Galway will never have seen a city council like the one that gathers in June for the first meeting in City Hall after the Local Elections, and yet, from a certian point of view, it will be a council that is strangely familiar.
For all the drama, excitement, and cliff-hangers on Saturday and Sunday at the count in the Westside Community Centre, Galway’s electorate returned four Fine Gael, three Fianna Fáil, and three Independent former PDs. This is hardly the mark of a city embracing radicalism, especially when Fine Gael actually increased its representation in City Hall - albeit after an underwhelming result which saw only one of its four councillors elected by exceeding the quota.
So the centre-right held firm in a volatile atmosphere where there was a determination to punish the Government parties, and to a lesser extent, the establishment generally. A caveat to this is that Galway voters showed they did not have short memories and put a firm stop of Fianna Fáil dreams of taking four/five seats. “We’re still in the sin bin,” Cllr Ollie Crowe told me on Sunday, after conceeding that neither Nicola Deacy or David Burke would triumph.
On the left there was change, but change that was a swop more than a revolution. In 2004 Galway voters returned six Labour councillors (Catherine Connolly later went Independent ) and repeated this in 2009 when Labour took five and Cllr Connolly was handsomely returned in Galway City West.
However the disillusionment with Labour in government, along with the factionalism between social-democrat and traditional Labour (ie, proper socialists ), saw the party implode, returning with only two seats. The three seats that Labour lost were replaced by Sinn Féin, with the party taking a seat in each of the city’s three wards.
The election of three SF councillors is a dramatic moment in Galway politics. The last time there were this many SFers in the city’s local authority was in the 1920s. Traditionally, Galway has been one of the most anti-Republican regions of the State, but 20 years after the IRA ceasefire, and more recently, the emergence of a new generation of SF members and candidates - with no ties to the guns or the era of violence, but armed instead with university degrees and left-wing values - voters are prepared to give them a chance, and see if they can bring something new to the table.
SF Galway City Central councillor Anna Marley caught the mood very well when she told me: “In the last two councils Labour had the seats to be a strong force, but on both occasions Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came together and the Labour vision was halted. The people have voted for something different this time, and we have to respond. The challenge now is to turn that protest vote into an alternative. We need to build a ‘Progressive Alliance’ among the left in City Hall.”
Where the real change manifested itself in Galway election 2014 was in the beginnings of a generational shift, with a significant number of Galway voters were prepared to place their trust in young candidates. This was illustrated by the fact that the first ‘new councillor’ to be elected was 24-year-old Máiréad Farrell, by far the youngest candidate in the city, and now the youngest member of the new Galway City Council.
Joining her are Independent Mike Cubbard and fellow SFer Anna Marley, both in their late-20s. Labour’s Niall McNelis, although closer to the 40 mark, has a young family and his concerns about issues around youth mental health and community facilities for young people shows he is in tune with the needs of under 35s. This trend was noticeable in the county as well, with the election of Karey McHugh, Niamh Byrne, and Tom Hanley.
It will be interesting to see if this factor will impact on the 2016 General Election. Roll on that election in the Rising’s centenary year.