Battle lines now drawn for local contests
With the period of uncertainty now over regarding Mayo’s electoral boundaries, what will the knock-on effect be for our 31 councillors after this week’s changes?
THE way has now been cleared for the battle to get under way for the 31 seats on Mayo County Council. And with just over eleven months to go to the elections, the new boundaries announced by the Boundary Commission last week are already generating plenty of speculation in political circles.
Mayo will have six constituencies instead of seven with the disbanding of the Ballinrobe three-seater. Claremorris, which now takes in the vast bulk of the ‘old’ Ballinrobe constituency moves from a four- to a six-seater while Castlebar moves from a six- to a seven-seater. One can confidently predict that independents will hold the balance of power in Mayo County Council next June.
Boundary changes, by their nature, cannot please everyone. At a glance, Fine Gael councillor Jarlath Munnelly in Killala and Frank Chambers (FF) in Newport appear to be the two sitting councillors with a battle royal on their hands. Jarlath sees a very sizeable chunk of his base area moved from Ballina to Belmullet. And with the phenomenal performance of party colleague Michelle Mulherin from Ballina town in last year’s General Election, Jarlath now finds himself with a daunting task ahead. He will have to opt for the Ballina six-seater where Fine Gael’s chances of holding four are now very remote.
Staying in the Ballina area, Seamus Weir, whose term as chairman of Mayo County Council draws to a close very shortly, looks a safe bet for Fine Gael. He has been a very able councillor and is a man with the common touch who attracts votes from all sides. Michelle Mulherin and Eddie Staunton are well-placed to deliver seats for Fine Gael too.
Johnnie O’Malley has consolidated his base in Ballina and Ardnaree for Fianna Fáil. Poll-topper in 2004, Annie May Reape, has had an unusually low profile over the past year and, while she will be expected to win a seat, is unlikely to repeat her poll-topping performance of 2004. The other seat is up for grabs and a strong independent could make a serious challenge here.
Frank Chambers has had to face some mighty battles before. This time, it is an even a higher mountain to climb for the Newport man. A very sizeable part of his heartland has been switched from Westport to Belmullet. If he goes, my bet is that he will stay in the Westport Electoral Area.
Fine Gael’s John O’Malley from Carrowholly has also lost some votes in the ‘switch’. Austin Francis O’Malley (FG) in Louisburgh and Margaret Adams (FF) in Westport have not been impacted at all. Ah, but what if Mary McGreal decides to run as an independent in the Westport area? Mary has a huge profile on the hospital services issue and in various organisations and few would bet against her taking a seat.
The Ballinrobe three-seater is now history after a ten-year life span. Patsy O’Brien (FG), Damien Ryan (FF) and Harry Walsh (Ind) won seats last time out. Outgoing Fine Gael councillor Michael Burke lost out to Harry Walsh.
The new revision sees Patsy O’Brien shed in the region of 270 votes to the Castlebar area. Pasty is hopping mad over losing some of his home territory around Ballyglass. Now, he will have to turn his sights towards Taugheen and Mayo Abbey, Garrymore and Crossboyne, which puts him on course for a ‘Civil War’ with party colleague Tom Connolly in Claremorris! Patsy has worked with CIE at Claremorris Railway Station for many years.
He will also have to fend off what could be a very strong challenge by Michael Burke to win back his seat in Ballinrobe town. All of this has the makings of an intense internal Fine Gael battle while John Cribbin (FG) looks to be king of the hill in Ballyhaunis and, in my opinion, the best-placed candidate of all to hold on to his seat in the new six-seater.
Damien Ryan finds himself with a big geographical spread and I can’t see him in danger at this stage … unless Fianna Fáil hit a truly disastrous day. Even allowing for the fact that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are likely to shed seats next June, Ryan appears a safe bet to me in the deep south.
Pat McHugh (FF) from Ballindine has yet to declare his intentions whether or not he will run this time around. The loss of the Aghamore region will impact mostly on Michael Carty (FF) although he is unlikely to have to face a home parish challenge from a local Fine Gael candidate on this occasion. (John Kelly ran four years ago). There is a strong move within the party to field a Claremorris parish candidate this time around.
Richard Finn (Ind), who lost his seat in 2004, is expected to contest again next June. He could well be involved in an intense battle with Tom Connolly and a new Fianna Fáil Claremorris town area candidate. There is also the possibility that Sinn Féin might field a candidate in the six-seater, while Stephen Finn (Ind) may throw his hat in the ring again.
