Fine Gael's two-seat Cork South-West hopes could take a hit in General Election

Fine Gael's two-seat Cork South-West hopes could take a hit in General Election
Tanaiste Simon Coveney TD and Senator Tim Lombard pictured at a Brexit Briefing hosted by Fitzgerald & Partners and Senator Tim Lombard at the Blue Haven in Kinsale.Picture. John Allen

In the second of our constituency profiles, David Linnane looks at the issues and candidates likely to make the biggest impact in Cork South-West when the general election is called. 

IN 2016, Jim Daly was a rising star in the Fine Gael party.

Going into the election in February of that year, it was clear that there wouldn’t be enough room for both himself and fellow sitting Fine Gael TD Noel Harrington.

Not only did Mr Daly beat his colleague to the seat, he did it comfortably, widening a 900 vote lead on the first count to a 1,600 vote lead on the last count.

Within 18 months, he had risen up the ranks of the party. After backing Leo Varadkar against fellow Corkman Simon Coveney, he was rewarded with a Minister of State role, taking on the Older People and Mental Health brief, which, with his Cork South West seat safe as houses, seemed like it would be his first portfolio in a long front bench career.

So his decision to not to stand at the next election came as a surprise to many, and has blown Cork South West wide open for the next general election.

We now know for certain that there will be one new TD for the constituency, but the big question is will there be more?

The 2016 election underlined a long known fact about West Cork politics: Fine Gael rule the roost.

Over the decades, the home area of Michael Collins - who essentially founded the movement that would become Fine Gael – has always delivered for the party.

Danny Collins, (right) Independent first to be elected in the local electoral area, for Bantry -West Cork with his brother Michael Collins TD at the count centre at Clonakilty community centre tonightPicture: Eddie O'Hare
Danny Collins, (right) Independent first to be elected in the local electoral area, for Bantry -West Cork with his brother Michael Collins TD at the count centre at Clonakilty community centre tonightPicture: Eddie O'Hare

More often than not, Fine Gael has been able to pull off two out of three seats here, only failing that feat in its worst elections in 2002 and 2016.

But even four years ago, the party wasn’t out of the running.

Though only Mr Daly made it over the line, runner-up Mr Harrington still finished miles ahead of the other losing candidates.

With the selection of Senator Tim Lombard to join Mr Daly on the ticket for the next election, it looked like the party was adjusting its strategy by leveraging geography to ensure that it could build up its total vote and win back that second seat.

Unlike Mr Harrington from Castletownbere, Mr Lombard hails from Minane Bridge, the opposite end of the constituency from Mr Daly.

Despite being only 43, Mr Lombard has already had a long, successful career in politics.

In 2003, the farmer was co-opted into Simon Coveney’s county council seat, and would later run the leadership campaign of the now-Tánaiste, a close friend since school.

Senator Tim Lombard
Senator Tim Lombard

In County Hall, he became the youngest mayor in the council’s history, before looking to Leinster House and winning a Seanad seat on the Agricultural Panel on his first outing in 2016.

A ticket like that – geographically balanced with a sitting TD and a strong Senator – gave the party as good a chance as any at nabbing two out of three seats again.

But Mr Daly’s departure has forced a change again, which may have hampered his party’s chances.

In his place, the party has selected Cllr Karen Coakley to join Mr Lombard.

Having previously been a member and one-term Mayor of Skibbereen Town Council, she made a return to politics last summer, taking the fourth of five seats in the Skibbereen West Cork LEA; beating out two of her Fine Gael colleagues.

Short of some dramatic political earthquake, Fine Gael will win at least one seat here.

Both candidates have plenty of advantages – time for Mr Lombard, who has been canvassing for the seat for two years, and location for Ms Coakley, who is closer to the former bases of Mr Daly and Mr Harrington.

But with no incumbent advantage and competition between the two first time general election candidates means that two seats will be a big ask for Fine Gael, especially when you consider the other big stories of the last general election.

Firstly, Fianna Fáil undid the mistakes of 2011, where a two-candidate ticket saw it walk away empty handed.

In 2016, the party opted for then county councillor Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony as its sole candidate, playing it safe for a single seat, which she duly won.

Having been appointed straight to the front bench to mark ‘Super Junior’ Minister of State for Disabilities Finian McGrath, she’s raised her profile in the four years since, and the party is heading into the general election with the same one-candidate strategy.

Fianna Fáil has only ever won two seats here at moments of weakness for Fine Gael, and the current polling gives nothing to suggest that there’s an opening for the party.

Running one candidate for a sure seat and saving resources for other constituencies seems like the smartest option.

That takes one seat out of the equation for Fine Gael’s two-seat strategy, and the other may be just as hard to take.

A rush of independents were elected to the Dáil in 2016 as the country struck against the establishment parties after almost a decade of austerity.

In Cork South West, Michael Collins, then a popular independent councillor, was swept into the Dáil on a wave of anger against government services, healthcare in particular.

But swings on that scale are usually temporary, reverting back by the time of the next election.

The polling on independents doesn’t tell us much. While it can tell us the national picture, independents are not a party so a broad poll can’t account for local support for an individual candidate.

Mr Collins made a big splash since 2016, securing a review of ambulance services for West Cork as well as organising buses to Belfast for people in need of cataract surgery, bypassing Ireland’s long waiting lists altogether.

But, like so many independents, will he be a one-hit wonder who serves just one term, or could he emulate the Healy-Rae’s and hold his seat well into the future?

A piece of data far more accurate than any national polling suggests it will be the latter: his brother’s local election results.

Danny Collins took over the new TD’s seat back in 2016, and defended it this past summer.

Holly McKeever Cairns has announced her intention to run for the Daíl in the next Irish General Election. Holly has been made the Social Democrat Party's Spokesperson for Agriculture with climate change high on the agenda in her election attempt. Picture: Andy Gibson.
Holly McKeever Cairns has announced her intention to run for the Daíl in the next Irish General Election. Holly has been made the Social Democrat Party's Spokesperson for Agriculture with climate change high on the agenda in her election attempt. Picture: Andy Gibson.

Where Michael had won 3,409 votes, or 12.5% of the total vote in the eight-seat Cork West LEA in 2014, Danny held almost all those votes, despite the constituency being halved in size, taking a whopping 27.29% of the vote in the new Bantry West Cork LEA.

A vote like that suggests that the Collins brand – one that has always carried cachet in West Cork – has taken on a whole new life in the 21st century, and one that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Challenges will also come from Sinn Féin’s Cllr Paul Hayes, who bucked the trend for his party in the local elections and was one of just two councillors elected, and newcomer Holly McKeever Cairns of the Social Democrats, the only candidate from her party to get over the line in Cork.

But with two strong incumbents and at least one certain Fine Gael seat, it looks like the real fight here will be between Mr Lombard and Ms Coakley as they seek the seek the keys to a 100-year old stronghold of their party.

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