Galway East - a change is gonna come?

Lorraine Higgins — a new face in Galway East politics

Lorraine Higgins — a new face in Galway East politics

If there was ever a constituency which defined the term ‘boringly predictable’ it was certainly Galway East, a place even more beholden to repeating patterns and traditions than its sister electoral area Galway West.

From 1981 to 1997, as a three-seater, Galway East returned without fail two Fianna Fáil, one Fine Gael. Since becoming a four-seater in 1997, the constituency has, without fail, returned two Fianna Fáil, two Fine Gael.

There was only one exception, the 2002 General Election, when it went two Fianna Fáil, one Fine Gael, and one Independent, but even that was deceptive. The Independent in question was Paddy McHugh, a former Fianna Fáil member, so in a sense, 2002 was FF three (with one in disguise ), FG one - a return to the days of 1937 to 1943 when, during its first incarnation as a four-seater, it was always FF three, FG one.

Some of the faces may change but the trends were always the same - plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose as pretentious people like to say - with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael taking the seats leaving precious little for anyone else. Indeed you have to go back to the 1961 election to find the last time a candidate from outside the ‘Civil War parties’ got a look in, with Clann na Talmhan’s Michael Donnellan.

Given that track record, Galway East is not a place where you would expect traditional voting patterns to be turned on their head, but these are extraordinary times, and maybe the unthinkable could happen - provided voters are not afraid to contemplate change.

The current sitting TDs are Michael Kitt and Noel Treacy (Fianna Fáil ) and Paul Connaughton and Ulick Burke (Fine Gael ). Neither FG TD will be standing for re-election and speculation continues over the intentions of the two FF TDs. So we are guaranteed some new faces at least - but more substantial change may be in the offing.

Fine Gael is running councillors Paul Connaughton jr and Jimmy McClearn and Sen Ciaran Cannon. Labour is running councillor Colm Keavney and Lorraine Higgins.

Sinn Féin is likely to field a candidate, as will the Greens, although the latter party is finding it hard to recruit someone willing to endure the massacre that awaits the junior coalition partners.

Fianna Fáil will hold its election selection convention for Galway East at the end of this month. So far councillors Mary Hoade and Gerry Finnerty have been nominated to stand. It is expected Dep Michael Kitt may allow his name to go forward. Dep Noel Treacy is also considering running again, but has made no firm decision yet.

There is also speculation that councillors Tomás Mannion and Michael Connolly, and perhaps even former Galway East TD Joe Callanan could be standing as well. It is unclear whether the party will run two or three candidates.

Despite the uncertainty around Fianna Fáil it is possible to analyse the state of play in Galway East and make some extrapolations as to how things might play out in March’s General Election.

The most recent Red C poll shows Fianna Fail on 14 per cent, Fine Gael 35 per cent, Labour 21 per cent, Sinn Fein 14 per cent, Green Party four per cent, and Others 12 per cent.

In a four-seat constituency the quota is 20 per cent which means Fine Gael is certain of one seat and can challenge for another; Fianna Fáil will have to fight hard to retain one of its two seats, with little hope of taking a second; and Labour could finally make the breakthrough to win one seat, unless the Independents get a lucky break. What is the likelihood of this happening?

Fine Gael

If Éamon Ó Cuív is the ‘sure thing’ of Galway West, Galway East’s equivalent is Cllr Paul Connaughton jr. His father was a long serving TD for the region and was also as popular as he was respected.

Cllr Connaughton will benefit enormously from his father’s name and reputation, but since being elected onto the Galway County Council in 2009, he has proven to be a very hard worker, in touch with people and the issues that affect them, and a highly likeable individual.

The real challenge for the party is to ensure he can bring in a running mate (McClearn or Cannon ). The poll figures show it is possible, but only if there are solid transfers between all three candidates and a good supply of transfers from other parties.

Based in Loughrea, Sen Cannon can take over the Ulick Burke vote and votes from the constituency’s southern region as a whole. His location may be to his advantage as generally Galway East TDs come from the Ballinasloe area, leaving other regions feeling a bit left out.

