Is Labour’s difficulty the Soc Dem’s opportunity?
Niall Ó Tuathail’s official announcement as the Social Democrats’ Galway West candidate at the next General Election is simply confirmation of what many political watchers had long expected.
Mr Ó Tuathail ran in the 2016 election, gaining 5.38 per cent of first preferences and a total vote of 5,278 which saw him last to the 11th of that election’s 14 counts. While he had hoped to challenge more substantially for a seat, and began the campaign with high hopes and confidence, his overall performance was, and was viewed by many, as quite respectable and a promising base from which to build on for the future.
Furthermore, a notable feature of his vote was that it overwhelmingly came from disillusioned former Labour voters, as well as from those for whom Sinn Féin is still somewhat problematic, and Solidarity and People Before Profit are too hard-Left – all indications that Labour’s decline could be the Soc Dem’s opportunity.
However following the election, Mr Ó Tuathail appeared to go to ground, while across the State, the Soc Dems seemed to become a moribund force, their momentum stalled. Establishing a new party is always difficult (just ask Lucinda Creighton ), but it began to look as though the party would never be any more than its founders and sitting TDs Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shorthall.
While the Soc Dems still have much to do to fully establish themselves and to capitalise on the now floating soft-Left/Liberal vote, an upswing in party activity in Galway has been noticeable in recent times, with Mr Ó Tuathail’s re-emergence engaging in issues as diverse as the Connemara ambulances and the proposed renovations of Blackrock. The party has also been canvassing and in June appointed local area representatives for the Galway East region, with Rob Partridge representing the Loughrea electoral ward, and Susan McGrady for Oranmore/Athenry.
The challenge now is for the party in Galway to build on the potential that exists and turn it into momentum. Labour is down (very down ) right now, but will not always be so and in reality, both parties are competing for exactly the same vote.
Galway West’s sitting TDs are Seán Kyne and Hildegarde Naughton (FG ), Éamon Ó Cuív (FF ), and Catherine Connolly and Noel Grealish (Ind ). Ó Cuív and Kyne are safe, meaning the battle is really for three seats. There has long been one Left seat in the constituency – a principle Michael D Higgins established in 1987 – and despite wishful thinking from some quarters, Dep Connolly remains the dominant Left presence in Galway West, with little to indicate this will change at the next election.
The question is, do two Left seats exist in Galway West? In 2016, the combined Left vote was 30.98 per cent – just under two quotas. Add in Independent councillor Mike Cubbard who draws some Left support and that becomes 34.28 – just over two quotas. So theoretically, the answer is yes. The eternal problem for the Left is that is extremely divided.
The Soc Dem’s route (and Labour’s ) to the Dáil is to try to take out FG’s Dep Naughton, and position themselves as the ‘only voice for the city’ in the Dáil – an approach Dep Naughton worked quite effectively in 2016. In Mr Ó Tuathail, and in Labour’s Cllr Niall McNelis, both parties have imaginative and energetic campaigners, but with recent polls showing the Soc Dems on two per cent and Labour at seven, neither is close to the 16.67 per cent quota needed in a five seater.
Yes, Hildegarde Naughton and Catherine Connolly’s first preference votes were only 7.11 and 7.59 in 2016, but Dep Naughton had John O’Mahony’s transfers to see her home while Dep Connolly can pull in huge transfers from the other Left candidates that Labour simply will not.
The spectre of Sinn Féin also looms large. As the third largest party in the State, a Galway West seat is surely a matter of when, not if, especially if SF ever decide to run a joint ticket of Sen Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Cllr Mairead Farrell.
The Soc Dems’ best hope in Galway remains taking over from Labour while that party is in the doldrums. Mr Ó Tuathail pointed out recently, “We were about 1,500 votes short at the last election and another 20 dedicated volunteers would have been the difference in winning”. The Soc Dems have some highly capable and excellent people in their ranks in Galway – there is potential and commitment there which would be remiss of them to allow go to waste.
The battle within the Galway Left and for the (theoretically potential ) two Left seats in the constituency will be fascinating next time out. The potential is there, but the the question, as ever, for the Soc Dems is, is the party in a position to capitalise on it?