Support for Independents likely to dictate outcome
REDEFINING BOUNDARIES:The revision makes Tipperary difficult to predict, but the Lowry machine seems secure, writes MICHAEL O'REGAN, Parliamentary Correspondent
COULD THE new five-seat Tipperary constituency possibly return three Independents to the Dáil? Although conventional political wisdom would dismiss such a possibility, it is likely that three high-profile outgoing Independent TDs could be seeking re-election.
There is the usual expectation that Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil will each take a seat, leaving the remaining two up for grabs. This should see the three outgoing Independents in an intense battle with other candidates.
But things are more complicated than that.
Tipperary North’s Michael Lowry is no ordinary Independent. A consistent poll-topper, his organisation has seven councillors in its ranks, making it something of a local political party in its own right.
The Holycross-based former Fine Gael minister has topped the poll in every general election since becoming an Independent in 1997. In the last general election, he secured 14,104 first preferences, or 29 per cent of the vote. Locally, he is seen as unstoppable in the new constituency. Right now, nobody is ruling out Lowry repeating his poll-topping feat in the new constituency.
If this were to happen, and four seats were spoken for, Mattie McGrath and Séamus Healy would probably be among those fighting for the remaining seat.
The outcome of this potential bloodbath would be impossible to predict.
McGrath and Healy, who is effectively an Independent despite using the ULA banner, will not be easily unseated. Both are tough and tenacious politicians with strong track records.
McGrath was first elected to the Dáil for Fianna Fáil in 2007 but left the party to run as an Independent last time over issues including stag hunting and the EU-IMF bailout.
Inevitably, there is speculation that McGrath, from Clonmel, might return to his old party in an act of mutual political convenience. Party leader Micheál Martin would welcome the boost to his depleted Dáil numbers should McGrath return before the next general election.
McGrath might reckon that a return to the fold would enhance his chances of holding his seat, particularly if the party increases its poll ratings between now and the election.
Asked about a possible reconciliation, he said that when Fianna Fáil came back to him, he would go back to the party. “It has to be the party of the values that Fianna Fáil was proud of,” he added. “For instance, I am totally opposed to same-sex marriage which is now part of Fianna Fáil policy.”
Healy was first elected to the Dáil in a byelection in 2000, after unsuccessful attempts in 1992 and 1997. He retained his seat in the 2002 general election but lost it in 2007.
He polled 8,818 first preferences in the general election, just behind poll-topper Fine Gael’s Tom Hayes. He was well ahead of Labour’s Phil Prendergast, competing in a one-time stronghold for the party, and a strong transfer from Prendergast eventually secured him a seat.
Healy’s challenge now is to broaden his appeal across the county, with the Tipperary North Labour vote a particular target.
That will be resisted by Tipperary North Labour TD and Minister of State for Transport Alan Kelly who could well be the party’s sole candidate next time. Labour has had a chequered history in the constituency and Kelly took a seat in the general election with the political wind at Labour’s back.
He returned from Europe to contest the election, at the request of party leader Eamon Gilmore, and was replaced by Phil Prendergast as an MEP. Kelly came close to doubling the party’s vote and took the third seat a comfortable 2,000 votes ahead of outgoing FF TD and former minister of state Máire Hoctor.
As Healy eyes the Tipperary North Labour vote, Nenagh-based Kelly will be seeking to build on the 4,525 first preferences secured by Prendergast in the last general election.
The five-seater is providing fertile political territory for ambitious Fianna Fáil councillors, given that the party is without a seat in Tipperary.
Roscrea-based Michael Smith jnr, son of former TD and minister Michael Smith, has been hotly tipped to be among those seeking a nomination.
He topped the poll with 1,791 first preferences in the Templemore electoral area in the 2009 local elections. Asked if he had Dáil ambitions, Smith replied: “It is very early days yet, but I am leaving all doors open.”
Another councillor to watch is Clonmel-based Siobhán Ambrose who ticks the boxes for the kind of candidate Micheál Martin has in mind. Young and female, she secured 1,160 first preferences to finish second to Séamus Healy, who had 2,336, in the last local elections.
Séamus Hanafin, who topped the poll in the Thurles electoral area with 1,590 votes, could also be in the running.
Fine Gael has two strong sitting TDs in the new constituency in Tipperary North’s Noel Coonan and Tipperary South’s Tom Hayes.
Coonan has to look over his shoulder at Lowry, whose surplus took him over the line to secure the second seat in the general election.
In the new constituency, Hayes will also be keeping a close eye on Lowry who will be seeking to poach some of the Fine Gael vote in Hayes’s backyard.
The fate of Coonan, Hayes and Kelly, as the three outgoing Government TDs, will be influenced by the Coalition’s popularity at the time.
Sinn Féin’s Seán Morris polled 3,034 first preferences in Tipperary North in the general election and the party will look to build a base.
Tipperary North: Michael Lowry, Ind; Noel Coonan, FG; Alan Kelly, Lab.
Tipperary South: Séamus Healy, United Left Alliance; Tom Hayes, FG; Mattie McGrath, Ind.