The Swinford area is the least changed with just the addition of Aghamore which, on the surface, would appear to suit both Eugene Lavin (FG) and Gerry Murray (Sinn Féin). Joe Mellett (FG) is the incoming chairman of Mayo County Council, while Jimmy Maloney (FF) in Foxford is expected to contest again. Watch out for a fresh challenge from Michael Smyth (FF) in the Swinford region.
One of the biggest smiles of all when the news was announced last week must have been on the face of Michael Kilcoyne in Castlebar. The Castlebar town councillor, who went within a whisker of taking a seat on the County Council four years ago, looks odds-on to fulfil a long-held ambition next time around. He will again be standing as an independent.
Fine Gael should take three out of seven here (Cyril Burke benefits substantially from the boundary changes), Fianna Fáil two (Al McDonnell is also a beneficiary from the changes) in the form of Sean Bourke and Al McDonnell, with Johnny Mee of Labour and a third Fianna Fáil candidate probably in a battle for the other seat. Maybe Noel Campbell of Sinn Féin might have a run for a County Council seat yet, while other independents may declare in the Castlebar town region.
Fianna Fáil are probably favourites to take two of the four in the Belmullet Electoral Area with Tim Quinn and Micheál McNamara best placed to retain their seats. Gerry Coyle should be safe for Fine Gael while Michael Holmes (outgoing Ind) has the benefit of campaigning on the No side in the Lisbon Treaty, reflecting he was far more in tune with the Mayo voters than many of the candidates of the two main parties. Still, watch out for a strong Sinn Féin challenge in this region to which Fianna Fáil may come under some pressure.
A long-term prediction for Mayo sees Fine Gael falling back somewhat from the 15 seats won in 2004, Fianna Fáil not rising above the 12 they won on the same day, Gerry Murray holding his Sinn Féin seat, Johnny Mee hanging in for Labour’s only seat, and with a definite increase in the number of independents elected to Mayo County Council. It may not be a good day nationally for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
Population Cllrs Pop per cllr
Ballina 22,978 6 3,830
Belmullet 15,297 4 3,824
Castlebar 28,356 7 4,051
Claremorris 25,192 6 4,199
Swinford 16,457 4 4,137
Westport 15,469 4 3,867
Chambers left between a rock and a hard place
THE announcement by the Electoral Area Commission that five District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) are to be transferred into the Belmullet Electoral Area firmly puts the cat among the pigeons for potential candidates considering running in next year’s Council elections.
Newport East, with a population of 1,021, moves from Westport into Belmullet, while Ballycastle, Bunaveela, Kilfian West and Lacken North, with a combined population of 1,228, have all left the Ballina Electoral Area. With the additional population rise of 2,249, the electoral area has been able to keep its four Council seats, but it has made the electoral area by far the largest geographically in the county – and most likely in the country.
The inclusion of Newport East in the fray will leave the party organisations and the candidates with a lot to think about in the coming weeks and months. Newport councillor Frank Chambers is the councillor most affected by the redrawing of the boundary, and this puts him between a rock and a hard place.
If he were to remain in the Westport Electoral Area he would lose his core vote base in Newport and if he were to opt for the Belmullet area, he would be up against current councillors, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál McNamara and Independent Michael Holmes for votes in the Achill/Burrishoole region.
The predicament for Fianna Fáil is in deciding whether or not to run the three current councillors (Tim Quinn, Chambers and McNamara) in the Belmullet area and try to win three of the four seats. Tim Quinn in Belmullet would be a cert to hold on to his seat but the chances of McNamara and Chambers both winning a seat would be slim considering they will both be looking for votes in the Achill, Ballycroy and Burrishoole parishes.
Word on the ground in Achill and Burrishoole is that of the current councillors in Belmullet, Michael Holmes would be the most likely to benefit when you consider he will now have all of Burrishoole to canvass.
The transfer of Newport East into Belmullet may also open the door for Fine Gael to reclaim the seat Pat Kilbane lost in 2004. Before Kilbane lost his seat, he had been a long-standing councillor in the old Westport Electoral Area, which included Newport, and if he chooses to run again, the consensus is that his past profile in Burrishoole may help him.
The inclusion of the three DEDs from Ballina is likely to benefit the candidates in the Erris region and, barring the arrival on the scene of a high-profile candidate, it is difficult to see past Tim Quinn and Gerry Coyle being re-elected.
The fall-out from the redrawing of the DED will not be known until next year’s election, but the coming months will make for interesting reading.
Possible opening for new Fianna Fáil runner
THE lost of the Newport East electoral division to bolster the numbers of the Belmullet Electoral Area means what looked a fairly straightforward campaign in Westport could now be very interesting indeed.
