Next time, Trevor, next time

Why Sinn Féin's Trevor Ó Clochartaigh should not be written off for another tilt at the Dáil

Sinn Féin's Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.

Sinn Féin's Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.

He lives in an area regarded as having too small a population to elect him to the Dáil. Personally popular, there are people who will never vote for him because of the party to which he belongs. He has a name monoglot English speakers struggle to spell. There are whispers that there might be better or more deserving candidates within the party.

He stands for the Dáil anyway and receives 3,800 votes. At the following general election he gets 5,700, but again he fails to win a seat. Is it time to quit? Time to hand over the reins to someone with a higher profile in the city? It is not if you are Éamon Ó Cuív. He worked hard, stuck with it and was elected on the first count in 1992, increasing his vote from the 5,700 and 3,800 which he - like Sinn Féin's Trevor Ó Clochartaigh received in the previous two elections. Since then, Ó Cuív has topped the poll, or been close to it, in every election.

As the media and Sinn Féin discuss the recent election in Galway West, their attention will be attracted to certain features of the counts. Ó Clochartaigh got a solid, if unspectacular, vote - 5,755 first preferences, rising to a combined vote of 8,077 by the final count. Certain opinions are sure to be voiced. Pronouncements of great wisdom will be made with absolute certainty. These opinions will be discussed in this article.

1. Sinn Féin should have run two candidates: one for the city and one for Connemara: As a strategy this is completely hit and miss, just ask Pádraig MacLochlainn, the Sinn Féin candidate in Donegal. Running an additional candidate arguably cost him his seat. Closer to home Sinn Féin won a seat in the 2014 local elections in Connemara by adopting the two-candidate strategy. It probably cost Trevor a seat in the same constituency in 2009.

The problem with the strategy is that it leads to two low placed candidates, rather than one high placed candidate. Sean Donnelly, the political analyst, has noted that in the 2011 general election only seven per cent of seats were won by people who would have failed to be elected if the results had been declared based on their first count position. Basically if you start low on the first count, you will get eliminated. Michael D Higgins recognised this. He never had a running mate for a Dáil election.

2. Galway city should be an ideal hunting ground for SF: Firstly, without ignoring real poverty in Connemara/south Mayo and in the city, Galway West is one of the most prosperous constituencies in the country outside of south county Dublin. Sinn Féin does not score well in prosperous areas. Secondly, within the city, the working class has traditionally proved resistant to both republicanism and radical left wing politics. This is a problem that successive generations of radicals have faced. It is surmountable, but it is a challenge.

3. Non-city candidates will not get city votes: This is true up to a point. Geography does play a major part in transfers but it is important to note the identifiable Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael city candidates only polled about 400 votes better than Trevor in the city. About 40 per cent of city first preferences left the city.

4. Sinn Féin is not transfer friendly: In Galway West, about four out of five voters voted for parties or candidates who have been in Government in the last decade, or for candidates who are led by someone who was recently in government. These voters were unlikely to transfer to Sinn Féin. So in one sense Ó Clochartaigh is not transfer friendly. However, if you analyse transfer friendliness in terms of ability to attact votes from outside your own party, the picture changes. At the time of elimination, Ó Clochartaigh received more votes from outside his own party than Derek Nolan, Seán Kyne, or Éamon Ó Cuív, and several hundred less than FG's Hildegarde Naughton or Niall Ó Tuathail of the Social Democrats. Ó Clochartaigh was never going to be able to compete with Catherine Connolly or Noel Grealish for transfers across the spectrum because of their independent status - no member of a party currently could. As Ó Clochartaigh's name grows, he will become increasingly transfer friendly. As the SF grows it will matter less.

5. Ditch Ó Clochartaigh and get a new candidate: The brand (both party and personal ) has been established now. It took Michael D 12 years to be elected to the Dáil from the time of his first general election campaign. Ó Clochartaigh has had five years. He attracted 8,077 votes. How long would it take a new candidate to attract his level of voter recognition? Insider advises SF to stick with the Connemara man for another election and leave him in the Seanad. He is a good media performer. A bit of imagination is also needed, however.

Mairéad Farrell is talented and an ambitious politician. It would clearly benefit Sinn Féin to find some outlet for her talents beyond Galway City Council. Europe? Party Headquarters? Why not a second senate seat for Galway? Both she and Trevor would be an asset in the Upper House. Do Sinn Féin`s Seanad nominations have to be based on growing the party geographically? It would also mean that not all eggs would be put in the Trevor basket if it does not work out for him.

6. Galway city is anti-republican: There is a degree of that here, as there is everywhere else. It is still not the reason he failed to win a seat. It is a challenge that all Sinn Féin candidates have to face, regardless of where they stand. If Laois or Offaly can elect a Sinn Féin TD so can Galway.

7. County Galway has a strong republican tradition: County Galway, like everywhere else in the Republic, has a weak pure republican vote. Some republicans will not vote in a 26 County Dáil election on principle and some do not vote Sinn Féin. Even along the border, Sinn Féin's vote is based on work on the ground, activism, and good candidates who are allowed time to build up a base.

8. The lucky general syndrome: Pundits should bear in mind that luck comes into it. Sometimes you do not get the breaks. Geographically, Ó Clochartaigh faced the strongest party candidates eating into his local vote. Trevor was always fighting for the second left seat. The left has never had two seats in Galway. If Catherine Connolly or Éamon Ó Cuív had decided not to stand, Trevor would have taken a seat. Sometimes the breaks go your way. Sinn Féin had a candidate elected in Dublin Fingal on a lower percentage of the first preference vote than Trevor received in Galway.

Next time, Trevor. Next time.

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