Given his past membership of the now defunct PDs, he may also attract that former vote and soft-Fianna Fáil votes, ie, those repulsed and disgusted with the party but unwilling to go as far as voting Labour or Sinn Féin.

Cllr Connaughton will draw votes heavily from the northern region of Galway East, and Mayor McClearn may find himself overshadowed. He could end up being a sweeper, but his role as mayor and the rise in FG support mean his tally will be valuable in ensuring FG secure two seats.

So it’s as you were for FG, but Cllr Connaughton shows a generational change is on the cards.

Fianna Fáil

In spite of all the wretched things this party has done to the State over the past 13 years - and over the last three in particular - Fianna Fáil will still have enough of a vote to take one seat. Granted their current figures show them four per cent below the quota, but people have not spent this long voting for the party to just run out on them now, and nobody contemplates Fianna Fáil returning with no seats.

However the days of two Fianna Fáil seats look to be gone and the party will have to console itself with one seat. They can overcome 16 per cent to take one, but they will not have the numbers to swing two - the depth and breadth of anger against the party is too great.

A Michael Kitt-led ticket will ensure the veteran politician will be returned, but if it is led by anyone other than the incumbents, Fianna Fáil will find its route to one seat a long and difficult one.

A change is coming - Fianna Fáil to return with only one seat, a situation that has never happened in Galway East before.

Labour/ Independents/ Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin could put in a credible performance in Galway East. The party received a combined vote of 1,953 in the 2007 election and it has a county councillor in Dermot Connolly, but despite this and the party’s rise in the polls, the momentum still lies with Labour and the Independents.

Independents are at risk in this election of being squeezed by the main parties as the focus will be on ‘Who do you want to be in Government?’ and, ‘Do you want Cowen, Kenny, or Gilmore as next Taoiseach?’ - all questions which do not need an Independent TD in the answer.

Galway (East and West ) could buck this trend (especially Galway East ) as the constituency looks set to have three strong Independents in the field.

Although none has yet declared, there is strong speculation that councillors Tim Broderick, Seán Canney, and Pat Hynes will announce they are standing for election over the coming week/weeks. Of these, the strongest contenders are Broderick and Canney.

In 2009, Cllr Canney received an astonishing 3,273 first preference votes - one of the highest in the State - while Cllr Broderick polled 1,979 first preferences, an impressive tally for his first time out. Local election results are never an accurate barometer for general elections, but the figures are significant and should not be ignored.

It may be too soon for Cllr Broderick, but if he goes, he may well lay down a marker for the future. Cllr Canney, though, has to be seen as a serious contender. There is a notable absence of candidates in the Tuam region - something his brother-in-law Paddy McHugh tapped into in 2002. Cllr Canney, with that field partly to himself, would be wise to do so again.

However there is one man, and one party, that stands in the way - Labour and Cllr Colm Keavney.

Traditionally Galway East is a wasteground for Labour but that seems to be changing. Indeed when seasoned political observers talk of Labour being in with a shout of credibly challenging for a seat in a constituency like Galway East, it is a sign of how much times have changed.

Cllr Keavney’s 2007 election first preference result was a modest 1,747, but since then his profile and stock have risen considerably.

Party leader Eamon Gilmore is originally from Galway East and has put great store in taking seats in Connacht, knowing the party has to if it is to make the breakthrough the polls are indicating.

The rise in commuter areas with young families over the last decade - the very same people who have been let down by Fianna Fáil - will also help boost the Labour vote.

That Labour is running a second candidate in Athenry’s Lorraine Higgins, shows the party believes there are votes to be had in the southern section of Galway East and not just in the north. Certainly it is known that Ms Higgins has no intention of being a sweeper.

Interestingly Labour is not running a ‘railway strategy’ (where one candidate looks after the north of the constituency and the other the south ) so candidates can campaign throughout the entirety of Galway East. This could risk splitting the vote and it remains to be seen if this was a wise call.

In conclusion, Insider will make an initial prediction for Galway East of one Fianna Fáil, two Fine Gael, and Labour v Independents for the final seat. Expect a (partial ) generational change, (mostly ) new faces, and maybe even a party which has never won a seat there before. Galway East’s days of being ‘boringly predictable’ are numbered.

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