Exit of Leyden and Shanagher has blown election race wide open

ELECTION EYE by EMMETT CORCORAN

PART TWO: Roscommon Municipal District

In part two of this special Roscommon People series looking ahead to next year’s local elections, Election Eye takes a closer look at the ‘lay of the land’ in the Roscommon Municipal District (MD). 

The basics

This MD is home to Roscommon Town, Castlerea and Ballyleague along with all their respective hinterlands. The sitting councillors are Orla Leyden (Fianna Fáil, Castlecoote); Paschal Fitzmaurice (Fianna Fáil, Castlerea); Marty McDermott (Fianna Fáil, Roscommon Town); Nigel Dineen (Independent, Knockcroghery with ties to Ballintubber/Castlerea), Anthony Waldron (Independent, Ballintubber), Kathleen Shanagher (Independent, Roscommon Town).

Of these well-known players, two have announced their intention not to contest next year’s local elections: Orla Leyden and Kathleen Shanagher. Both these withdrawals from the race see the Roscommon Town area blown wide open for newcomers, putting approximately 2600 first preferences up for grabs.

Despite not contesting the 2019 local elections, Roscommon Town’s Larry Brennan is back on the campaign trail following the Fianna Fáil selection convention earlier this year. He will be in with a great shot of holding the seat for his party. Nigel Dineen will be looking to make up some ground with Cllr Shanagher’s 1400-plus votes coming into circulation. A popular auctioneer, Dineen is a recognisable name across the MD. Originally from the Ballintubber area, Cllr Dineen now lives in Knockcroghery and has historically pulled a respectable vote across the entire geographic spread of the local electoral area.

Fallout

The Roscommon ‘Central’ MD has been the site of a great amount of political upheaval over the past decade (and a bit), beginning with the closure of Roscommon Hospital’s A&E in 2011, by Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael-led Government. This move resulted in poll-topping TD, Denis Naughten, losing the Fine Gael party whip. Subsequently, the Fine Gael organisation was decimated in the locality, with many supporters following Deputy Naughten into the independent ranks. Two elected representatives followed suit. They were Councillor Laurence Fallon and Councillor Domnick Connolly. Connolly was re-elected in 2014 but failed to retain his seat in 2019 (Cllr Fallon serves in the Athlone area).

In 2019, Gerry Coffey made a valiant effort (843 first preference votes) to take a seat for Fine Gael, but faced an uphill battle with stiff opposition from established players on his doorstep in West Roscommon. Coffey hung in until the fifth and final count before being eliminated.

Revival 

Fine Gael has, in the last week, seen a revival of its fortunes with popular local men Gareth Scahill (Castlerea) and Robbie McConn (Athleague, with plenty of active interests in Roscommon Town) getting the nod to run for the party next June.

Mr Scahill will undoubtedly take a big vote in Castlerea town. He runs his family’s hardware business in Castlerea and has been a very active member of the community over the past number of years. A founding member of Castlerea Town Team, Mr Scahill will be a formidable candidate.

Mr McConn, from Athleague, but living in Roscommon Town, is a well-known community figure who is prominent in sporting circles. Active in the GAA at a club and county level, he is a member of the Roscommon GAA County Board. Also a director of Roscommon Racecourse, he was recently elected vice-captain of Roscommon Golf Club for 2024.

If I were a betting man, I would say Gareth Scahill’s entry to the race will place significant pressure on Fianna Fáil poll-topper Paschal Fitzmaurice. Cllr Fitzmaurice won 1,962 first preference votes in 2019. While Cllr Fitzmaurice can afford to shed the best part of a thousand first preferences and still comfortably get elected, he will face local opposition he didn’t have to contend with in 2019.

Of the two newcomers to the Fine Gael ticket, Robbie McConn has the considerably more difficult body of work ahead of him. The populace remains split on the Roscommon A&E debacle. But Mr McConn is a fresh face and should be able to win back a good portion of the Fine Gael gene pool voters for the party in the vicinity of Roscommon town.

Independents day

I observed the 2019 local election count from my bed in the Mater Hospital, as I awaited the start of my chemotherapy treatment. What I will always remember from that day is the massive amount of votes taken by independent candidates across Roscommon. Nowhere was this more true than in the Roscommon MD.

In 2019, Kathleen Shanagher took 1,460 first preference votes, followed by Tony Waldron with 1,333 and Nigel Dineen securing 1,002. It would probably be safe to assume that with Cllr Shanagher bowing out of next year’s election, Cllr Dineen and Cllr Waldron will have a slightly easier job of securing re-election. But with the entry of Mr Scahill and Mr McConn to the race, nothing can be taken for granted by these two seasoned contenders. Their job could be made somewhat more difficult by the possible entry of Isabelle Flanagan, daughter of Independent MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan into the race.

In 2020, Ms Flanagan joined the Social Democrats. In February 2021, she stated that she felt the party “struck the right kind of balance” in terms of gender. However, in June of 2022, Ms Flanagan left the party, stating: “The Social Democrats is not the party”. Commenting on X (formerly Twitter) Ms Flanagan elaborated on her comments to the Sunday Independent: “Some personal news. Being in a party should empower you but it was sucking the life out of me. I would never stay in a party I don’t truly believe in, that would make me a hypocrite. This isn’t the end of me being politically active, it’s the start of a new beginning for me”.

Ms Flanagan would be a fresh face in the race. Coming from a political dynasty would undoubtedly give the young candidate a head start. Her father, Luke Flanagan, has enjoyed an illustrious career in independent politics as a county councillor, TD, and MEP. The politically savvy younger Flanagan would be a serious contender should she decide to run.

Sinn Féin approach

Ballintubber’s Seamus O’Brien has been a regular contestant in local elections for Sinn Féin over the years. Despite numerous close calls, Sinn Féin has never managed to get a candidate over the finish line in this locality. Given that Sinn Féin are in a poll position coming into the local elections next year, perhaps Mr O’Brien, or another, will fancy their chances in 2024.

Conclusion

In the grand scheme of things, charismatic Fianna Fáil councillor, Marty McDermott, seems like a safe seat. The popular local man who works with local draper, John Corcoran (no relation), earned 1,173 first preferences on his first outing in 2019. With a solid base in Roscommon Town, and with the exit, for now, of Orla Leyden from local politics, Cllr McDermott looks like the safest incumbent.

There are still plenty of unknowns as the local election race heats up. As you look toward Ballyleague in East Roscommon and Cloonfad in West Roscommon, these communities – while not massive population centres – could be forgiven for feeling under-represented on the council.

If I were to call the election today, I could plausibly see the Roscommon MD returning three Fianna Fáil councillors, two Independent councillors and one Fine Gael councillor. Given that the lay of the land in this local electoral area is significantly different than it was in 2019, how the chips will ultimately fall is anyone’s guess.