Galway West is normally the most predictable and uneventful constituency in the State. For the past 25 years it has returned two Fianna Fáil, one Fine Gael, one Labour, and one PD without fail, and indeed not many of the faces have even changed.
Ireland today however is a vastly different place from 2007 when the last general election was held. These are the dark days of recession - the result of criminal incompetence by the Fianna Fáil Government - when the EU/IMF must dictate our budget, and we are seen as the ‘sick man of Europe’, whose illness could contaminate the entire European economy.
On a local level, the times have also changed. Labour’s standard bearer in the west Michael D Higgins will not be contesting the next election; the PDs are extinct; and Fine Gael can realistically challenge for two seats for the first time since 1982.
Fianna Fáil is fighting just to retain the two seats it has. The days of bullish confidence of winning “three out of five” are gone as the party deals with how the public detests it for it’s behaviour over the last decade.
The upshot of national economic collapse and local political changes means that Galway West has now become so unpredictable that apart from a seat for Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív and at least one for Fine Gael, no one can guess how the other three seats will go.
The Labour Party stands on the brink of making its greatest electoral breakthrough in its history - greater even than the ‘Spring Tide’ of 1992. It is performing well in the polls and leader Eamon Gilmore has the highest satisfaction of all party leaders.
However if Labour seek to be a major part of the next Government, it’s candidates need to translate the poll figures into seats. To do that they need to win, not only in pre-existing strongholds, but also in the traditional Labour wilderness of Connacht/Ulster,
Key to this will be Labour retaining the seat in Galway West (held by Dep Higgins since 1987 ) and this task falls to 28-year-old Galway city councillor Derek Nolan.
Cllr Nolan first came to attention in the 2004 local elections where, as a virtual unknown, he came within a whisker of winning a seat in the old North and East Ward. In last year’s local elections he beat such heavyweights as Brian Walsh, Mike Crowe, and Declan McDonnell, to take the second seat in the East Ward, with a massive vote.
From that point on he was groomed as the most likely successor to Michael D Higgins. However no one could have seen then that by the end of 2010, Michael D Higgins would have retired and a general election would be called for early in the new year.
Cllr Nolan has been plunged into the deep end, having to contest the election sooner than anyone in the party thought, and having to retain the seat of a national political figure, when he himself is largely unknown outside Galway city. It is a daunting prospect, but Cllr Nolan seems ready for the challenge.
“I did think I would have had until April/May,” he tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview, “but there is a very strong Labour organisation in Galway. We have more than 300 members in the constituency so there are teams of people who will help me.
“We won’t just be concentrating on the city, but throughout Galway West as I want to represent Galway West. We have strong branches in Oranmore, Claregalway, and Connemara. I have been out in Oranmore and Clifden with Labour members, meeting the public, and the response has been positive and encouraging.”
Galway West in 2011 will be extremely competitive and Cllr Nolan will have to hold his own in the face of a confident Fine Gael, a seemingly indestructible Noel Grealish, and the might of the Crowe brothers’ electoral team for Fianna Fáil, while to his left, Independent councillor Catherine Connolly will challenge strongly. Labour cannot take its seat for granted
“I know there is a Labour seat in Galway West,” he says. “The hard work done by Michael D Higgins has not been just to build a Michael D seat but to build a Labour seat in the constituency.
“Some of his vote is a personal one, but those voters believe in rights based citizenship, solidarity, equality, and they will look for a candidate who has those values and they will stick with Labour as Labour and I have those values.”
He also believes that there is a need for the Left in Galway to unite and ensure the left wing point of view receives strong expression at the next election.
“There is a need on the left for a generosity of spirit and a recognition that we have more in common than divides us,” he says. “I think we should unite against Fianna Fáil for an alternative vision of society. Recent comments from other camps saying Labour would only help Fianna Fáil are unnecessary.”
What he stands for
For the election, Cllr Nolan will campaign for jobs, housing, and a better health service.
Regarding jobs, he believes the current Government is “engaged in a deflationary economic policy” with unemployment seen as “an acceptable consequence” in order to “bring down wages and living standards, without any recognition” of the long term economic and social consequences.
Cllr Nolan believes that a stimulus package needs to be introduced in order to facilitate job creation and encourage consumer confidence and spending.
In terms of the health system, Cllr Nolan said he will “fight for a properly funded health service as health provision is a rights issue, and I will push for Labour’s policy of universal health care to be implemented and introduced over the lifetime of the Government”.
However he recognises that with finances severely constrained this will not be done easily. “Let there be no doubt,” he says, “that the economic hole in which Fianna Fáil have left us, means that none of this will be easy, but it will have to be steadily and progressively realised.”
Many councillors refer to a ‘housing crisis’ in the city, with c4,000 people on the Galway City Council housing waiting list, and Cllr Nolan feels the current state of the housing market provides an opportunity to tackle this issue.
“We have the largest number of people ever on the housing waiting list, with some waiting 10 years for a house,” he says. “We need to build houses as this would create jobs and buy houses now that they are at rock bottom prices.”
Of course with the EU/IMF looking over our shoulder and set to oversee the performance of the economy for at least three years, how much power will any new government really have? If the economic decisions are out of our hands, what else really is there?
“There is no doubt that the actions of Fianna Fáil have handcuffed to an extent what the next Government can do, but Labour in government will not be there to make up the numbers,” Cllr Nolan says. “We will negotiate vigorously for the implementation of our values. We will implement a programme for government that will prioritise job creation, reform of public services, and the regulation of business.”
A change of government itself will not transform Ireland and remedy its current woes. Only a wholesale change of the political system and culture, our banking culture, and our business culture can do that - and for that the public needs to demand that the old elite be removed and the old practices cease. In effect, as well as a change of system, the Republic of Ireland needs a change of mindset.
“The whole system needs to be torn down,” says Cllr Nolan. “The entire Constitution needs to be completely revised to bring it from the early 20th century into the 21st century. The changes need to encompass every facet of political culture. No more can the lobbyists and nod and wink culture of old be tolerated. It has to stop.”