Mayo constituency set to be a dogfight in next election

 

Sharp exchanges between FG leader Enda Kenny and Independent TD Jerry Cowley underline tensions in the volatile five-seat Mayo constituency, writes Michael O'Regan

Enda Kenny has shown remarkable dynamism in restoring Fine Gael's fortunes, but his native Mayo is never far from his mind in a busy political life.

As the alternative taoiseach he has to avoid a dogmatic stand on the controversy surrounding the Corrib gas project and the jailing of the "Rossport Five", who refused to allow Shell build a pipeline on their land. But his constituency colleague Independent Jerry Cowley need have no such inhibitions.

Mr Kenny holds Dr Cowley responsible for the behaviour of those who picketed his Castlebar office. Dr Cowley responded that Mr Kenny should clarify where he stands on the question of Shell building an offshore terminal.

Local sources say this is not a major issue outside the area affected, although there is concern about the jailed men.

The public mood was perhaps best summed up by the Tallyman, political columnist with the Connaught Telegraph, who wrote: "This matter is above politics. It is not about gaining newspaper, radio or television headlines. It's about getting five innocent men out of jail."

Behind it all, is the looming political dogfight in the constituency, once a Fine Gael stronghold. Fine Gael once held three of the five seats, but this changed in 2002 when Jim Higgins, now an MEP, lost the third FG seat to Dr Cowley.

The latter, from Mulranny, is intent on retaining his seat and makes no secret of his desire to see like-minded Independents holding the balance of power in the next Dáil. Ministerial office would be on the agenda of any talks with the new government.

Mr Kenny will be anxious for a good showing in his home patch, as he embarks on a national campaign to restore Fine Gael to office. Relations between himself and fellow FG TD Michael Ring are strained, but both are expected to poll well. Retrieving the third FG seat, however, will not be easy, and the current betting is on a battle for it between Fianna Fáil and its former TD and now Independent Beverley Flynn.

Ms Flynn was expelled from Fianna Fáil after the Supreme Court rejected her appeal against a finding that she was not libelled in an RTÉ report on the selling of offshore investment products. She has made it clear that she intends running again.

There is a consensus that Mr Kenny, Mr Ring and Dr Cowley will retain their seats, but nothing is clear after that. All parties and local political sources agree that Ballina town, without a TD since the last election, will be the cockpit of the Mayo battle.

Ballina-based Tom Moffat trailed Ms Flynn, then with Fianna Fáil, by 723 votes, as she took the last seat the last time.

Knock-based John Carty, who had done better in the fallout of transfers from Mr Higgins, took the other Fianna Fáil seat.

There is speculation that Dr Moffat will run again. Otherwise, the candidate is likely to be Annie May Reape, who topped the poll in the Ballina area for council elections. She exceeded the quota and was elected on the first count.

But would the election of a Ballina-based FF candidate have repercussions for Mr Carty, particularly if Ms Flynn polls well?

Fianna Fáil is in turmoil in Castlebar, following the abolition by headquarters of the Micheál Ó Morain cumann, which contained some Flynn supporters. There is speculation that Denis Gallagher, son of the late Denis Gallagher, former FF minister and TD, might be the candidate. Others mentioned are former senator Frank Chambers, and councillors Aidan Crowley and Seán Burke.

Fine Gael's Ballina-based candidate is expected to be county councillor Michelle Mulhern, one of the party's four councillors in the six-seater. Some grassroot Fine Gael activists feel they should also have a candidate in south Mayo, formerly Mr Higgins's base, to take on Mr Carty.

Sinn Féin is expected to field Gerry Murray, who topped the poll in the Swinford area, while the Labour candidate could be Castlebar-based councillor Johnny Mee.

But, most interest will centre on the Fine Gael resurgence under Mr Kenny and the battle between Fianna Fáil and Ms Flynn.