Galway East - just who will survive?

Grassroots - An inside look at local politics – from the pens of the politicians themselves

Of the four Galway East TDs elected in 2011, one will not return to 32nd Dáil after the 2016 General Election, not because of the wrath of the electorate, but because the constituency has undergone yet another of its regular metamorphoses.

The ever changing constituency

Following the Constituency Commission Report 2012, the eastern third of the constituency, the areas of Kylemore, Lismanny, Ballinasloe, Ahascragh, Caltra, Castlefrench, Ballynakill, Shankill, Kiltullagh, Glenamaddy, Ballynakill, Ballmoe, and Island, are to be merged with County Roscommon to create the new three seat Roscommon-Galway, while the remainder of Galway East (see the map which accompanies this article ) goes from four seats to three.

(It will not be lost on readers from Mayo how this section of Galway gets billing in the new constituency, but the idea of south Mayo being referred to in any title of the newly redrawn Galway West has been resisted by Environment Minister Phil Hogan. )

The changes have arisen because the current population of Galway East (110,067 ) is not seen as justifying the current four seats. The transfer of the easternmost part of the constituency into Roscommon will see the remaining Galway East at 89,564 and Roscommon-Galway at 84,586, thereby justifying three seats apiece.

Galway East is no stranger to being chopped, reduced, expanded, and revised, since it was first created in 1937. It ceased to exist from 1948 to 1961 when it was split into two consistencies - Galway North and Galway South. It returned for the 1961 election only to be shrunk, and made a three seater in 1981 with the Headford, Caherlistrane, Ardrahan, Kinvara, and Gort areas put into Galway West. So it remained until 1997, when it finally took on its current shape and gained an extra seat - until the report from last year.

The Ballinasloe

bear-pit

So what will these changes mean for the four sitting TDs, and who are likely to be big winners and losers come the next election?

Ballinasloe was always the consistuency bear-pit - the most fought over piece of territory, from where so many candidates were either based or had a stronghold. Yet this was also a problem.

The focus on Ballinasloe caused Tuam and south Galway-based candidates to suffer, with only the occasional breakthrough for Tuam (Independent Paddy McHugh from 2002 - 2007 ) and south Galway devoid of any Dáil TD. Constituents had to make do with Loughrea being as far south as a TD ever got.

With the area’s largest town and focal point removed, all this changes. The four main population centres will be Tuam, Athenry, Loughrea, and Gort. Does this mean the political parties, instead of looking east, will now have to think north-south?

Fine Gael

Fine Gael has always done this with the so-called ‘railway line strategy’. This saw Galway East divided into a northern territory for Paul Connaughton to canvass, with Ulick Burke taking the south. Once the constituency became a four-seater in 1997, with the exception of 2002, the Connaughton-Burke axis always scored two seats.

The current Fine Gael duo is Connaughton’s son Paul jr and the former PD leader Ciaran Cannon. Cannon is based in Loughrea and can be expected to work the southern area again. Dep Connaughton’s position, though, is far more unstable.

Ballinasloe is his home town and electoral base. In fact much of his stomping ground, like that of his father’s, is now in the new Roscommon-Galway constituency. However Dep Connaughton told Insider he will not be moving but will instead stay in the newly reduced Galway East and slug it out there at the next election.

If constituency boundaries are not favourable, circumstances are not kind either. Government parties are well aware they will take a hit in the next election. That the constituency is dropping a seat makes the battle to retain two, to put it mildly, very difficult.

The most recent poll (The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI, February 8 ) show FG at 25 per cent. The quota in a three seater is 25 per cent, which means, if things stay the same FG will hold one seat, but has no chance of keeping the second.

(Now polls can go up as well as down, and a lot can change over the next couple of years, but you can be sure the parties are examining the polls and taking them more seriously than they will admit publicly. )

The above is why Dep Connaughton is seen as the more vulnerable of the two (that, and Dep Cannon has a junior ministry - although a ministry did certain FF TDs no favours in 2011 ).

However the Connaughtons have not lasted in national politics for more than 30 years (Paul Connaughton snr was a TD from 1981 to 2011 ) without knowing a thing or two about how to win elections.

There is a lot of goodwill towards the Connaughton name and the fact Paul snr is from Mountbellew, and would always have polled well in Tuam, and across the north, gives his son a base to work from. Also Paul jr’s work with Foróige will not have done him any harm in his ability to relate to younger voters and in being very aware of the issues facing the under thirties. His task will be uphill, but Insider will not write him off yet.

One final point in relation to the blueshirts, in 2011 they ran Tom McHugh and Jimmy McClearn as sweepers. Will the party run an extra candidate in 2016 or avoid splitting the vote as much as possible by leaving it at two?

Fianna Fáil and

Sinn Féin

If Dep Connaughton was miffed to see Ballinasloe gone, than spare a thought for Sinn Féin’s Dermot Connolly whose base is lock, stock, and barrel in the town. Insider imagines the party will be concentrating on ‘Clever Trevor’ Ó Clochartaigh in Galway West as the best chance of gaining a seat in the county.

In 2011, Fianna Fáil were about as popular as the bubonic plague, but veteran TD Michael Kitt still took home the largest combined vote of any candidate in Galway East with 12,850. Given that the party has risen in the polls since then (26 per cent in the February MRBI poll ) he looks set to retain the seat.

Labour

This is the one to watch, as the fight for Labour to retain its Galway East seat will be a battle on three fronts; against public opinion and between the two ideological wings of the party. Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, a native of Galway East, will in particular, be watching events here with interest.

The party is represented in the Dáil by Colm Keaveney and in Seanad Éireann by Lorraine Higgins. Dep Keaveney is chair of the party and is loathed by Gilmore. Sen Higgins is a favourite of the current leadership which is keen to see her triumph over the Tuam rebel (although this approach was tried during in the run up to the election of the chair of the party position where it failed dismally ).

With current poll figures showing Labour at 10 per cent, it looks as if any chance of the party retaining its seat are nil. After all, Labour, even more than Fine Gael, is set to take a hit from the electorate on polling day. However elections, like cup football, have a way of throwing up all manner of surprises.

Dep Keaveney has a solid support team in Tuam and the fact that in the face of opposition from Gilmore, et al, the Labour membership supported him for the position of chair, reveals he commands wide respect across the Labour grassroots.

Furthermore his very public stance against the Health Minister James Reilly’s health cuts and the most controversial aspects of Budget 2013 will have struck a chord with voters. He has acted on principle, but also with one eye being kept, as with any good politician, on the next election.

Labour will no doubt need to run two candidates to maximise the vote across the constituency, but even at this remove, it seems the ideological and electoral battle within Labour is set to make Dep Keaveney top dog - whether that will be enough to help him keep his seat is another matter.

However the banishment of Ballinasloe will free up Tuam area voters, and geography, as opposed to party politics, could play an important role and that will benefit the Labour man.

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