What kind of council has Galway voted for?

Talking Politics

Independent councillor Declan McDonnell is feted after he held onto his seat. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Independent councillor Declan McDonnell is feted after he held onto his seat. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

When the results came in on Saturday it was clear that Ireland had raised high the Red flag, donned a blue shirt, kept a few Independents on side, and delivered the mother of all kickings to the Government parties. Well not quite everywhere. Typically Galway didn’t quite follow suit.

In the 2007 General Election, while the PDs were being wiped out, Galway returned a PD TD in Noel Grealish. In the 2009 Local Elections, with the city having an opportunity to strip Fianna Fáil down to two seats, it allowed them to stay at three, and retuned a percentage vote for the party that in some sections of the city was above the current national average.

Fianna Fáil knew it was in for a hammering, so it played a smart game. The party targeted it’s vote very effectively, going to those places/homes/ individuals it knew it could secure and concentrating on maximising all potential there. It worked well in Galway City West, where Peter Keane went under the radar to win a seat - against expectations of even those in his own party. The highly organised Crowe machine did much the same thing and ensured it secured a large personal vote for the Bohermore brothers.

Essentially, this election was almost as good as it could get for Fianna Fáil - bar the loss of Mary Leahy, but compensated for by Peter Keane’s victory in Galway City West - where Fianna Fáil needed its national vote to be a few points higher to be in a position to hold on.

Ollie Crowe and John Connolly put in a credible display to take 27 per cent in Galway City Central, and even in Galway City East the total of 23.3 per cent was again above the current average. In the city as a whole, FF polled 20.7 per cent, which was actually an increase on 2004 and only about 4.5 per cent behind the national average. It can of course be argued that much of this positivity can be attributed to how badly FF did the last time.

Galway city also returned, with large votes, the three former PDs - Declan McDonnell, Donal Lyons, and Terry O’Flaherty. This is not surprising given that the PDs were founded in Galway, all three are hard workers and community politicians, and they have managed to distance themselves from any taint of association with the unpopular current Government.

Labour, as in 2004, were the big winners this time - only in 2009 they went one better. The party won five seats (one in GCW, and two each in the other two wards ). With the election of former Labour member, Independent Catherine Connolly, the Left took six seats out of 15.

This compensates for the loss of Niall Ó Brolcháin (tainted by his party’s association with the Government ) and Daniel Callanan. While the Greens bombed and Sinn Féin never got off the ground, overall the Left can be happy the public is looking towards Labour as the real alternative.

This is obviously frustrating for Fine Gael. It knew it would return with just three seats, but must be disappointed it was not able to capitalise on disaffection with the Government and take a fourth.

Furthermore the party’s percentage of the vote in the city was below the national average. Fine Gael actually secured a higher percentage of the vote than Labour (21 per cent to Labour’s 19 per cent ), yet Labour won two more seats than FG. While FG is now the largest party (in percentage and local authority terms ) in the State, in Galway, it remains the ‘nearly party’ of Irish politics.

However the vote of FG’s Hildegarde Naughton is instructive. A first time candidate, she hammered her running mate, the veteran John Mulholland, taking 1,061 first preferences to his 778. It showed that voters were willing to put their trust in someone who seemed hungry and willing to engage, rather than someone who appeared disinterested, as many perceived Mr Mulholland to be.

Her vote, more than anyone else’s, tells us much about the kind of council that Galway has elected and the message the people have sent out. If you do the work, or look like you can deliver, than you should be in City Hall. If it appears you are not doing the work, you have no business being in politics.

This is something Labour’s Billy Cameron recognises. “I think the voters are happy with the present council and maybe there are only going to be three changes but I think when we analyse the final result, you will see that it’s the people who have put in the work on the ground who are elected,” he said.

Here we come to the second point - 2009 was in a sense the continuation of 2004. The sweeping changes introduced by the electorate in 2004 were both retained and continued in 2009. Billy Cameron, Michael J Crowe, Brian Walsh, Pádraig Conneely, and Colette Connolly - all first elected in 2004 were retained.

Long serving hard workers like councillors Lyons, O’Flaherty, McDonnell, Costello, and Catherine Connolly were retained because of their experience and track record of +10 years service.

Overall, this can be seen as a vote of confidence in the changes made in 2004 and a verdict by the public that this council, despite the prevalence of much bickering, is overall working well and is a body of people willing to be more challenging and progressive.

What then to make of the fact that the voters ejected Daniel Callanan, Niall Ó Brolcháin, John Connolly, John Mulholland, and Mary Leahy? Cllr Mulholland has already been discussed and Cllr Callanan was too late in entering the race in a ward where he was not well known.

Councillors Ó Brolcháin, Connolly, and Leahy were all victims of the swing against the Government. Also their campaigns lacked the dynamism of the Crowes and Hildegarde Naughton. There were some perceptions that perhaps they did not do the same kind of work on the ground as others. In this election, that proved costly.

What can be read into the victories of Hildegarde Naughton, Neil McNelis, Derek Nolan, Peter Keane, and Ollie Crowe? Derek Nolan summed it up well on Saturday: “People are happy with their local representatives and they see that they can work together. They also added new faces because they think they can make it work even better.”

Overall this was the message voters sent out: It has been a good council, it has been fractious, but challenging. The current crop are largely worth retaining, and with the addition of a few new faces, it could be just the kind of council Galway needs to steer it through the hard times of an economic downturn.

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