Tipp seat signals balance of power

Wed, May 16, 2007, 01:00

Constituency profile: Tipperary North:When one looks back over the elections of the last half a century, a definitive pattern emerges in Tipperary North that has nationwide implications.

When Fianna Fáil loses its second seat here, it tends to lose power. For the last decade Fianna Fáil has held two of the three seats in this constituency.

Since 1997 neither Fine Gael nor Labour has won a seat. It is a situation both are desperate to change; taking the second Fianna Fáil seat is their only chance.

North Tipperary is Michael Lowry country. The former Fine Gael minister topped the poll as an Independent in 1997 after the McCracken tribunal into payments to politicians and again in 2002. He created the State's most formidable independent political machine which revelations about him in the Moriarty tribunal have not dented.

The machine is again highly active, with a volunteer team of up to 60 canvassers working for him on any given day.

His seat is considered safe and he is expected to top the poll yet again, although there is concern in his camp that he is vulnerable to other candidates telling Lowry voters that his seat is safe.

Tipperary North is on a list of marginals Fianna Fáil is determined to hold. Party strategists have put considerable attention and effort into how the campaign is being fought here by its two sitting TDs and candidates, Maire Hoctor and former minister for defence Michael Smith.

Good vote management saw both elected in 2002 with less than 41 per cent of the vote, but with just 600 votes to spare.

Failure to either maintain or manage this vote will mean that one TD will lose their seat. With considerable division within Fianna Fáil locally, there are few predicting that both will survive.

The question is, which seat is more vulnerable? Conventional wisdom suggests it is that of veteran TD Michael Smith.

With a base in Roscrea, he has always had to rely on votes well outside this geographical base to succeed.

Fine Gael candidate Senator Noel Coonan, the strongest challenger, is also from Roscrea.

Smith's vote is also vulnerable to former Fianna Fáil councillor Jim Ryan who is based in Thurles, although he is not seen as having a chance of taking a seat.

Maire Hoctor's base in Nenagh, the largest town in the constituency, adds to the view that hers is the safer seat. One of the younger members of Fianna Fáil's back bench, she is often mentioned as junior minister material, a suggestion her campaign is keen to convey on the doorsteps.

There are, however, a number of factors that suggest Hoctor is also under considerable pressure.

The first is the number of Nenagh-based candidates, four in all, as opposed to two in 2002. These include Labour Senator Kathleen O'Meara, Sinn Féin town councillor Séamus Morris, and PD candidate and former Fianna Fáil town councillor Tony Sheary. The latter two are especially likely to eat into Hoctor's first preferences, with Morris expected to poll quite well.

Secondly, the Government has been taking criticism over the future of Nenagh hospital and the closure of the Procter & Gamble plant in the town, the largest local employer.

O'Meara has the best chance of the Nenagh-based candidates to take a seat. It is her third attempt, and she has enjoyed a strong profile on Nenagh hospital.

For her to win, one of two things must happen. First, she would need to be ahead of Hoctor after the elimination of Morris and Sheary. Even with a poor election for Hoctor, who was 3,400 votes ahead of O'Meara in 2002, this is unlikely.

The second would be for the Labour Senator to poll ahead of Fine Gael's Noel Coonan on the first count. In 2002 she was 500 votes behind.

To overtake him O'Meara must attract a significant vote from outside Nenagh but her campaign team is relatively small. This vulnerability suggests Coonan, rather than O'Meara, is likely to take the third seat at the expense of Fianna Fáil.Health, especially the possible downgrading of Nenagh hospital, is a significant issue for the constituency. What can be broadly called "rural way of life" issues, from planning to the drink-driving clampdown, also come up on the doorsteps.

The local economy, particularly recent job losses like those in Procter & Gamble in Nenagh, features strongly in parts of the constituency.

VERDICT: FG - 1, FF - 1, Ind - 1. Prediction: Fine Gael gain at expense of Fianna Fáil.