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Clare’s shifting political landscape

FIVE years ago, Fianna Fáil was in meltdown and the grassroots membership in Clare in open revolt. Bedevilled by ongoing controversy and the country in financial crisis, such political embarrassment was always going to stimulate a ballot box backlash, and it did.
The political turmoil presented a window of opportunity for Fine Gael to make political gains, and they did. For the first time since the formation of the state, Fine Gael became the controlling party in Clare County Council holding 12 of the 32 seats, one more then their long-standing rivals.
Fianna Fáil paid a high price for the economic hardship they foisted on the nation through poor judgement calls and downright bad management. Their vote in Clare dropped to an all-time low of just 35.5%, down almost 15% from the 1999 elections.
Conversely, Fine Gael’s stock rose. Their first preference vote jumped from 26.66% in 1999, when they held eight seats, to the 2009 level of 34.2%. Clare’s political landscape took on a distinctive blue hue.
Seven independents were selected and three of them – James Breen, Michael Begley and newcomer PJ Ryan – all had strong Fianna Fáil backgrounds but were disgruntled by party policy. They left to stand as independents. The make up of the council was completed by Brian Meaney (Green Party) and Pascal Fitzgerald (Labour).
This time round, candidates will be fighting in new territory as a consequence of the redrawing of boundaries, arising from the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Report.
There will now be four electoral areas and the number of council seats has been cut from 32 to 28. A record 69 candidates are seeking election and some will have to canvass new ground while others will have lost a good support base after some villages were carved up into different electoral districts.
Four outgoing councillors have decided to cash in their chips – each walking away with a nice gratuity under the government’s Elected Members’ Retirement Scheme.
Independent Patricia McCarthy, a former Mayor of Clare with 35 years service, will receive a payment of over €60,000, while Sonny Scanlan (Fine Gael) and former Mayor Tommy Brennan (Independent) will receive over €57,000 each.
Tubber’s Michael Kelly (Fianna Fáil), a sitting councillor for over a decade, will walk away with approximately €35,000.
Interestingly, three Fianna Fáil councillors who lost their seats the last time, Clarecastle’s Bernard Hanrahan, Killaloe’s Tony O’Brien and Cratloe’s Pat O’Gorman, are back on the hustings, while Brian Meaney will be bidding to hold onto his seat, this time under the Fianna Fáil banner, having parted company with The Greens.
Shannon is now a six-seater and, with Patricia McCarthy stepping back from front-line politics, there will be 16 candidates, seven of whom are outgoing councillors.
Fine Gael, with just two candidates – John Crowe and Sean McLoughlin – should pick up both seats, while Fianna Fáil should get two also, most probably with Cathal Crowe and Pat McMahon, both outgoing.
In the battle for the two remaining seats, the odds favour Independents Gerry Flynn and PJ Ryan. With Labour performing poorly in opinion polls, that may present a doomsday scenario for Pascal Fitzgerald. But then, there is no guarantee that the electorate will return all of the outgoing councillors.
Killaloe, with six seats, has the least number of candidates with just 10 in the field but they have a lot of ground to cover given the vast expanse of territory from Killaloe to Aughinish in North Clare.
Fine Gael’s Joe Cooney seems a certainty to top the poll, given his phenomenal performance in 2009 when he secured over 2,500 first preferences.
There were rumblings a few weeks back that Mayor of Clare, Joe Arkins was considering stepping down but, it’s understood, that following a series of party meetings he was persuaded to continue.
With a good vote management strategy he should secure enough votes around Crusheen and further north, leaving Joe Cooney to sweep up once more in his strong East Clare base and bring Whitegate’s Pat Burke over the line as well.
With no candidate up North, Fianna Fáil may pick up two seats through Pat Hayes, outgoing, with Tony O’Brien and Liam Wiley, a son of former council member, Colm, battling for a second seat for the party.
Independent Michael Begley should finish ahead of political novices Alan O’Callaghan (Fianna Fáil) and Niamh O’Brien (Fís Nua), while it’s hard to factor in how Donal Higgins from Ballycar in Newmarket, a nephew of Preisdent of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, will perform.
Eight seats are up for grabs in the Ennis Municipal District, with 27 candidates putting themselves before the electorate.
Aside from the established candidates, it is difficult to see any major change although Brian Meaney’s defection to Fianna Fáil may not sit well in certain sections of the electorate. Meaney, a former general election candidate, added to the ticket without winning favour at the selection convention, may find himself in a battle for survival.
Sitting councillors include Fine Gael’s Johnny Flynn, Paul Murphy and Tony Mulqueen; the Fianna Fáil duo of Pat Daly and Tom McNamara and Independent James Breen, all of whom should be returned.
Clarecastle’s Bernard Hanrahan should be well in the hunt to reclaim the seat he lost at the last election. He has mounted an intensive canvass which will have him very much in the frame. His main opponent should be Fine Gael’s Mary Howard, who will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of her later father, Michael, into the council chamber. Key to her ambitions is how well inter-party transfers work.
Three Ennis Town Councillors – Mickey Guilfoyle, Frankie Neylon and Paul O’Shea, now non-party having left Labour, will be hoping to remain in frontline local politics, while Ann Norton, who has been one of the driving forces behind the Clare Crusaders Clinic in Barefield, could be an interesting candidate.
Back West, eight seats are up for grabs with 16 candidates in the field. Again, it should be the established guard who will be fighting it out for the seats. Currently, there are nine sitting councillors between North Clare and West but in the new municipal district, the allocation is cut by one.
Of the nine, Fianna Fáil holds five seats through PJ Kelly, a veteran of seven successful local election campaigns, Bill Chambers, Patrick Keane, Michael Hillery and Richard Nagle. Fine Gael have three in Oliver Garry, Gabriel Keating and Bill Slattery, who was co-opted following Martin Conway’s elevation to the Seanad in 2011 and Independent Christy Curtin.
Two members of the now defunct Kilrush Town Council are running for the county council. Ian Lynch, who was a member of Fine Gael on the town authority, is standing on the independent ticket, having failed to secure a nomination from the party. His former party colleague, Marian McMahon-Jones, is also in the running.
Looking at the geographical spread, Councillors Richard Nagle and Bill Slattery have the electorate north of Ennistymon to themselves, which should be a big advantage.
In the last election, both for the county council and town council, Fine Gael fielded 30 candidates. Twenty six were elected. This time round they probably won’t enjoy such a successful ratio but they may well remain the dominant party in the new chamber of Clare County Council.

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