A much-quoted observation throughout the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency these days is that the forthcoming byelection is Fianna Fáil's to lose.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the party has been first to select a candidate, Ivan Connaughton, an auctioneer based in Athleague, and a member of Roscommon County Council.
Fianna Fáil has no seat in the three-seater, where the vacancy was caused by the election of Independent TD Luke Ming Flanagan to the European parliament. The sitting TDs are Fine Gael's Frank Feighan and Independent Denis Naughten.
Encouraged by a good local election result, Fianna Fáil is cautiously optimistic about its chances. Roscommon, after all, was once a party stronghold, and the glory days of the 1980s when the county had a Fianna Fáil senior minister, the late Seán Doherty, and a minister of state,
, now a Senator, are often recalled. The rivalry between the two was the stuff of legend, but it ensured a strong party presence in the county.
Ìn the 2011 general election, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell by 23.89 per cent to 14.95 per cent, as the tide went out for the party nationally at an alarming rate. No blame could be attached to Mr Connaughton who, in his first general election outing, polled 4,070 first preferences.
His chances in the byelection are considerably better, given that in Roscommon Fianna Fáil took eight out of 18 seats in May's county council elections as Fine Gael imploded.
That, coupled with the unpopularity of the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition, should make Mr Connaughton favourite.
But predictions, right now, are hazardous, given that he is the only declared candidate in the field and the others are not likely to select their runners until late August or early September.
This is expected to pave the way for a poll in late September or early October.
Mr Connaughton is highlighting the failure of the upturn in the economy to impact on the lives of constituents and the fact that Roscommon has had more than its share of grief with undrinkable water. He is also highlighting a long-running key issue defining local politics in the county, the withdrawal of accident and emergency services from Roscommon hospital.
That issue has already caused deep divisions within Fine Gael, with Mr Naughten leaving the party to become an Independent when a general election commitment to retain the services was abandoned by the Government.
Labour’s obvious candidate, Senator
, from Ballaghaderreen, has indicated that he may not run if the Government fails to consider the “feasibility’’ of restoring the services. He polled 4,455 first preferences in the general election.
The frontrunner for the Fine Gael nomination is Maura Hopkins, who was elected to Roscommon county council for the Boyle electoral area, having been added to the ticket. She is a Ballaghaderreen-based occupational therapist and speech and drama teacher with a strong involvement in rural affairs.
The Sinn Féin candidate is expected to be Ballinamore-based Leitrim councillor Martin Kenny who polled 4,637 first preferences in the general election. However, geography may determine otherwise.
The redrawing of the constituencies means that Roscommon is joined with parts of east Galway to form a new three-seater next time, while Leitrim will be added to Sligo and parts of Donegal and Cavan to form the new four-seat Sligo Leitrim constituency, an obvious political battle ground for Mr Kenny.
It also remains to be seen if any Independent will enter the race and if Mr Flanagan endorses any candidate.