In the aftermath of last year’s local elections much attention has focused on Galway West and in particular on Fine Gael’s chances of gaining a seat there, but Galway East has been the subject of comparatively little attention.
However recent history shows that Galway East has been by far the more volatile of the two constituencies and also the one where Fine Gael has been making the more notable advances. Since that fourth seat was added in 1997 it is no longer ‘the most boringly reliable constituency in the country’.
A close look at both the national and local picture suggests change may come to Galway East next time out. Not long ago it would have sounded madness to suggest it but Fine Gael really should be gunning for three out of four there next time.
Even now your first reaction might be to say ‘Yes but only an outside chance’, but if you look at the trends it really should be a top target for Fine Gael. Let’s examine some recent figures.
In the 2007 General Election FG made dramatic inroads here. On the way to winning back a second seat, FG increased their vote by 7.5 per cent (despite Labour and PDs both running candidates in 2007. Neither party ran in 2002 ). The Fianna Fáil vote fell by a corresponding amount resulting in both parties polling two quotas and FF finishing only 305 votes ahead of FG - this at a time when FF polled 14 points ahead of FG nationally; recent national polls put FG 10/13 points ahead.
Now turning to the local elections. Insider would caution against reading too much into local elections, where myriad factors such as absence of heavy hitters, one-off local issues, and less stringent adherence to party loyalties can throw up unusual results.
Nevertheless an analysis of the Tuam, Ballinasloe, and Loughrea electoral areas showed FG ahead of FF last June by 42 - 23 in contrast with FF’s 35 - 29 lead in 2004 (itself a bad year for FF ); a swing of approximately 12 points from FF to FG. So the national swing does appear to be replicated in Galway East.
Should we be surprised this is the case? Insider thinks not. Examining the big issues in Galway East we find many of the big gripes among voters nationally are keenly expressed here. Farming has had an awful few years; Galway East has a big farming vote. Young families in commuter belt areas are being heavily hit by the economic collapse; large tracts of Galway East are now commuter territory for Galway city. The Government has been heavily criticised for mismanaging the floods crisis recently; Galway East was among those hardest hit.
Even taking all of this into account, taking three seats out of four is a tough challenge for any party. Three quotas after all amounts to 60 per cent and in order to pull it off FG would probably need to poll in the high 40s, manage that vote carefully, and then pick up good transfers as lower placed candidates are eliminated.
So, bearing in mind that Paddy McHugh won a seat in 2002, could an Independent or smaller party cash in on a FF loss instead? On balance Insider thinks not.
While the Independents polled a healthy 24 per cent in the constituency last year and 21 per cent in 2004, this translated into only seven per cent in the ensuing General Election. Insider feels 2002 was a one-off in Galway East in that regard. As was the case nationally, the lack of a coherent offering from the main opposition parties gave voters carte blanche to ‘play the field’ and resulted in an eclectic array of TDs being elected.
Now turning to the personalities. Here is FG’s big conundrum. While Enda Kenny gleefully paraded his big signing Ciarán Cannon last year, the reaction in the local party was not so euphoric.
Senator Ulick Burke allegedly made his feelings known at a parliamentary party meeting while an irate councillor Peter Feeney certainly did so publicly.
Insider feels FG strategists may themselves have a hangover after the initial party mood; the problem is Sen Cannon is based in Dep Burke’s electoral heartland and accommodating both will be a tall order.
If Dep Burke were to step down Sen Cannon would make an obvious replacement (although Cllr Feeney will not agree! ) but FG really need their big guns in action if they are to gain a seat hence both sitting TDs will be pressed to run. This conundrum of whether to run Dep Burke, Sen Cannon, or both could be one of the biggest hurdles to a FG gain.
What should FG do? In order to snatch a third seat they would ideally run only three candidates with a view to eliminating any internal slippage. The third candidate would need to be geographically well located. In Insider’s view the choice would be between two men who ran in 2007; Ballinasloe hospital consultant Dr John Barton or Tuam councillor Tom McHugh.
Insider suspects Dr Barton is the likelier of the two with Dep Paul Connaughton being charged with mopping up votes in Tuam.
If FG pull it off who will lose on the FF side? This is a hazardous task as geography and order of elimination of lower placed candidates can play a huge role in Galway East.
On the basis that FG will run Dr Barton and not Cllr McHugh however, Insider feels Dep Michael Kitt may get enough transfers from North Galway to win out over Noel Treacy. However any tension between the Burke and Cannon camps could play to Dep Treacy’s advantage in south Galway.
Joe Callanan’s likely absence may ease some of the pressure on Dep Treacy too, so that internal FF battle could be tight.
Finally there may still be a long way to go until the election is called and much may change in the intervening period. Nobody should be in any doubt that Fianna Fáil will wage a strong fight and to suggest the second seat is gone is certainly premature
For the time being however Insider feels Galway East is likely to return two FG and one FF with a tussle between the third FG candidate and the second FF TD. A reversal of the old order could truly be on the cards.