For many years, Galway East was derided for its predictability – ‘the boring constituency’ guaranteed to return two FF and one FG TD and with no doubt about who the individuals concerned would be.
The addition of a fourth seat following boundary changes in 1997 brought the constituency to life, creating not only rivalries between parties vying for that extra seat, but within those parties as well. In 2016 the return to three-seat status, coupled with significant boundary changes led to more uncertainty, and eventually a result that saw two new TDs and the end of the Connaughton dynasty. What then might we expect next time around?
Talk to most people and the default response is that it will be back to the old days with the three outgoing TDs - Ciaran Cannon [pictured below], Seán Canney, and Anne Rabbitte - set for re-election. On paper, that does appear the likeliest outcome. However, we cannot ignore the national picture and those who focus excessively on local factors run the risk of being blindsided by a ‘surprise’ result. Galway East is not immune from national trends and Insider would go so far as to cite it as a potential key marginal.
Not your mama’s Galway East
Insider is used to listening to American political pundits describe states such as Virginia, which have undergone significant demographic or political changes, as ‘not your grandpa’s Virginia’. Something similar can be said of Galway East. While the constituency still has a large rural voter base and is one of the more conservatively-inclined, it also has a big commuter population with a lot of young families, well educated, quite well-off, but under pressure with mortgages, traffic jams, and childcare costs - in particular the western section of the constituency closer to Galway city. This is the demographic currently showing up as very favourable to FG and Leo Varadkar, but is also very volatile in its political tastes.
Insider readily accepts that opinion polls come with a particularly large caveat these days; furthermore, polls taken outside ‘election season’ are especially susceptible to change. However, a string of polls from various highly regarded pollsters since early December show a clear trend - FG is scoring very robustly in the 32 - 36 per cent range, a figure which, if replicated on polling day, would put it not far shy of its 2011 ‘bluenami’ performance. FF is up slightly on 2016 but somewhat marooned in the mid-20s while the various ‘others’ are noticeably down.
If these figures were to prove accurate, FG would put Independent TD Seán Canney under considerable pressure for that last seat in Galway East. From a FG perspective, Galway East is something of a litmus test as to just how well prepared the party is for a contest, and how well placed it is to capitalise on good polling numbers. Admittedly a gain in this constituency would be something the party would probably only see as feasible on a very good day, the sort of day that the upper range of current polling forecasts indicates might be possible. If FG is not confidently targeting this constituency – where it polled strongly in both 2007 and 2011 - then it is reasonable to suspect that those who argue the party’s current numbers are artificially inflated by something of a bounce after Phase One of the Brexit negotiations in December may be right.
To say sitting FG TD Ciarán Cannon had a good spring/summer 2017 is an understatement. Not alone did he win back the junior ministry he lost in the 2014 reshuffle, he also had what might be termed a most satisfactory boundary review. The transfer of a batch of votes from Galway West to Galway East, while admittedly small in number, should prove to be of some benefit to him, being a natural extension of his own heartland, as well as being heavily associated with his former PD colleague Noel Grealish. The transfer of areas around Ballinasloe and Tuam into the Roscommon-Galway constituency skews the constituency further to his advantage.
Dep Cannon also stands to benefit from the absence next time out of Labour’s Lorraine Higgins who polled well in Loughrea and Athenry. All in all – and of course Dep Cannon will not thank Insider for saying this – he appears to have a very secure seat for the foreseeable future.
The obvious question is who will the second FG candidate be? In light of the most recent boundary changes, a Connaughton candidate surely is out of the question, while the Donnellan faction in Dunmore, who were also reportedly looking at entering the fray, are not particularly helped by the changes either. One man Insider understands is very keen however, and who would make a formidable candidate, is Abbeyknockmoy councillor Peter Roche [pictured above]. With Dep Cannon appearing well set for the certain FG seat, it will be Cllr Roche who, if selected, will have to go into battle for that second seat.
Dep Canney [pictured above] has been one of the Independents who has made the greatest impression in this Dáil. Having spent 12 months as a junior minister – a role he relinquished with some regret to honour a pact with his colleague Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran from Athlone – he is now a vocal backbencher. He is now your archetypal constituency Independent however, offering constructive views on matters of regional and national importance.
Dep Canney also appears reasonably well placed geographically. One of the effects of the southern tilt to the constituency has been to eliminate many of the candidates who would have polled well in north Galway – the Connaughtons, Kitts, Colm Keaveney – and has left Dep Canney as the dominant force in the area. He is also strong in Headford, often forgotten owing to its proximity to Galway West and Mayo, which has caused its natural hinterland to be splintered over the years. He is likely better placed geographically than Cllr Roche and more established than putative FF rival Donogh Killilea.
In light of this, it is easy to see why many people have him down as long odds-on to hold his seat. On balance, Insider would see him as favourite to hold the seat with the caveat that on a big day for FG, his seat could be in the firing line.
Soldiers of Destiny
For FF, 2016 was a change election in Galway East – something that in Insider’s view, the next election will not be! The retirement of Michael Kitt, coupled with the controversial selection of Labour defector Colm Keaveney left an opening the on which the energetic Portumna-based Anne Rabbitte [pictured above] pounced. She has generated a high profile for herself in the Dáil and has established herself as the dominant FF player in the constituency, despite predictions in 2016 that the various FF dynasties in Galway East were vying to resume supremacy after a period on the sidelines.
Dep Rabbitte should benefit from the current makeup of the constituency and should increase her vote in those parts of the Loughrea electoral area away from her immediate Portumna base. She should be comfortably returned, perhaps even as poll-topper if FG succeed in dividing its party vote evenly between its two candidates.
The question of who her running-mate will be is undecided but the name most commonly mentioned is councillor Donogh Killilea. Insider learned a long time ago to never under-estimate a Killilea! However, a Killilea has not appeared on a ballot paper since the 1994 European elections while it has not appeared on a general election ballot paper since 1987 and that was in Galway West. It is a tall ask for Cllr Killelea to challenge for a seat. A good showing however may set him up for a further crack at a seat in due course.
The other thing to note about Cllr Killilea is that he is based in Dep Canney’s backyard and could have a detrimental effect on his vote, thereby impacting on the anticipated battle for the third seat. Could a man from a renowned FF dynasty inadvertently aid FG’s cause for a seat gain?
The will be also rans
The tide truly was out for Labour in 2016; nevertheless, Lorraine Higgins, at 10 per cent, polled a vote well above Labour's national share. Having retired from politics however, the party will be looking for another candidate next time out and is unlikely to be focusing on this constituency as it adopts a more targeted approach centred around a number of key constituencies. Galway East is not a SF stronghold either, and the effective elimination of Ballinasloe, and most of its hinterland from the constituency, make it an implausible target for the party. Likewise, the Greens and various smaller parties are not likely to focus on what would be an impossible task.
Insider will conclude by making a firm prediction while also maintaining a seat on the fence! FF and FG – almost certainly in the shape of its sitting TDs – will each retain one seat while the last seat will be retained by Dep Canney unless FG has a national vote share exceeding 33 per cent in which case it may just scrape the seat. In conclusion, Galway East is a constituency to watch in the context of those key trends; it is not the ‘boring constituency’ again just yet!