A good day for Hildegarde Naughton. A bad day for her party. The Galway West TD admits that Election 2020 has been a "bittersweet" one, with her returning to the Dáil, and her party colleague, Sean Kyne, losing his seat.
Even when only a quarter of the 218 boxes for Galway West had been tallied, a definite, unalterable pattern had emerged. Sinn Féin's Mairead Farrell had outperformed all expectations and was in pole position to take a seat; Éamon Ó Cuív and Noel Grealish would be returned; Catherine Connolly could afford to be confident; but Fine Gael was lagging behind. It was clear, that of the party's two TDs, only one would be going back to the Dáil - and it was clear that it would be Hildegarde Naughton.
Dep Naughton received 5,609 first preferences (9.3 per cent ), a 1,042 increase (2.2 per cent ) on her 2017 tally of 4,567. Her final total vote was 9,519, and she was elected without reaching the quota on the 13th count. By contrast Sean Kyne's first preference vote of 5,284 (8.8 per cent ) was down 852 votes or just under one per cent - not enormous, but enough to cost him his seat. Overall the FG vote in Galway West had declined from 24 per cent in 2016 to 18.1 in 2020.
'We were in office for nine years and that's long enough for any party. After such a length of time, people want change'
"It was a tough election for Fine Gael," she tells the Galway Advertiser, "but my vote grew, so it was a bittersweet election. I've been working on delivering the new hospital for Galway, that's on the Capital Plan, and I want to continue working on that. When you're putting in that work, it's heartening to see that recognised by the electorate."
Since she was first elected to the Galway City Council in 2009, Dep Naughton has shown herself to be highly politically astute, with strong survivalist skills, and an ability to appeal to both core Fine Gael voters and floating voters (her strong stance in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment and her support for the Teach Solais LGBT+ Resource Centre won her respect from those not usually disposed to FG candidates ). The fact that she was a backbencher, and not part of the Cabinet was a major assistance as well.
'The tide was out for the party'
Election 2020 was not only about housing, homelessness, and health, it was a verdict on the Government's performance in that area. As the Government Chief Whip and a Minister of State, Sean Kyne was the face of Government in Galway. For voters disillusioned with spiralling rents, growing hospital waiting lists, unaffordable house prices, feeling no benefit or lift from a healthy economy, Minister Kyne was always going to feel the brunt of voter anger far more sharply than Dep Naughton. As the results came in, and revealed that non-Éamon Ó Cuív voters in Connemara had switched to Mairead Farrell and Noel Grealish, it was clear that Dep Kyne was out.
'We certainly need time to reflect on our position'
"I think that was a factor. The tide was out for the party, we were playing against a hurricane," admits Dep Naughton. "In 2011 we had to come in and clean up the mess Fianna Fáil had created, and we only balanced the books in the last three years, but we weren't resonating on housing and health, and I know we have a lot more to do there, but people wanted change, but we were in office for nine years and that's long enough for any party, and it's a natural cycle, after such a length of time, people want change."
She also paid tribute to her former constituency colleague. "Sean worked very hard over the last four years and he was known throughout the constituency as a hard worker, and we worked well together."
The next questions for Fine Gael are, can Leo Varadkar continue as leader following such a poor election result, and, given the verdict of the electorate, should FG now go into opposition after almost a decade in power? Dep Naughton believes Dep Varadkar can continue as party leader, but says it is "possible" FG will become the main opposition party. "We have said we won't go into government with Sinn Féin," she says, "but I know Sinn Féin is talking to other parties and that needs to be explored. We are willing to go into government, but not at any cost, but we certainly need time to reflect on our position."