“I'm not from a political family of candidates of yesteryear. I'm not what people expect a politician to look like - but the personal is political. Politics affects all of us and I believe we should have candidates that look like what modern Ireland looks like.”
The woman who said this is Sharon Nolan, announced last week as the Social Democrats' Galway City Central candidate for the 2019 Local Elections. Now Insider is just going to come straight out and say it - she is a big admirer of Sharon Nolan and thinks this young woman's entry into next May's race is exactly the kind of candidate this city needs to see far more of.
Speaking after her selection, Ms Nolan said: “I aim to engage younger and underrepresented voices of Galway - particularly young women like myself. Our local electoral area currently has six male councillors and there are so many people who feel excluded from politics as they don’t see representation like themselves at the table. We need to consider not only the voices in the room, but those who can’t access the room and why. I want Galway city to blossom into the city it yearns to be, but it needs new politics."
Stirring words, but thankfully Ms Nolan not only talks the talk, she has certainly walked the walk. Though still in her twenties, Nolan has become one of the city's most prominent and dedicated activists in the city over the past few years in areas such as LGBTQ+ issues, gender recognition, and better trans healthcare. She was co-convenor of the successful Together For Yes campaign in Galway, and is the current chair of Galway Community Pride, overseeing the most successful Pride festival festival Galway has yet seen. As an activist, campaigner, organiser, and operator, she has the kind of experience necessary any politician must have.
A new generation?
A notable factor of the 2014 Local Elections in Galway city and county was the number of candidates in their twenties and very early thirties who were elected: Niamh Byrne (FG ), Tom Healy (SF ), and Carey McHugh (Indp ) for Galway County Council; Mike Cubbard (Indp ) and Mairead Farrell (SF ) [pictured above celebrating her election with her family] for Galway City Council. Out of a total of 57 councillors, it hardly marked the start of a revolution, but in comparison to previous elections, it was an inkling that perhaps voters were becoming more willing to trust younger candidates; to believe younger perspectives were needed to create a blend of 'youth and experience' within County Buildings and City Hall; and thirdly, to acknowledge that with the average age of councillors tending to be in the fifties and sixties; there were at least two generations unrepresented at local level.
According to the 2016 census, Galway city's population is 75,529, of which more than 30,700 are aged between 18 and 40 - a total of 40.64 per cent of the population. By comparison, under 18s number c18,000 (c23 per cent ), while those aged between 40 and 80 are 27,730 (36.71 per cent ). So despite being 40 per cent of the population of the city, those aged between 20 and 40 have only 3.5-four per cent of the representation on the local authority. Similarly, the city's population breaks down as 41,297 females to 38,207 males. Women are 50.67 per cent of the city, yet we have only 16 per cent representation in City Hall.
This is not an argument for 'over forties and all men need not apply'. This is an argument for and to voters that more youth and more women - more diversity in general - is needed around the table in City Hall, and it is only the voters who can change this. And come May 2019, voters will have choices in this regard in Galway City Central: Cllr Mike Cubbard (Indp ), Sharon Nolan (Soc Dems ), Joe Loughnane (PBP ); Galway City West: John Crowley (Soc Dems ); Galway City East: Cllr Mairead Farrell (SF ). Labour has yet to declare its running mates for the Mayor, Cllr Niall McNelis, as have Solidarity, but Insider understands both parties will field a full team with some potentially interesting candidates.
What gives Insider encouragement is the 2015 Marriage Equality and 2018 Repeal the Eighth referenda, which turned a generation of under 40s into activists, and produced campaigns where young people were heavily involved, and who in a large respect, both swung and won the vote. A local election will never have have the drama and sense of destiny those referenda had, but in some respects it is as important - if those between 18 and 40 want to see their views and concerns articulated in City Hall, then they need to swing behind the candidates from their generation.
Soc Dems - still a way to go
Galway Soc Dems are one of the most vibrant and active organisations in Galway politics (how Labour must be looking on, seething with jealousy at this array of talented individuals who once would have been that party's... ), but the fact remains the SDs remain stubbornly stuck at one/two per cent in the polls, and are having trouble breaking out of the perception that the party is little more than the Catherine Murphy/Róisín Shortall show.
Now in the 2016 General Election, Niall Ó Tuathail [pictured above] ran a strong campaign that saw him beat a TD (Derek Nolan ), a senator (Fidelma Healy-Eames ), and a long serving county councillor (Mary Hoade ) to take 5.4 per cent of the vote. Not enough to win a seat, but a good first run. The mystery then is why not a tilt at next year's locals? Having received 3,455 first preferences, he would be odds on to take a seat in City Hall.
Mr Ó Tuathail has said he wishes to concentrate on health issues and that this requires a Dáil seat to achieve that, plus noble words of "I don't like the way our council is seen as a stepping stone to national politics". All perfectly fair, but there is nothing wrong with beginning as a councillor before becoming a TD. It is a valuable way to serve the local community, and gain experience that will later stand to you as a TD.
While there is no doubting Mr Ó Tuathail's integrity and sincerity on his stance, there is a whiff of an attitude that local politics and council work is perhaps slightly beneath him - that is not a view he will want to allow take hold, especially as he remains the dark horse with the potential to swing the last seat in Galway West at the next General Election.
The challenge then is for Ms Nolan (and Mr Crowley ) to give the Soc Dems its first elected representative in Galway. With Cllr Cubbard and SF's Mark Lohan, the Left is already represented in Galway City Central, but the upcoming retirement of Labour's Cllr Billy Cameron creates an opening Ms Nolan could benefit from. That however, depends on the Labour candidate and campaign; whether the party's vote has steadied, continues to stagnate, or remains in decline; and, crucially, whether those who fought alongside Ms Nolan during the Repeal the Eighth referendum are willing to get behind her again, and give her the support that could just see her cause a surprise and take that seat in City Hall. As Insider has said, the voters have a choice. It is up to them to make it.