GE2020: Cork North-Central likely to be the most hotly contested constituency in the country

GE2020: Cork North-Central likely to be the most hotly contested constituency in the country
Newly elected TD, Padraig O'Sullivan is congratulated by second-placed candidate Cllr Thomas Gould after the result of the tenth count in November's by-election.Pic; Larry Cummins

Cork voters will go to the polls on Saturday. David Linnane analyses the North-Central and where the seats could be potentially won and lost in the upcoming general election.

THE 2016 general election feels like a whole other era of Irish politics now, especially in Cork North-Central.

With only one TD — still serving his first term — still standing from the last election, there’s no constituency in the country where the sands have shifted so much over the last four years.

With Billy Kelleher, Dara Murphy, and Jonathan O’Brien standing down and Kathleen Lynch stepping aside for a new generation in Labour, almost all the big players of the last few elections are gone. Northside politics is evolving fast and this election is wide open.

Of the four TDs elected four years ago, Solidarity’s Mick Barry is the only one defending his seat, and that could be a much bigger challenge than winning it was four years ago.

For 25 years, the socialist Dubliner has carved out a sizeable personable vote that’s grown at each election.

The fact that he’s carried that vote through various brand changes — The Socialist Party to the Anti-Austerity Alliance to Solidarity — proves that his vote is far more about the man and the issues than the party and should give him some solace heading into this weekend.

But where his radical, grassroots campaign-driven platform was rewarded in the middle of the last decade, the environment has changed as Ireland has slowly moved beyond the recession.

When his party won three council seats in 2014, Ireland was barely off of its knees and people still felt the pain of austerity acutely.

When he comfortably won a seat in 2016, the water charges movement had reached fever pitch and turned whole communities against the more establishment parties.

Solidarity/People Before Profit’s Mick Barry as he arrived at the Virgin Media Television Studios for the Election 2020 Debate. 
Solidarity/People Before Profit’s Mick Barry as he arrived at the Virgin Media Television Studios for the Election 2020 Debate. 

While plenty of Ireland is still hurting — and far more in the disadvantaged communities of Cork North-Central than elsewhere — the feeling on the ground is a lot different than it was four years ago.

With poor results for his group in the recent local and by-elections, Mr Barry, despite being the only 2016 incumbent, has a real fight on his hands.

He needs to ensure that his personal brand can animate voters whose anger at austerity may have softened in recent years.

Sinn Féin was in a similar situation in last year’s local elections.

The party had a tough election across the country, but it was still a big surprise that it failed to hold its own in its northside strongholds, with the loss of Mick Nugent a particularly sore spot.

The party’s own diagnosis of the problem was fairly succinct; turnout was low and Sinn Féin didn’t give people a reason to turn up.

Expecting to face into a difficult election, Sinn Féin’s national strategy has been one based on defence — strict strategies to minimise losses rather than make any gains.

But recent events suggest that this strategy is already out of date and the party could be kicking itself at the weekend if it realises it left some seats on the table.

Though Mary Lou McDonald has always been a formidable politician, no one could have predicted Sinn Féin would find itself neck and neck with Fianna Fáil and well ahead of Fine Gael in a poll one week out from election day.

If the party gets anywhere near that vote this weekend, it has nothing to worry about in terms of seat losses.

It will be the lack of gains that will be disappointing.

And if the party was to pick up a second seat anywhere, Cork North-Central would be towards the top of the list.

In 2016, the party, buoyed by an anti-austerity, anti-establishment public mood, tried just that, running Cllr Thomas Gould alongside 2011 poll-topper Jonathan O’Brien.

Though the party finished about six points ahead of its national poll here on that occasion, it was nowhere near winning a second seat.

And with Mr O’Brien standing back before this election, a solo run for Mr Gould seemed like the best bet, allowing the party to defend a safe seat and divert its resources to more difficult campaigns in places like Cork South-Central and Cork East.

But with the party running above 20% nationally in recent polls, the bonus it normally gets in Cork North-Central could have put another seat in play.

Tony Fitzgerald and Sandra Murphy. Pic: Cobh Animation team
Tony Fitzgerald and Sandra Murphy. Pic: Cobh Animation team

While the party will no doubt be delighted if Mr Gould tops the poll with a big surplus, the lack of a second candidate to share that vote with will be bittersweet.

It’s the same situation Fianna Fáil was in four years ago, when Mr Kelleher topped the poll with almost a quota and a half to himself and no running mate to bring to Dáil Eireann with him.

That result led to a lengthy internal race for the second spot on the next general election ticket.

Everyone could see that a strong second candidate and a razor-sharp strategy could deliver two seats here, but no one could have predicted the latest turn of events.

First, Mr Kelleher walked away, successfully seeking a seat in the European Parliament.

Then when it came to picking a successor for the by-election, county councillor Padraig O’Sullivan was chosen over city councillors Tony Fitzgerald and Kenneth O’Flynn, who had spent three years scrambling with each other for a spot on the ticket.

While Mr O’Sullivan easily defended the seat in the by-election, the path to a second seat was still there.

However, the strict strategy needed to win it may have fallen apart.

When Fianna Fáil headquarters not only added Mr Fitzgerald to the ticket but also newcomer Sandra Murphy, Mr O’Flynn, unsurprisingly incensed, walked away from the party to run as an independent.

Cllr. Ken O'Flynn.Picture Denis Minihane.
Cllr. Ken O'Flynn.Picture Denis Minihane.

Now, the Fianna Fáil vote will be split four ways and the outcome is very much unpredictable.

Fine Gael has the opposite problem. Instead of struggling to distribute a large vote, it will struggle to get out a much smaller vote.

Following Mr Murphy’s explosive exit from politics — his sudden exit triggered a scandal over claiming expenses and a full salary while barely attending the Dáil in favour of a second job with Fine Gael’s European party, the EPP instead — the main government party is facing a rough time on the doorsteps here.

But with two candidates — Senator Colm Burke and Lorraine O’Neill — well placed at opposite ends of the constituency, the party could still carve out a seat.

You don’t need a quota to take the third or fourth seat — Mr Murphy was short of the quota in both of his successful runs — so if the party can get hold its own in the middle-class estates of Bishopstown, Montenotte, Glanmire, and the vast rural western side of the constituency, Mr Burke could finally make it to the Dáil after decades of failed attempts.

There are other parties in play here too though.

Labour has had a stunning comeback here under John Maher, who finished fourth in the recent by-election after winning a seat on the council last year.

The Green Party’s Oliver Moran isn’t far behind him either, having built up a green vote from the ground in recent elections, supplemented by the ‘green wave’.

Green Party candidate Cllr. Oliver Moran speaking at the Cork Chamber General Election Debate in the Clayton Hotel, Cork.Pic Darragh Kane
Green Party candidate Cllr. Oliver Moran speaking at the Cork Chamber General Election Debate in the Clayton Hotel, Cork.Pic Darragh Kane

Independent Ger Keohane and Aontú’s Finian Toomey could also pull significant shares of the vote too.

Though the broad trends and electoral landscape are easy to see, the exodus of heavy-hitters could see the vote fragmented in large chunks across many different candidates.

That means the first count results are fairly predictable, but transfers will mean everything here and could go anywhere.

All that’s certain is the Cork North-Central’s Dáil team is going to look very different this time next week.

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