A Government struggles to get a Budget through the Oireachtas. These are tumultuous times but more pertinently they reflect the fact that the economic and political climate has changed dramatically.
With this backdrop there isn’t a political observer who is not anticipating a ground-shaking set of Local and European elections next June. Bearing in mind that it generates a right dogfight even in the quiet times, the Connemara electoral area will be expected to produce some real drama next June.
Since its inception in its present form in 1999 this seven-seater has produced two cliff-hanger results. In both 1999 and 2004 Fianna Fáil took three seats with the Independents winning two. The last two seats were both won by FG in 1999 but they had to share with the PDs in 2004 when Tom Welby jr took the seat vacated by the retiring JJ Mannion.
“Two seats – a fine show by the Independents!” would be a common refrain from external observers. They would be right – but that doesn’t even take into account that these seats have been hard fought among Independents with the high profile Séamus Gavin losing his seat in 2004 and back in 1999 the late Tom Welby snr being pipped by Séamus Walsh for the second Independent seat.
To add to the entertainment since the last election Cllr Walsh has defected to FF while Cllr Welby has gone Independent!
As for 2009 while almost everyone agrees there will be many twists and turns as usual, there is nevertheless something of a consensus view that FG will win back their second seat – ‘the Mannion seat’ – probably from FF’s Josie Conneely. But is this premature? Could things be even worse for Fianna Fáil?
Following the Walsh defection FF now holds four seats but even the most optimistic party loyalist must admit their chances of holding all four is remote. Bear in mind even in 1999 when things were going well for them they came nowhere near a fourth seat.
In the disaster of 2004 they only retained their THIRD seat by the skin of their teeth. FF surely realise that if things don’t pick up for them between now and then they could well find themselves in danger of losing two seats.
“What sort of an impact will the Budget uproar have on us locally?” is a question Fianna Fáil Connemara activists will be asking themselves. Undoubtedly the medical cards protests will have an effect much in the same way as it has nationally. One issue however that has the potential to mushroom into a bigger issue in Connemara than nationally is the cutbacks in education.
While the issue lacks the emotive qualities of the medical cards row, Connemara does have a lot of small schools where the loss of a teacher would be badly felt. Indeed on FF’s return to government under Bertie Ahern in 1997 Éamon Ó Cuív prioritised the issue of the ‘one teacher schools’ and their campaign to get a second teacher.
Any reduction of teachers in these smaller schools could be lethal for FF and the local representatives will be watching nervously to see how these cuts work out.
In addition to these national issues, the long-running favourite issues like planning, infrastructure, and roads (particularly the roads network linking Connemara to Galway city ) will feature heavily. On top of this there is the ‘personality factor’ of some real big names in this race. So how will things pan out?
Realistically looking at the FF ticket, one has to surmise that councillors Walsh and Ó Tuairisg will be returned. On the FG side, Seán Kyne may have only scraped home to one of the last seats in 2004 but since then the young Moycullen man has impressed and the profile he built up in his run in the 2007 General Election makes him a clear favourite to return.
One has to also fancy Seosamh Ó Cuaig’s chances. An Independent with firmly held convictions on both national and local issues, he has admirers from all over Connemara. This spread of support should get him the votes and transfers he needs to return.
After that the fun begins.
Cllr Welby has also impressed in his time in the council but faces competition in his immediate catchment area from councillors Kyne and Walsh. Cllr Connie Ní Fhatharta has a big base around An Cheathrú Rua and should be returned. However if the backlash against FF is truly terrifying it is her seat that becomes marginal.
In 2004, and again in the Údarás na Gaeltachta elections of 2005, Cllr Ní Fhatharta faced a local threat from Labour’s Trevor Ó Clochartaigh but came through impressively. If Labour wanted to expand its base into new areas in 2009 then it might fancy a crack at her seat.
Then we have Cllr Josie Conneely. Only co-opted to the council in 1997 he turned in an impressive display to be the leading FF vote-getter in 1999 only to very nearly lose his seat in 2004.
With FG determined to win back that Clifden seat in 2009 it is easy to see why Cllr Conneely is regarded as the marginal candidate. However if Labour push hard or indeed a new Independent candidate emerges before election day don’t be surprised if Cllr Welby and Cllr Ní Fhátharta come under severe pressure in which case Cllr Conneely could conceivably survive.
On balance therefore we’re looking at FF taking two and probably three, FG probably winning back its second seat, and the two Independents surviving.
Make no mistake though – this will be a very tight contest and at least half of those tipped to survive can rightly be described as ‘marginal’. Let the games begin!