There is an outdated assumption that formulating a party’s ticket for an election is a straightforward process. The incumbent TDs will spearhead the attack, flanked, meanwhile by a couple of no-hope sweepers from the remote reaches of the constituency.
Try telling that though to former Fine Gael stalwart Pádraic McCormack, who was vanquished at the party’s selection convention in 2010, unexpectedly and ingloriously bringing the curtain down on a 22-year political career.
Or try explaining it to former TD Paul Connaughton, and county councillors Tom McHugh and Jimmy McClearn; who successfully negotiated the gauntlet at convention in 2010, only to have ex-PD leader Ciaran Cannon foisted upon them for the Galway East election ticket by party HQ.
Nothing can be assumed, therefore, and this week the Insider takes a look at how Fine Gael strategists are likely to tailor the party’s ticket in Galway West for electoral battle in 2016.
Not so predictable anymore
Galway West was once such a predictable constituency that even Helen Keller could see what was going to happen at each election, but, the times have changed considerably. Election 2016 looks like seeing Labour lose the seat it has held here since Michael D Higgins succeeded in winning it back in 1987 after a hiatus in exile in the Seanad. Sinn Féin is poised to capitalise on Labour’s loss, while a phalanx of strong Independent candidates will fancy their chances of winning as many as two seats here next year.
This state of political flux leaves the traditional ‘Big Two’ of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael battling to defend their core support and hold the three seats they current occupy between them.
Brian Walsh claimed the third seat in the constituency for Fine Gael in 2011, before Moycullen’s Sean Kyne survived a number of recounts to edge the last seat by an armful of votes – the first time Fine Gael had two TDs in Galway West since 1982. The party is fortunate that its sitting representatives provide a good geographical spread in the constituency as it begins to plot its bid to hold on to the gains won here four years ago.
Walsh is well established in the city, while Kyne has spent the intervening period traipsing Connemara, looking to shore up support and avoid a repeat of the heart-stopping squeeze that he endured in 2011 to claim his seat.
Both men will lead the charge for Fine Gael in 2016 but the requirement for gender balance and the extension of the constituency into south Mayo will demand the addition of at least one other candidate. Ideally, Fine Gael would like to run a single additional candidate who ticks both of these boxes. However the difficulty in finding someone who can easily be identified as a woman in County Mayo is likely to result in two individuals being required.
Running Hildegarde for the sake of it?
Sen Hildegarde Naughton appears to be the readymade choice to satisfy the new gender quota. Following Sen Fidelma Healy Eames’ defection from the party, Sen Naughton seems well placed to fill her boots.
It is a somewhat demeaning aspect of the gender-quota legislation that there is likely to be some competition to fill the female slot on the election ticket. They may well call upon Marty Whelan to don a tuxedo and interview the likes of Senator Naughton, Cllr Eileen Mannion, and Cllr Niamh Byrne to crown the eventual female Fine Gael candidate.
Any such contest will nonetheless likely result in Naughton’s candidacy on the basis that she enjoys a higher profile than the others by virtue of her seat in the Senate. This also enhances the existing geographical spread of Fine Gael candidates, carving the constituency conveniently into Connemara for Kyne, the city and its environs for Walsh, and the eastern curtilage for Naughton.
However there was embarrassment for Sen Naughton this week with reports in The Irish Times quoting from reports compiled by constituency committees for Fine Gael’s national executive as part of preparations for Election 2016. Sen Naughton was described as having a “strong public image” but “poor knowledge of the political landscape, and the potential candidates from other parties”. The report went on to say she was “weak but provides gender balance and a strong image which can be used to target other female candidates”.
This is hardly the kind of rousing endorsement for which Sen Naughton would be hoping. To compound matters for Fine Gael in Galway West, the reports went on to recommend the party run four candidates in 2016 - when party insiders themselves say FG will be lucky to hold the two seats it has.
Running four candidates last time almost cost the party its second seat. However, it is likely to be forced to persist with a similar strategy for 2016. As such, a sweeper will be needed in south Mayo in order to compete for a substantial number of votes in the new territory.
Whether Dep John O’Mahony?
One eventuality could see a candidate on the ticket who would be more than a sweeper in south Mayo. A question still hangs over Dep John O’Mahony’s political plans in the context of Election 2016. Fine Gael currently holds four seats in Mayo, which will be reduced to a four-seat constituency next year, following the loss of territory and up to 10,000 voters to Galway West.
Dep O’Mahony finds himself in a tricky predicament whereby he is faced with the prospect of contesting in a crowded Mayo constituency alongside An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister of State Michael Ring, and fellow Dep Michelle Mulherin. Alternatively, it has been mooted that he may choose to migrate south with 10,000 of his compatriots and stand for election in Galway, where he is still revered for winning two All-Irelands as manager of the county football team. Not only would he sweep the south-Mayo votes for Fine Gael, but he would also fancy his chances of eating into the incumbents’ support throughout Galway via his network of GAA contacts and the Mayo diaspora.
Nothing can be taken for granted as the party pieces together its strategy for 2016, but it is likely that the ticket will comprise Walsh, Kyne, Naughton, and a representative from County Mayo.