Cllr Frank Chambers has said this week that there is a possibility he could run in Westport, Belmullet or even in Castlebar and, judging by the fractious relationship the Newport man has had down through the years with party strategists, the decision is likely to be his own.
Because there are two sitting Fianna Fáil councillors in Belmullet, it may make more sense for Chambers to run in Westport as he already has plenty of support in Fianna Fáil ranks in the town after his general election campaigns. However, it would be a huge risk as 27.5 per cent of Chambers’s first preference vote came from the town of Newport last time out – that was 46 per cent of all the votes cast in Newport. Chambers probably has the toughest decision to make of all 31 councillors after these boundary changes.
Fianna Fáil will also have to run a candidate in the west of the electoral area to take on sitting councillor, Austin Francis O’Malley. Peter Sweeney polled 30 more votes than O’Malley at the last election and remains a viable candidate but O’Malley has built up his profile during this term, which included a spell as Leas-Chathaoirleach, so it will be tough to unseat him.
However, it was only after the elimination of Sweeney last time out that O’Malley pulled ahead of colleague Peter Flynn, who polled a very respectable 1,132 first preference votes last time. Flynn must be tempted to give it one more go but his colleague on Westport Town Council, Tereasa McGuire, who sought a nomination for the Seanad, may also have an eye on a County Council seat. Cllr John O’Malley polled very well last time out, in his first election, and the boundary change should not affect him adversely.
If Chambers is to run in Belmullet, then the most obvious second Fianna Fáil candidate in Westport town is Declan Dever, who after 15 years on the Town Council, may possibly now be eyeing a seat in Áras an Chontae.
However, nothing can be set in stone until Chambers decides where he is running. One thing is for sure, if Chambers heads for Belmullet then Westport will have at least one new face representing them on the local authority – and Labour councillor Keith Martin has already declared for what will be an intriguing battle.
Partition could mean bother for Munnelly
IN ORDER for the Belmullet Electoral Area to hold onto its four seats on the Council, the Electoral Commission decided to transfer four DEDs from Ballina to Belmullet. While it will not take away any seat in the Ballina area, it will have ramifications for some councillors in terms of endeavouring to hold on to their seats.
The District Divisions of Ballycastle, Bunaveela, Kilfian West and Lacken North have a total population of 1,228, and a consequence of the changes is that the parishes of Lacken and Kilfian have been partitioned. While this will affect these parishes in terms of representation, the loss of the votes could have more serious implications for the prospects of Killala-based Fine Gael councillor, Jarlath Munnelly, holding on to his seat.
Given that Cllr Munnelly will now live just three miles from the new boundary between Ballina and Belmullet, he will be the most affected by the new changes. In the 2004 election, Munnelly relied on the votes he got from Ballycastle and Lacken North in particular to win him the seat for the first time, and he would have been relying on winning at least 300 first preference votes in those areas at next year’s election in order to have a chance of retaining his seat.
During that election he was narrowly elected on the eight and final count, along with Cllr Johnnie O’Malley, without having reached the quota. In a hard-fought battle, he relied on nine votes from Eddie Staunton’s surplus to take the seat and edge out outgoing Fianna Fáil councillor, Stephen Molloy with just 47 votes to spare – votes no doubt picked up in the regions now transferred to Belmullet.
While Cllr Munnelly is the most likely current councillor to suffer most from the loss to Belmullet, his Fine Gael colleague Eddie Staunton will also be losing a few votes by the loss of Kilfian West and Bunaveela. Whether the loss of these votes will have a significant affect on his overall vote remains to be seen but the Crossmolina man could be looking over his shoulder in the run-in to the election.
The loss of the four DEDs could leave the door open to Fianna Fáil to take the seat they lost at the last election and even up the number of councillors in the Ballina area at three a-piece. Who may take that seat is another question but the loss of the rural votes could leave the possibility of another town candidate taking a seat.
No one resting easy after southern carve-up
ONCE the terms of reference for the redrawing of the electoral area boundaries were announced earlier this year, the people of Ballinrobe sensed time was running out. Minister John Gormley was determined to do away with three-seater electoral areas and, in the end, only three out of 32 in the country survived.
The Ballinrobe people made a very strong case for the retention of their electoral area, with 12 of the 16 submissions made to the committee relating to Ballinrobe in some way. However, due to the population boom in Castlebar, an extra councillor had to be found from somewhere for the county town – so one was sacrificed in the amalgamation of Ballinrobe and Claremorris. That means that at least one of the seven sitting councillors from the two electoral areas as they stand will not be back in Áras an Chontae after next’s summer’s election.
