Ganley's chances hard to gauge in area of unknowns

 

CONSTITUENCY PROFILE: NORTH WESTIRELAND NORTH West is a constituency of the unknowns, both because of the presence of Libertas's Declan Ganley and the arrival within its boundaries of Longford and Westmeath. So far, Ganley has not figured prominently in opinion polls, and local politicians divide over whether he will surge in the campaign's final days, as Dana did in 1999.

Undoubtedly, the Libertas head has deliberately put himself at odds with the candidates from the major parties, thus emphasising his profile at every point. His campaign infuriates his opponents, who argue that they have no choice but to respond to unfounded allegations; even if this plays into his hands.

Ganley, the only Galway-based candidate in the race, will, however, need more than the conservative Catholic vote enjoyed by the former Eurovision winner 10 years ago.

Indeed, Ganley's emphasised links to the church may have downsides too, since the political landscape has changed in ways yet unknowable following the devastating report into institutional child abuse. As of now, it is far from clear if he has anything else other than a conservative vote, and his decision to row publicly last week with the Irish Farmers' Association could alienate as many as it impresses.

The race is not short of conservative candidates, so he will find it difficult to prevent leakage from the socially conservative as polling day approaches.

National opinion polls indicate that the public mood - minus the ebullience of the Celtic Tiger - is less receptive to the Ganley-type message this time. However, there is a Euro-doubtful constituency in the North West: 30,000 people in Mayo voted against Lisbon; more than 20,000 did in Cavan.

Fine Gael's outgoing MEP, Jim Higgins, who should be re-elected, has disobeyed party chiefs and started to campaign outside of Galway, Mayo and Clare.

His running mate, Cavan/Monaghan's Senator Joe O'Reilly, had a substantial vote in the 2007 general election, receiving more than 9,000 votes, even if it did not win him a seat.

Fine Gael is pushing O'Reilly's candidature at every turn, up to creating an Obama-style "phone bank" to contact thousands of voters every night to seek support.

Sligo/Leitrim TD John Perry, who is Fine Gael's director of elections, insists that O'Reilly will be in with a shout of the third seat, receiving transfers from all sides.

The row between Higgins on the one hand, and O'Reilly and headquarters, is partly real and partly manufactured.

Nothing attracts media coverage like a row.

Fine Gael in the North West, as is happening in the East constituency, repeatedly emphasises its links to farmers, perhaps at the cost of alienating urban voters.

Fianna Fáil's efforts were hampered by outgoing MEP Seán Ó Neachtain's decision to stand down two weeks after he had been nominated. Ó Neachtain says he did so on medical advice, though critics within even Fianna Fáil's own ranks argue that he took fright when he started to sample opinion on the ground.

His departure provoked weeks of activity by Fianna Fáil; but it failed, and miserably so, to find a Galway-based replacement for the Connemara man.

However, former MEP and minister of state Pat "The Cope" Gallagher's arrival has settled some nerves in the party. The Donegal South West TD, a legendary networker, kept links developed during his time as an MEP between 1994 and 2002 throughout the old Connacht/Ulster constituency.

Gallagher's campaign, though, is late getting off the ground, and much of the constituency still has to be postered by his team.

He does, however, enjoy high voter recognition, and his presence should scupper the campaign of Sinn Féin's Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, from Buncrana.

Given that Donegal voters tend never to vote outside Donegal in such contests, Gallagher should exit his home county with a substantial base to build on elsewhere. His running mate, former senator Paschal Mooney, based in Co Leitrim, is unhappy that he has been pushed into the shadows, and insists he will surprise.

Because of his "country and Irish" music connections, Mooney could, perhaps, benefit more than most from the inclusion of Longford and Westmeath - at least among older voters.

More than 80,000 voters from the two counties will be entitled to vote, and it is clear that many are still unaware of, or confused by, their transfer into North West.

Labour's Susan O'Keeffe, a former World In Action TV journalist based in Sligo, is presumably building her profile for the next general election. She will share some of the Longford/Westmeath spoils, with help from Labour's Mullingar TD Willie Penrose, who has proven a phenomenal vote-getter time after time.

Outgoing Independent MEP Marian Harkin is Ganley's main target, and he has frequently alleged that her MEP grouping in the parliament is "soft" on abortion. Harkin, a social conservative by her own description, has been stung by the charges and forced to deny them in a constituency where the conservative vote is strong.

Highly impressive as an MEP, Harkin has built a network based on care and community organisations throughout the constituency, which is coming out now to canvass for her.

Clare was included in the North West constituency in 2004, and by now the two outgoing MEPs, Harkin and Higgins, have had the chance to establish some profile there.

Independent candidate Michael McNamara, a barrister from Scariff, is running, and though he has impressed he has little profile even within the county.

The constituency is full of imponderables, particularly the voting intentions of voters in Galway city - less conservative than those elsewhere.

Ganley, who lives outside Tuam, is the candidate closest to the city, though there is little evidence that he is winning votes based upon geography.

The city is bigger, younger, more hassled and, now, more economically at risk than before, so a greater level of unpredictability is likely.

Also running as Independents are John Higgins, Tom King, Noel McCullagh and Fiachra Ó Luain.