though that in 2011 she took transfers from senators Hildegarde Naughton and Fidelma Healy-Eames - a key area for the latter two.
Another area of concern for Cllr Connolly is that, notwithstanding her high profile in the city, she will have more competition for the Independent/Others vote here in 2016 than she did in 2011. In this regard Mike Cubbard is possibly her main challenger. In contrast to 2011, his profile is higher now he is a city councillor, and both he and Cllr Connolly will draw from the working class vote, and both need the support of The Claddagh and Westside. He also has associations with Dep Noel Grealish, so he could potentially pick up transfers from that direction. Cllr Connolly's advantage is that her reach is greater than Cllr Cubbard's, but she will be concerned that a strong showing from Cllr Cubbard could put a dent in her momentum.
The Soc Dem's Niall Ó Tuathail will challenge for some of Cllr Connolly's left vote, but his support will come from a more soft-left/liberal direction. As such he is far a greater threat to Labour's Derek Nolan.
Provided Cllr Connolly can stay ahead of the above-mentioned, including the AAA's Tommy Holohan and the Greens' Seamus Sheridan, she can expect to take some transfers from all of them. That said, if Dep Nolan has any hope of keeping his seat he needs to stay ahead of Cllr Connolly (and Sen Ó Clochartaigh and two of the three FG candidates ). If not, his vote will benefit Cllr Connolly (and Mr Ó Tuathail, assuming he too can stay in the race ).
Cllr Connolly also needs to stay ahead of Sen Ó Clochartaigh. She is certainly the favourite to do so, but what could harm her is if the SF councillors - located strategically across Galway West - really pull out all the stops in their area to maximise support across the constituency. The left battle is far from over - it may even run close - but overall Cllr Connolly has enough advantages to put her in pole position for a seat.