Ballinrobe is, in a sense, very unlucky to suffer because of Castlebar’s population boom, particularly since it has itself also experienced huge population growth in the last decade – with the total number of people in the electoral area rising by six per cent between 2002 and 2006.
However, as harsh as it seems, the decision is now made and won’t be changed and a battle royal is set to commence all the way from Knock to Shrule.
One striking feature of the new electoral area is that of the seven councillors, all of whom are to seek re-election, only one is positioned in the two main towns – Tom Connolly in Claremorris. So, over the next few weeks and months both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will surely be scouring both towns for candidates with a decent chance of success. Two who spring to mind are former councillor Michael Burke, who seems certain to try and right the wrongs of 2004 by regaining his Fine Gael seat, and Ger McHale, a young member of the Fianna Fáil national executive who could inject some much-needed vigour into the Fianna Fáil side of Áras an Chontae.
So who of the sitting councillors is in the gravest danger? Independent Harry Walsh caused a huge surprise last time when gaining a seat as an Independent but with high-profile councillors Damien Ryan and Patsy O’Brien now effectively on his doorstep, he does appear to be facing an uphill battle. At the opposite side of the electoral area, the loss of Aghamore to the Swinford area could impact on Michael Carty’s prospects of re-election. He took 35 per cent of the box in Aghamore in 2004, but with a term under his belt and a brother in the Seanad, Carty should still be in the shake-up. All in all, it promises to be a great battle and realistically no can rest easy at present.
Least affected area still likely to be competitive
AS previously mentioned, the only change to the Swinford boundary is the inclusion of the Aghamore area at the expense of the Claremorris. Geographically, this should suit Kiltimagh Fine Gael councillor, Eugene Lavin, as he is closest to this area where roughly 400 votes are up for grabs.
All four sitting councillors are well spread geographically with Fianna Fáil’s Jimmy Maloney in Foxford, Gerry Murray in Charlestown, Joe Mellett in Swinford and the aforementioned Lavin in Kiltimagh.
Lavin and Murray would appear to be relatively safe at present but challenges could well be put up to Maloney and Mellett. JJ O’Hara’s profile has increased significantly in the last five years due to his work with the Admiral Brown Society and his entry into the race would worry Maloney, while FF could target Mellett as he only just scraped home in the last election, without reaching the quota.
Extra seat is music to Cllr Kilcoyne’s ears
CASTLEBAR looks set for an intriguing battle next summer with an extra seat up for grabs in an area which has only marginally been extended geographically by the inclusion of the Burriscarra, Portroyal and Roslee areas, which had been in the Castlebar area before the 1999 local elections.
The population of the electoral area is now 28,356 thanks to the inclusion of these three areas, and with sitting councillors Cyril Burke (Ballyglass) and Al McDonnell (Moorehall) living in the Roslee and Burriscarra areas respectively, they look like the ones most likely to benefit from this rural expansion.
However, Castlebar has undergone a large urban growth since the last election and it will most likely be in the heartland of the town where the seventh seat will be won and lost.
The announcement of this extra seat will surely please Independent Castlebar town councillor, Michael Kilcoyne, who now looks sure to put his hat in the ring once again after going so close in 2004.
Burke, McDonnell and long-serving councillors Henry Kenny and Johnny Mee all look certain to seek re-election but doubts remain about the participation of both Sean Bourke and Paddy McGuinness. Bourke was the first elected last time round but health problems have curtailed his impact during this term. McGuinness was adamant that he was only returning to politics for one term of the Council but he has acted as party whip during this term and is likely to be convinced to stay on for one more term – especially now with a possible fourth seat up for grabs for the party in the leader’s hometown.
If Sean Bourke chooses not to run, Fianna Fáil are faced with the huge task of finding at least three new candidates who are in a position to challenge for a seat. A lot will depend on how well the wounds have healed since the ‘Flynn faction fighting’ in Castlebar town – and the word is that meetings to be organised by the party HQ have not yet taken place, even though Beverley is now three months back in the party.
Of the sitting Castlebar town councillors, Aidan Crowley has already had a crack – with disappointing results – in 2004 while Blackie Gavin is certainly seen more as an Independent Fianna Fáil candidate at this stage. However, he remains extremely popular on the ground and would relish the challenge of trying to rejuvenate the party’s fortune’s in the county town. It also may pay dividend for either of the main parties to try to locate a strong candidate in the northern part of the electoral area, possibly close to Straide.