The Labour Party continues to consolidate its stellar performance nationally, even catching falling stars from the now-defunct Progressive Democrats. However, only twice in its history has Labour won a Dáil seat in Mayo.
In June 1927, and again in September of that year, the parliamentary party leader Thomas O’Connell, from Bekan near Knock, was returned for South Mayo. Five years later, O’Connell was gone as a TD and Labour was effectively driven out of the county by the Civil War parties. It never regained a foothold.
Dr Jerry Cowley will be conscious that Labour’s electoral record in Mayo has been dismal. After the departure of O’Connell in 1932, the party rarely polled more than 5 per cent of first preference votes, while it contested just one-third of all general elections between 1932 and 2007. To all intents and purposes, Mayo has been a Labour-free zone for three-quarters of a century, thanks in no small part to the success of the political dynasty that the Mulranny GP must try to topple if he is to repeat the feat that saw him emerge onto the national stage as an Independent TD in 2002.
The Calleary name has been synonymous with Mayo politics for decades and Minister of State Dara is the third generation to have held a seat in the Dáil. First elected in 2007, he has benefited hugely from Brian Cowen’s patronage, initially being appointed Minister of State for labour affairs and latterly, adding public service reform to his list of responsibilities.
In the ordinary course, Calleary’s rising star-status would be enough to enable him to hold his seat comfortably. But the spectre of a former Independent TD nibbling into his support in north Mayo, allied to the voters’ view that Fianna Fáil is the political equivalent of Chernobyl, is surely his worst nightmare.
Beverley Flynn is afflicted by exactly the same handicap, but she also has to deal with the headache posed by local undertaker, trade union activist and sitting councillor Michael Kilcoyne, on top of the challenge of having the Taoiseach-in-waiting on her patch.
Labour’s success in persuading Dr Jerry Cowley to join the party and to stand in the next general election reflects the party leader’s desire to maximise his seat haul in the next Dáil by ensuring there is at least one candidate in every constituency. However, there is a distinct possibility that the party has backed the wrong horse in Mayo and might have been better off trying to woo back the independent Kilcoyne. But Dr Cowley is clearly convinced he can win again. To have a hope, he has to reverse his catastrophic losses in 2007. And if he does, who might pay the price?
The election results tell a remarkable tale. In 2002, Dr Cowley polled a little over 8,700 first preference votes, nearly 14 per cent of the total, giving him the first seat in the new five-seat Mayo constituency. The electoral areas where he performed best were Belmullet, Ballina, Swinford and Castlebar. The party tallies indicate that these four electoral areas provided 70 per cent of Cowley’s votes and almost two-thirds of all votes cast in the constituency.
In 2007, however, Dr Cowley crashed. The election results indicate that first preference vote collapsed from 8,700 to just over 3,400 – a drop of 60 per cent. Once again, according to the tallies, the electoral areas of Belmullet, Ballina, Swinford and Castlebar accounted for close to two-thirds of all votes cast, yet the Mulranny GP pulled in just 2,500 or 5.5 per cent of them. In other words, two in every three voters in the four key electoral areas that propelled Dr Cowley into the Dáil in 2002, had deserted him again five years later. He has, at most, just two years to win them back.
Kilcoyne from Castlebar
But the best-laid plans could come to nought if Kilcoyne from Castlebar enters the fray. Fine Gael should be assured of three seats, as its four candidates shared over three quotas at the last general election and the party, which polled better in Mayo than it did nationally at that time, has since been soaring in the polls.
This means there will be a ferocious fight for the last two seats, both of which are held by Fianna Fáil. Only one is safe. But which one? If Kilcoyne runs, he is more likely to damage Flynn. If so, Cowley’s best hope may be to go after Calleary. For Dr Cowley, that means working the electoral areas of Belmullet where he is naturally strong, Ballina where he needs to break through, and Westport where he must rein in Kilcoyne.
The tallies indicate that these three electoral areas delivered just over 4,300 votes for Cowley in 2002 but fewer than 2,400 in 2007. Even if Dr Cowley could recover those ‘lost’ 2,000 votes, pull the same 3,800 or so first preferences he actually won in all seven electoral areas in 2007, and the 800-odd votes won by Labour’s Harry Barrett – he would still have only 6,600 votes, or a little over half a quota. And in this relatively benign scenario, Kilcoyne is not even in the field.
Any candidate who can simultaneously get elected as a town councillor and a county councillor, as Kilcoyne has been, without putting up a single poster, clearly has a high profile and a serious organisation. This means that Kilcoyne could not only scupper Cowley’s chances, but could also squeeze out sitting TD Beverly Flynn.
The potential for this kind of catastrophe would be greatly increased if Fianna Fáil fails to field a credible candidate in the Belmullet electoral area, who can protect the Flynn flank by checking the Mulranny GP and bringing the transfers that are critical to her electoral prospects in the face of the near-collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote.
Even if Kilcoyne can keep Cowley out, the latter could still wreck Calleary’s chances, especially as the junior minister will be under pressure from Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin in his home base of Ballina. Mulherrin is not expected to be elected, but to ensure that Enda Kenny, Michael Ring and John O’Mahony are.
While Calleary and Flynn ran neck and neck in terms of first preference votes in 2007, scooping just under 20 per cent of these votes between them, both will be under serious pressure as the voters lay into Fianna Fáil. If Kilcoyne were to capture Flynn’s seat in Castlebar and a pincer movement by Dr Cowley and Mulherrin were to push Calleary’s percentage share of the vote into moderate single figures, the high-flying junior minister could crash and burn, leaving party colleague Senator John Carty in the south of the county to take a single seat for Fianna Fáil.
Sinn Féin may well play a decisive part in the next general election. The party took nearly 3,600 first preference votes in 2007 – almost as much as Cowley – and it now has two seats on Mayo County Council, in the Belmullet and Swinford electoral areas. In fact, the biggest beneficiary from the transfer of Sinn Féin’s votes in 2007 was Dr Cowley, who got nearly a quarter of them.
The old enemy
It is going to be bumpy next time out in Mayo, most of all for Fianna Fáil. On past performance and present poll ratings, its old enemy is certain of three seats. In order to be sure of holding at least one of the remaining two, Fianna Fáil needs to bear in mind that sitting TD Beverly Flynn is vulnerable to a challenge from the Fine Gael leader and independent Michael Kilcoyne, while junior Dara Calleary is endangered most by the predations of a Cowley and Mulherrin pincer.
For decades, the party could count on winning four seats out of six in Mayo. Then it was three out of five. Fianna Fáil now faces the awful possibility that it might get just one out of five. Truly the stuff that nightmares are made of – but indicative of the new reality that a once all-conquering national movement, which was instrumental in driving the party Dr Jerry Cowley has joined, out of Mayo, must now go toe-to-toe with it in the scramble for every last vote. What a turnaround.