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Election 2007 was notable for the extent to which independent candidates, especially those who stood previously on a health/hospital services ticket, haemorrhaged support to the two main political parties. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the results, and the post-election manoeuverings, it is that there is a public expectation that the reform programme will continue. Ironically, this may mean a Lazarus-like recovery for the Hanly Report.

In terms of the doctor candidates who were elected, only two are new deputies; and of those who were elected previously on a health services platform, there were some significant and high-profile casualties.

Hard decisions

The results will encourage a new administration to push hard decisions quickly at an early stage, secure in the knowledge that time is on their side. In Cavan Monaghan, the big loser was independent deputy, Paudge Connolly, who was elected on a hospital ticket in 2002, but failed to capitalise on the continuing controversy surrounding Monaghan Hospital.

Whereas Connolly received almost 13 per cent of the first preference vote last time out, this was more than halved to just 6 per cent in 2007. Around three quarters of his first preferences didn’t transfer to any other candidate; and of those that did, the principal beneficiary was Fine Gael. In other words, the hard core of support which had rallied previously just melted away.

Fine Gael success

The outcome in Dublin North marked a singular achievement for Fine Gael, which ran just one candidate where it had previously suffered a meltdown. Dr James Reilly’s popularity at local level is underscored by the number of transfers he got from Fianna Fail. Over 80 per cent came from the larger party, which again underlines the groundswell back to the main parties.

In Dublin North West, the so-called alliance for change made more of an impact than elsewhere. Dr Bill Tormey polled respectably, getting just under 10 per cent of first preferences, with 70 per cent of his transfers going back to Labour, enough to help Roisín Shortall through, but not Dr Tormey himself.

Crowded House

Dr Roisín Healy was in a real crowded house in Dublin South Central, and her transfers were scattered to the four winds. Most went to a plethora of left-wing candidates, the main beneficiary being Labour’s Mary Upton.

A number of analysts had predicted that Dr Leo Varadkar would come close in Dublin West, and he didn’t disappoint. Unlike Dublin North, though, there was no help from Fianna Fail; in fact over half his transfers came from Felix Gallagher of Sinn Féin, another young candidate in nearby Mulhuddart.

In Galway East, the alliance for change didn’t hold up well, and the decision by Fine Gael to run four candidates when it could realistically only win two seats undoubtedly hit Dr John Barton’s hopes. As expected, the Fine Gael candidates transferred cleanly among themselves, but a much smaller proportion of the Labour Party’s preferences transferred back to Fine Gael.

Twomey’s misfortune

In Mayo, Dr Jerry Cowley got only a third of the first preferences he received in 2002. Although he has a long record of campaigning for better health and social services, this was countered by his close association with the Shell-to-Sea organisation, whose campaign against the Corrib gas project has often been controversial. The principal beneficiary of his elimination was fellow independent, Beverley Flynn, who was not campaigning specifically on the health/hospital services ticket.

Dr Liam Twomey was unfortunate in Wexford. Although his share of the first preference vote was down slightly on what he received five years ago, a key problem was that he simply didn’t attract the transfers like he did before, which may underline once again that health, though it preyed on the voters’ minds, didn’t follow through to the actual vote.

So where to from here? Some first-time doctor candidates failed to make an impact with the voters, not because they weren’t good candidates, but because people have doubts that the services could be improved much by changing the government.

Part of the problem is that the health service does a poor job in selling itself, and part is that the sensitivity of the health issue– in political, economic and social terms– means it’s hard to win every time on it. I would venture one firm conclusion at this point, and that is that voters now expect the new government, whatever its hue, to continue and accelerate the reform programme, not as an administrative project, but as one for developing and improving services.

If the election has proved anything, it is that people are running out of patience with a public health system, which they believe is not achieving anything like the potential of the extra funding it is getting. Could this be the start of a sea-change?