FG v FF - who will dominate Galway West after Election 2020?

Can FF rein in Éamon Ó Cuív? Will FG be able to repeat 2016's disciplined voting strategy?

TDs Hildegarde Naughton and Sean Kyne celebrating their election victory in 2016. Will they be returned in 2020? Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

TDs Hildegarde Naughton and Sean Kyne celebrating their election victory in 2016. Will they be returned in 2020? Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

There are 15 days to the UK general election, and as much of a feast as it is for political anoraks like Insider, and as much as he will enjoy binge-watching the coverage on BBC and Channel 4, it is at the front of his mind that the Irish General Election is itself, only months away.

Since late last year, the parties have been on election footing, and we already have a clear idea of the main candidates that will be standing in Galway West come polling day (which may be in February or May, or some other date, depending on Leo Varadkar's "dither and delay" - to quote Boris Johnson on Brexit - approach to choosing the optimum time to go to the people ).

It is a crowded field so far, with the incumbents Dep Éamon Ó Cuív (Fianna Fáil ), Minister Sean Kyne and Dep Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael ), and Independent TDs Catherine Connolly and Noel Grealish, all standing again. Also running are Galway City Central councillor Ollie Crowe (FF ), Galway City West councillors Niall McNelis (Labour ) and Pauline O'Reilly (Greens ), as well as former city councillor Mairead Farrell (Sinn Féin ), Niall Ó Tuathail (Soc Dems ), and People Before Profit Galway's Joe Loughnane.

Insider also expects to see the Mayor of Galway, Cllr Mike Cubbard (Indp ) on the ballot paper, and it is not impossible that county councillor James Charity (Indp ) could also run. Other names will undoubtedly appear before the eventual close of nominations, but the aforementioned are the most significant, and the ones who will decide the ultimate destination of the constituency's five seats.

Insider will examine the potential fates of the various candidates and parties in detail in the New Year, but for today, will concentrate the 'big two', the auld enemies, the Civil War parties - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

A cautious approach

Emperor Hadrian

While the addition of a third candidate to both the FG and FF tickets is still possible, both parties seem more disposed towards a conservative, safety first, strategy of only two candidates each. Just as the Emperor Hadrian decreed upon taking power, that the Roman Empire would cease to expand its borders, so FG and FF seem to recognise the limitations of their own appeal, and are adopting a 'what we have we hold' approach.

'Running only two candidates indicates that, for Election 2020, FG is leaving nothing to chance, and will be running an even more tightly focused campaign than in 2016'

In Sean Kyne, FG have a 'Minister for Connemara' - effectively the role Dep Ó Cuív played for years - who has been able to make use of funding for projects and works in the region, now that the economy is relatively buoyant. Dep Naughton impressed many with her stance on last year's Eighth Amendment referendum; her campaign for a new hospital for Galway seems to be bearing fruit; and her political nous (she backed Simon Coveney in the FG leadership race, but has thrived under Varadkar's leadership ).

The latest Sunday Business Post/Red C poll showed FG support dropping, but to a level of 30 per cent. If the party can get close to that, or even repeat it's 24 per cent Galway West vote of 2016 - where it ran three candidates - Kyne and Naughton should be returned. However, to do that, FG must operate the last general election's tight, ultra disciplined, vote management strategy again, which saw the votes splitting close to evenly between the candidates.

Running only two indicates that, for Election 2020, the party is leaving nothing to chance, and will be running such a strategy again, but even more tightly focused than last time, in a determined effort to hold both seats, and take no chances in risking any slippage. Minister Kyne has already shown he can be returned in an area dominated by Dep Ó Cuív, while Dep Naughton seems capable of holding her own against TDs Connolly and Grealish.

The over-mighty chieftain

The major surprise though, was FF deciding to run only two candidates in the next election. This is unheard of. You have to go back to the 1961 general election to find the last time FF ran only two in Galway West. Although the party will never say it, this is an admission it finally recognises that the three candidate strategy is not working, and will never lead to two seats - 2007 was the last time FF held two here, and that was more than a decade ago in a very different Ireland.

Also focusing FF minds is that support remains stubbornly stuck in the mid-20s. In the 2009 local elections, the first after the economic crash, FF's vote fell to 25 per cent - widely seen as a disaster for the party. In the 2011 general election, it fell again to 17.4 per cent. In 2016, FF had stabilised at 24.3 per cent (the Galway West vote was 24.2 ), and the recent Red C poll of 24 per cent shows no real change.

'If FF wish to take two, Dep Ó Cuív needs to stand back from Galway city entirely and allow Cllr Crowe access to votes in the west of the city, that would otherwise have gone Ó Cuív's way'

On these figures FF will take one seat in Galway West, with an outside chance of taking two, but running three splits the vote too much, especially when one of the candidates commands a level of support that dwarfs that of his running mates - and herein lies the problem, and the challenge for FF.

FF activists were fuming after the 2016 election, when FG, on a slightly smaller level of support, were able to take two seats, while FF could only manage one. This was because Dep Ó Cuív took 14.8 per cent of the vote, leaving running mates John Connolly with scraps (six per cent ) and Mary Hoade with crumbs (3.4 per cent ). Connolly and Hoade, despite Dep Ó Cuív's surplus were left with far too much ground to make up to realistically challenge for a seat.

Running two will reduce the disparity between the level of votes Ó Cuív and Crowe will receive in 2020, but any watcher of Galway West knows that despite this, a wide gap between the running mates will still remain come polling day 2020. It must be remembered that Dep Ó Cuív is not just a local politician, but a national political figure, a TD of almost 30 years standing, with a die-hard loyal voter base throughout Connemara and in the west of Galway city. He holds the safest seat in the State. He is the one politician assured of returning to the Dail next year.

This is why he gets such a large vote, and is understandably reluctant to relinquish it. If FF wish to take two, Dep Ó Cuív would need to stand back from Galway city entirely and rely only on Connemara. He would still be returned, albeit with a somewhat lower vote. Allowing Cllr Crowe access to votes in the west of the city, that would otherwise have gone Ó Cuív's way, would allow him a potentially substantial vote, from which, through transfers, he could mount a challenge against TDs Connolly and Naughton, as well as Cllr O'Reilly, Mr Ó Tuathail, in the fight for the last two seats.

Will FF be able to persuade Dep Ó Cuív to do this? It is the question asked at every election of recent times. Insider will not hold his breath, but could this non-traditional running of just two by the Soldiers of Destiny mean the party is finally grasping the nettle on this issue?


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