And now for something completely different…

New reality for FF and FG as Independents poised to dominate
That was then…

Twelve candidates will compete for the three Dáil seats in Roscommon/Galway constituency. The outgoing TDs are Frank Feighan, Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten.

Frank Feighan is not running this time. Up to 50,000 votes are expected to be cast. ‘Topping the poll’ honours are expected to fall to Fitzmaurice or Naughten.

Historically, Fianna Fáil has frequently won two seats in elections in Roscommon, but this time around, the party would be thrilled to scrape one. Fine Gael made a famous breakthrough in 2007, with two Roscommon-based candidates winning seats in Roscommon/South Leitrim. New territory. They then repeated the feat in 2011. Due to the Roscommon A&E closure fall-out – and the ‘Naughten factor’ – the party is understandably setting its sights on just one seat this time.

In 2007, Fine Gael enjoyed a handsome success at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Vote management contributed to a neck and neck finish (on first preferences) with Frank Feighan (9,103) marginally ahead of Fine Gael colleague Denis Naughten (8,928). While Michael Finneran of Fianna Fáil topped the poll (9,982), the party weren’t able to get his Leitrim-based colleague, veteran John Ellis, over the line.

Feighan took the first seat and was followed home by Finneran and Naughten. Fine Gael’s vote share in 2007 was a superb 39.14%. Fianna Fáil’s was 38.84%. Heady days for both parties. Michael Fitzmaurice was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. They weren’t candidates.

Independents only polled about 10%. The future was another country. In 2011, Fine Gael knew that Fianna Fáil were on the ropes. The country was in a deep recession. Michael Finneran was one of several sitting Fianna Fáil TDs who decided to opt out. Ivan Connaughton accepted the baton when others within the party didn’t really want to know. The outgoing Fine Gael duo were conscious of the threat of Sinn Fein and rising Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (by then a councillor) and, to a lesser degree, Labour.

Under pressure from the HAC for months prior to the election, and with Fine Gael seeking an unlikely overall majority, the party went out on a limb on Roscommon Hospital.

Feighan and Naughten looked safe, particularly as Fianna Fáil were in freefall. But, to be sure to be sure, a now infamous written commitment on Roscommon A&E (“Dear people of Roscommon”) was sought from Health spokesperson James Reilly, dispatched and published in the Roscommon People. The rest, we know.

As to the election ‘stats,’ Fine Gael predictably retained their seats. This time it was Naughten who topped the poll, with Feighan in close pursuit. When it came to sophisticated (notwithstanding behind-the-scenes tensions between the Feighan and Naughten camps) electioneering, Fine Gael in Roscommon were the new Fianna Fáil in Roscommon. Fine Gael vote share in Roscommon/South Leitrim in 2011 was 38.53%. Fianna Fáil plummeted to a fairly pitiful 15% and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan took the first seat, the constituency returning two Fine Gael TDs and one Independent (no Fianna Fáil TD in Roscommon for the first time ever).

The 2014 By-election (required due to Ming’s election to the European Parliament) is worthy of some reflection, I guess. Of course there was no Denis Naughten, no Frank Feighan, no Ming, just one candidate for each party. Accordingly, it’s a distorted update on how the voters were thinking!

The by-election was won by Michael Fitzmaurice, the turfcutters’ champion from Glinsk. Ivan Connaughton (Fianna Fáil) topped the poll, but it had been obvious in the fortnight leading up to polling day that the wind was at Fitzmaurice’s back. And that wind swept all before it.

… but what now?

Twelve candidates, three seats, perhaps in the region of 50,000 votes to be cast… In politics, you never really know what’s around the corner.

On Election Day in 2011, who could have forecast that neither Frank Feighan or Denis Naughten would be running in FG colours next time around? Who, in 2011, could have forecast that a phenomenon called Michael Fitzmaurice would be the bookies’ favourite to top the poll in 2016?

Who could have forecast that the Fianna Fáil ticket would be Shane Curran and Eugene Murphy? ‘Surely we can’t elect two Independents?’ a number of both startled and seasoned political observers asked one another in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 by-election. But the particular circumstances of this moment in time would suggest that this is precisely what will happen.

Fitzmaurice polled well over 4,000 number ones in County Roscommon in 2014. Many of these were ‘borrowed’ from Denis Naughten and will return to the latter. Up to 14-15,000 votes could be cast in the Galway end of the constituency.

Everyone will pick up something there, but Fitzmaurice is set to sweep the board in Galway. He could end up on 11,000-12,000 number ones – or more. This is Denis Naughten’s first time to run as an Independent. There is no love lost between Fine Gael and the Naughten camp ‘on the ground’ in Roscommon. The assumption is that Naughten, who parted from Fine Gael over Roscommon Hospital, will attract a big personal vote – at the expense of his old party.

Some observers see Naughten as a potential poll-topper (although Fitzmaurice is favourite, and Shane Curran’s candidacy will dent Naughten’s first preference haul). At the very least, Naughten will poll very well (he is also likely to be very transfer-friendly). He is running a slick campaign which very directly reminds the electorate of the stance that Naughten took on Roscommon Hospital. ‘Keeps his promises’ is his campaign slogan.

Naughten will be returned and has pledged to remain an Independent at least for the duration of the next Dáil. The other seat looks set to be fought over by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. I expect Claire Kerrane (Sinn Féin) to surprise people.

Some observers that I have spoken to are dismissing her. I think she will do better than people think; she’ll attract several thousand number ones, stay in contention for a while – but probably not to the end.

Fine Gael will shed votes in the Mid Roscommon area (particularly) over the hospital issue, but Cllr. Hopkins, a personable new political force in the area, will also appeal to many voters. For FG HQ, she is just what they wanted; a new, young candidate, a break from the past, the future brought forward.

Selling Fine Gael’s message on stability and recovery, she must remain slight favourite, at this point in the campaign, to make it over the line. Cllr. Hopkins won’t be able to stop a Naughten ‘vote grab’ from Fine Gael in parts of Roscommon, but she will command some of Frank Feighan’s vote and also make her own mark. She will do well on transfers too.

As for the chaos within Fianna Fáil, the situation there remains interesting. Just now, it is not at all clear which of the two Fianna Fáil candidates has the most momentum. The worry for Eugene Murphy is that FF grassroot fury with HQ’s handling of the saga may ease as we move closer to polling day and that Shane Curran, already showing signs of growing into the campaign, will begin to gain further ground.

The other scenario is that the Curran decision will backfire on HQ and that Murphy, with his back to the wall, will relish the role he has been cast in. Curran has former Minister Michael Finneran on his side, but Murphy has almost all the Fianna Fáil councillors out canvassing for him. My instinct from the moment Shane was added was that this could possibly work in Eugene Murphy’s favour.

I am assuming that Eugene Murphy’s campaign – quite ironically – will be galvanised by the addition of Curran. In fact Murphy’s campaign might be elevated to a level that it would not have otherwise reached. It’s all to play for, but my instinct is that Murphy will be involved in that final seat shoot-out with Maura Hopkins.

* Also running: Tony Coleman (Independent); Eddie Conroy (People Before Profit); Thomas D Fallon (Independent); Anne Farrell (Renua); Miriam Hennessy (Green Party); John Kelly (Labour); Claire Kerrane (Sinn Fein).

* See Paul Healy’s ELECTION (B)LOG on throughout the campaign