WITH both Billy Kelleher and Dara Murphy out of the mix, Cork North-Central will get a big shakeup in the next election and with a by-election just gone, we have some hard data that shows how things are shaping up.
The end of November was a busy for the constituency, as 12 candidates duked it out for Mr Kelleher’s empty seat.
But Padraig O’Sullivan’s comfortable win was eclipsed by Mr Murphy’s bombshell resignation just a few days before the by-election.
As he had already ruled himself out of the next election, his decision to take up a post in the cabinet of a European Commissioner came as no surprise, but the manner of his resignation sent shockwaves through Irish politics.
Having robbed his party of the opportunity to replace him ahead of the general election by holding a double by-election, serious questions surfaced over his Dáil record in recent years – questions that have significantly damaged Fine Gael’s credibility as his absence was tolerated for so long.
But as scandalous Mr Murphy’s exit from the Dáil has become, Padraig O’Sullivan’s election to the Dáil was still the most impactful event in the constituency in recent months.
When Billy Kelleher won a seat in the European Parliament, it blew a hole in Cork North-Central.
Having held a seat for 20 years, he pulled in 27.9% of first preferences in 2016, with 14,286 voters to his name.
At the time, the party was kicking itself for not giving him a running mate, but attention soon turned to the next election and who would win the opportunity to join him on the ticket.
Little did everyone know, the whole ticket would have to be torn up.
Though several councillors across the constituency had been vying to join him in Dáil Eireann, the party tapped county councillor Mr O’Sullivan to contest the by-election.
Although he had already been selected to run in Cork East, he saw the open seat in North-Central as a better opportunity and crossed the border that runs through his Glanmire-Little Island base.
Winning 28% percent of first preferences, he more than matched Mr Kelleher’s success, though it must be noted that the turnout was significantly lower than the previous general election.
Still, his success proves that Fianna Fáil is still in the running for a second seat here if it can get its ticket right.
Although the real impact of Mr Murphy’s attendance and expense controversy on Fine Gael won’t be known until the day of the count, Senator Colm Burke’s finish in the by-election suggests the party can hold its single seat here.
Mr Burke polled 21.1% on first preferences, though he was knocked into third place by Sinn Féin after transfers.
That vote share was higher than the combined first preferences of Mr Murphy and his 2016 running mate Julie O’Leary, which suggests that Mr Burke will finally win a place in the Dáil at the next election after years of being spurned by the party and being kept from the ticket.
However, it must be a sore spot for the party that Mr Murphy’s late departure prevented a double by-election, where a strong Fine Gael campaign would have made Mr Burke incredibly competitive and given him a chance, like Mr O’Sullivan, to contest the general election as an incumbent instead of a challenger.
It was Sinn Féin that would have won that second seat based on the by-election results, however, with Thomas Gould finishing in second place showing a recovery for the party after it faced a bruising election back in the summer.
In the local and European elections, Sinn Féin lost seats all over the country, including two on the northside of Cork, which had become a stronghold in recent years.
Though there was little concern about Jonathan O’Brien’s seat – two Sinn Féin councillors were elected in his northeast base – the result of the by-election should provide extra comfort to the party.
With Mr Gould pulling in essentially the same vote share that he and Mr O’Brien did as a duo in 2016, the party’s vote seems to have held up here despite the summer wobble.
This still looks like a safe seat, which will allow the party to prioritise its resources elsewhere, like Cork South-Central.
The election looked far less comforting to Solidarity, with Mick Barry heading into a dogfight for the last seat if the by-election vote speaks to his support for the general election.
Cllr Fiona Ryan was the candidate here, polling 4.4% of the vote – a whopping 11-point drop from Mr Barry’s 2016 total of 15.7%.
In that election, he took the second seat, though his party was fourth in total first preferences, as Fine Gael and Sinn Féin ran two candidate tickets.
His seat was always far from secure, but now some people are writing him off already.
But a bare analysis of the most recent numbers misses a significant part of the story for Mr Barry.
Though his party may be on defence and lacks the boost of the massive water charges movement it commanded in 2016, there’s a big difference between Fiona Ryan and Mick Barry: longevity.
Ms Ryan is certainly coming into her own as a politician, but she’s young, is less than five years on the Cork political scene, and is new to the northside after being based south of the river before she was co-opted into Mr Barry’s council seat in 2016.
Meanwhile, Mr Barry has been contesting elections on the northside since the 1990s, and has increased his vote every time, with the exception of 2014 where his grouping's vote was so high he split his vote to elect a running mate.
With a higher profile and an incumbents advantage, he should do better than Ms Ryan, especially if he can make hay with an issue like housing.
He has a lot of votes to lose before he loses his seat, but any loss will see him face real challenges from Fianna Fáil, Labour, and the Greens.
The by-election proved that Fianna Fáil is still in the running for a second seat if it can get its ticket right, while Oliver Moran of the Green Party is knocking on the door of Leinster House after riding the green wave.
But the real upset could come from Labour’s John Maher.
Despite being on the City Council for less than six months, he managed to finish in fourth place, which would have been enough to win a seat in a general election.
Having replaced stalwart Kathleen Lynch, he seems to have won back a chunk of the voters the party lost in 2016 and is going into the 2020 election with serious momentum.
His 9.7% share of the vote has never been enough for a candidate to win a seat in the constituency, but with transfers waiting for him from a second Fine Gael candidate or the Greens, he cannot be ruled out.
Though the by-election has shed light on the landscape of Cork North-Central, there are few certainties heading into the general and the fight for the last seat could prove to be one of the most interesting in the country.