Galway Advertiser, December 16, 2010.
By The Insider
While the flurry of autumn polls have been consistent in showing meltdown for Fianna Fáil and the election of a FG/Labour coalition, the most recent Red C poll in the Irish Sun showed a new dynamic entering the race.
According to that poll, Sinn Féin and Independents are gaining significant support – SF gaining five points to reach a support level of 16 per cent, putting them ahead of Fianna Fáil, and Independents gaining three points to reach 12 per cent.
This raises the prospect of these smaller groups – who were badly squeezed in 2007, and who did not appear to be making any headway until recently – could now have a significant block of TDs in the next Dáil.
This in turn raises three very interesting questions. What significance would such an outcome have on the workings of Irish politics over the next few years? Would concerns over a possible lack of influence impact on the ability of these groups to sustain this level of performance through an election campaign? How might this increased level of support manifest itself in the Galway constituencies?
In answering the first question it is worth looking back to the period of the 29th Dáil between 2002 – 2007. That Dáil contained 14 Independent TDs (including Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party) as well as five Sinn Féin TDs.
In spite of much fanfare about the formation of technical groups and new forces in Irish politics, the reality was that the Independents were a largely ineffective, disparate group, who made little impression, and were drastically reduced in numbers at the 2007 election. SF’s progress also stalled and the party lost one of its seats that year.
The Independents (most of whom, although not all, lean to the left) and SF themselves will argue that this creates the opportunity to create a new leftist block in the Dáil.
A counter argument is that if people want a strong left-leaning influence in the next Dáil, surely it makes more strength to vote for Labour first in order to increase its seat numbers and by extension its influence in the coalition government it seems set to form with FG.
This, in Insider’s view, will be one of the more interesting battles in this election campaign and a taste of what may be to come could be seen in the head to head between Joan Burton and Pearse Doherty on Primetime in the aftermath of last week’s Budget.
Another argument that can be made about the 2002 – 2007 period was that the splintered nature of the Opposition had a very negative impact. With the main opposition holding fewer than 60 seats between them, a feeling took hold that a non-FF government was not a plausible outcome in 2007 as it would take FG time to recover.
This created a real complacency in the ranks of the Government and arguably that has ended in the mother of all economic crashes.
Turning to the second question, it is again worth looking at the 29th Dáil. Unlike its predecessor, where a minority FF/PD government was dependent on the support of several Independents who extracted significant concessions for their constituencies as the price of their support, other Independents had very little clout.
Hence their impact and importance dropped and in Insider’s view this greatly contributed to their poor performance. The irony is that several of those Independents who survived ended up exercising quite some influence in the 30th Dáil!
Will the memory of Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae exercising great influence over the passing of the recent Budget cause people to see Independents as important again and lead to an increase in their number in the next Dáil?
Or will the expectation that FG and Labour will have a very large majority cause people to think twice?
This leads Insider to the third question – the impact on Galway. With Fianna Fáil expected to suffer a calamitous loss in votes and seats, might Independents benefit in Galway West and Galway East?
Let’s examine Galway East first. The constituency elected an Independent TD in 2002 in Paddy McHugh but his vote collapsed in 2007, mirroring perfectly the Independent trend referred to earlier.
With FF polling at anywhere between 13 to 17 per cent nationally, it seems highly unlikely that the party can retain two seats. FG, though, will find three seats a big ask, especially with both sitting TDs retiring.
Labour will push hard for a seat in Eamon Gilmore’s native constituency but are coming from a low base. Much speculation surrounds Declan Ganley throwing his hat into the ring or perhaps some disgruntled FFer (or a disappointed FGer?) may chance a solo run.
It is easy to see why an Independent candidate could feature strongly in this race – but equally it would be a complete repudiation of the definitive rejection of Independents expressed by the constituency in 2007.
Galway West is trickier to call. This constituency does not elect Independents. In 2007 FF, FG, Labour, PDs, and Greens polled more than 90 per cent of the votes. However with the PDs disbanded, Dep Noel Grealish is an Independent TD.
He will certainly be in contention for re-election, but in the past he has been heavily reliant on votes from the Oranmore area and, with FG’s Fidelma Healy-Eames tipped to win a seat, he will have his work cut out for him.
Catherine Connolly is someone who has emerged as a dark horse. Insider can see why. Labour will be without Michael D Higgins, its standard bearer since 1969, and while Derek Nolan will surely retain the seat, the party’s decision not to run a second candidate at a time when it is gaining support nationally may free up votes for other left-leaning candidates like Cllr Connolly.
Also in her favour is that she has a decent profile across the constituency and in an election, in which votes that would ordinarily be nailed down as secure for certain candidates will be up for grabs, this could be a big plus – where for example will the votes go that Éamon Ó Cuív will lose in Connemara?
In summary what does Insider think? First of all he would emphasise that much of this analysis is more pertinent to Independents than to SF as he feels that party is somewhat between two stools at this stage – more a potential party of government than previously but partly still an outside force.
In considering the potential performance of Independents Insider feels the crucial competing forces in voters’ minds will be the desire to have an effective opposition to the likely FG/Labour government versus a compulsion to really hand FF a drubbing.
With that in mind voters could opt to vote for an assortment of Independents and fringe candidates instead. Insider expects Independents to feature in the race in both Galway constituencies but will make one firm prediction – Galway West will not elect two Independent candidates. It will be one Independent at the most in each Galway constituency.
Either way it will be another fascinating aspect of a potentially groundbreaking election.