Galway is set to become the battleground for an internecine struggle over who will be elected chair of the Labour Party this month as both the party’s Galway TDs - Derek Nolan (Galway West ) and Colm Keaveney (Galway East ) are understood to be touting for support among their parliamentary colleagues.
In many ways, it will be a battle of opposites. Dep Keaveney poached the final seat in the constituency last February in what was his seventh electoral outing, having fought for every first preference he ever got in an area with little tradition of Labour support.
By contrast, Dep Nolan swept into office as the anointed successor to an established political dynasty during an election in which he had to do little other than be raised aloft to the electorate by Michael D Higgins in a scene that resembled that from the opening of Disney’s The Lion King.
As they prepare to cross political swords for the position, both men would do well to use the opportunity to sharpen their blades for more serious challenges from within their own constituencies in the years ahead.
The future of Derek Nolan?
Derek Nolan has faced the toe-curling task of filling Michael D Higgins’ shoes in Galway West since he was elected on the back of the now-President’s support last year.
But Michael D has been politically neutered since his ascendancy to higher office and Nolan will have to face the electorate without his endorsement next time around.
It remains to be seen if the political greenhorn can retain the sizeable vote bequeathed to him by his predecessor or if it will ultimately transpire to be a floating liberal vote that was borrowed by him for one term only.
This is certainly the hope of other ambitious Left-leaning politicians in the Galway West constituency, such as the Independent councillor Catherine Connolly and Sinn Féin senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh. They will target Dep Nolan on the premise that Michael D commanded a personal vote, rather than a party political one, which will roam the ballot sheet in the absence of his guidance.
The history of the Dáil seat that Dep Nolan inherited last year suggests that Cllr Connolly and Sen Ó Clochartaigh could be right. Michael D unsuccessfully contested five elections in the 12 years prior to finally sculpting a seat in the constituency in 1981 before losing it again temporarily the following year.
The now President Higgins single-handedly nurtured his vote in Galway West from a meagre 1,174 in his first general election in 1969 to a peak of 8,910 at the zenith of his Dáil political career in 1992. However did he engender in the voters of the constituency a loyalty to Labour or a loyalty to his own personal brand?
Vultures are circling, in the form of Connolly and Ó Clochartaigh, and they are poised to peck at Dep Nolan’s political carcass in the event that his mentor’s votes are inclined to dissipate throughout the Left.
Cllr Connolly came within an armful of votes of being elected last February and the former Labour Party representative will view Dep Nolan as being turgid with floating votes that could provide the final lift she would require to carry her over the line next time around.
There are high hopes, too, for Sen Ó Clochartaigh, who has maintained a presence both in Connemara and in the city since his election to the Seanad – and he is ideally positioned to benefit from a backflow of Nolan votes in the absence of Higgins.
Dep Nolan’s task of retaining the support bequeathed to him by the President has proved more difficult than expected. By the time he came under Michael D’s wing as a city councillor, the incumbent TD was enjoying the Indian summer of a political career in the knowledge that he would not contest the next general election.
The template of a TD to which Derek Nolan aspired therefore was one of an elder statesman whose graft at ground level was done, rising only occasionally to wax lyrical about the human rights issue of the day.
However Dep Nolan has since discovered that politics is not all Palestine and poetry, and is said to be disaffected with the parish-pump reality of constituents grumbling about medical cards and waiting lists for operations on their bunions.
Yet he will have to be prepared to battle against the onslaught of pretenders seeking to scavenge the Michael D vote if he is to retain his throne, and the dry-run against Colm Keaveney for the chairman’s position is an ideal opportunity to test his mettle.
What next for Colm Keaveney?
Dep Keaveney is also facing the prospect of a dogfight to keep the seat that he won against all odds in Election 2011. He was having the political equivalent of an out-of-body experience after a poor showing in the early counts before his running mate, Sen Lorraine Higgins, breathed life back into his dimming career with a remarkable transfer upon her elimination.
Yet, running-mate-turned-rival Higgins was rewarded for her performance with a nomination to run for the Seanad, and the two Galway East Labour personalities have had their knives drawn ever since with one eye on the 2016 General Election.
Sen Higgins has maintained a high profile from the Upper House and is rumoured to be considering a tilt at the European elections with a view to enhancing this in advance of another Dáil run in 2016.
This will come as bad news for city councillor Neil McNelis, who also had his sights set on Brussels and he will have a distinct feeling of ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ after graciously stepping aside to facilitate Derek Nolan on the Labour ticket last February.
He expected to be rewarded with a run for the Senate in return but was snubbed in favour of Lorraine Higgins. He will be disgruntled to be overlooked again but his options are limited, having run out of mainstream political parties under whose banner he could contest an election.
The PDs and Greens can attest to the fact that history suggests the junior party in a coalition government seldom emerges unscathed. It will be against this background that Labour will contest the next General Election, and a concerted effort will be required in order to retain two seats in County Galway.
However, in Michael D’s absence, the local Labour Party family seems so dysfunctional that it makes the Manson family look like the Waltons. Two seats will seem unlikely if the current Mexican stand-off among representatives continues.