Real battle for third seat as Crowley and Kelly look set to win

Tue, May 19, 2009, 01:00

SOUTH CONSTITUENCY:THE THREE-SEAT South constituency, taking in five of the six counties of Munster, will be a cliffhanger on June 5th. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are more or less guaranteed a seat each, but the real battle will be for the third seat.

“Already it’s shaping out to be another Cork South Central,” said Green Party candidate Dan Boyle. In the 2007 general election, six candidates vying for three Dáil seats in that constituency were all within 1,000 votes of each other. Here it seems that three to five candidates will be clustered very close to each other in the battle for the final slot.

This constituency has a tradition of surprises and of returning at least one Independent MEP in each election with TJ Maher, Pat Cox and Kathy Sinnott winning seats as non-party candidates in successive elections. For Fianna Fáil, Brian Crowley is his party’s equivalent to Fine Gael’s Mairéad McGuinness as a vote magnet.

In his 15 years in the parliament, Mr Crowley has built up a brand separate to that of Fianna Fáil. The proof is that his support levels in the Irish Times poll is 27 per cent (2 per cent above his actual vote share in the 2004 elections) at a time when Fianna Fáil’s support nationally is in freefall.

Mr Crowley is also likely to top the poll this time. The only question is whether he can surpass the 125,000 votes (1.04 quota) he attracted five years ago.

The other Fianna Fáil candidate Ned O’Keeffe will be disappointed with his support levels of 4 per cent in the polls. The Mitchelstown TD is expected to have purchase with farmers and with party supporters and pick up votes in Tipperary and Limerick. But while Mr Crowley seems unaffected by the Government’s woes, it may be Mr O’Keeffe who experiences the effects of the backlash.

It is axiomatic that Fine Gael will also win at least one seat, but identifying who that will be is more problematic than in 2004. Then, the party chose a single high-profile candidate, Simon Coveney.

In 2009 Fine Gael has opted for a two-candidate strategy. The incumbent is Colm Burke, a Cork solicitor who replaced Mr Coveney as an MEP in 2007 and who has been an effective MEP with a good attendance and voting record. However, name recognition is a significant factor in European elections and Mr Burke has suffered from not having a high profile.

The second Fine Gael candidate is certainly not lacking in that regard. Seán Kelly from south Kerry was the president of the GAA and was identified with the move to open up Croke Park to rugby and soccer. The degree of visibility and the reach of the GAA in South (Clare is the only Munster county no longer included) is partly reflected in Mr Kelly having a seven-point lead over his party colleague (17 per cent compared to 10 per cent) in the Irish Times poll.

Mr Burke pointed out yesterday that the late conclusion of business in the European Parliament has meant his campaign is only beginning to gather momentum now, but he has a lot of ground to catch up on.

Enda Kenny last week predicted the party could win two seats in the constituency, but that would require the party to attract some 40 per cent of the vote. Fianna Fáil failed to get two MEPs elected with 41 per cent five years ago.

To this end, Fine Gael has changed its strategy in the past few days. Until now, the constituency was open. Both will now share Waterford, but Mr Burke has been given Cork city and county, with Mr Kelly allotted the other three counties. However, getting 40 per cent in a crowded field may be too big an ask.

There are at least three other candidates who have prospects of securing the third seat. They are the sitting MEP Kathy Sinnott and two new candidates: Senator Alan Kelly of Labour and Toireasa Ferris of Sinn Féin.

Mr Kelly has benefited from an early selection and has conducted a high-octane and high visibility campaign over the past few months. However, he says it is a myth to suggest that his brother Declan, a wealthy businessman based in New York, has been bankrolling his campaign.

The campaign is well-resourced he says, but that has come from a very active fundraising campaign.

However, his poll result of 13 per cent may be slightly lower than his expectations. It puts him only one point ahead of Ms Sinnott and of Sinn Féin’s Toireasa Ferris, who is seen as the dark horse.

For Ms Sinnott, the focus has been on carers, on the vulnerable in society, on education, on rural matters and on what she calls Christian and family issues. Like Ms Ferris, she is also a firm opponent of the Lisbon Treaty and will not support the second referendum later this year.

But it is very unlikely she can emulate the 89,000 votes she got in 2004. The big question is how many votes will Ms Sinnott’s camp leak. Ms Ferris at 12 per cent must be considered a contender. She says she represents a new generation in their 20s and 30s who have been most affected by the downturn. That message is uncannily similar to that being pushed by Senator Kelly.

The big problem that Sinn Féin has had in recent elections has been attracting transfers, but she maintains her father has always attracted strong transfers from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supporters in Kerry.

Opponents say Ms Ferris is capable of a wider voter appeal than a Sinn Féin core vote and capable of attracting more transfers. But you suspect that she may fall just short, like Pearse Doherty did in North West in 2004.

Senator Dan Boyle of the Greens is also a strong candidate and has built up a very high national profile as his party’s conscience in Government, but the party’s presence outside Cork is patchy and he may struggle to get into double figures. The election could be determined by who finishes third on the first count.

It will take three weeks to remove some of the cloudiness surrounding seat three.

Prediction: Brian Crowley; Seán Kelly; Alan Kelly.