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THE political landscape of County Clare has completely changed following last week’s watershed General Election. The Labour Party stole the show with Michael McNamara comfortably taking the seat vacated by Fianna Fáil’s Tony Killeen, who retired from politics for health reasons.
Fine Gael, the largest single party in the county, retained two seats while Fianna Fáil, once a shoe-in for three seats in the constituency, has been reduced to having a solitary Dáil deputy.
The Labour Party has reinvented itself in no uncertain terms. They managed to mobilise a united campaign with party heavyweights and former Dáil candidates Michael Corley, Pascal Fitzgerald and Patricia McCarthy, who left the party in 1985, rowing in behind Scariff barrister Michael McNamara on the canvass.
A powerful performance at the polls saw him command 13.2% of the electorate or 8,572 first preferences and reclaim a seat once held by Dr Moosajee Bhamjee nearly 20 years ago. Remarkably, since the last election, the Labour vote rose by 13.2% to 14.6%.
Outgoing TD, Pat Breen, was tipped to top the poll and he achieved that with 17.17% of the votes. While that translated to 9,855 first preferences, he had to wait until the eleventh count and the transfer of running mate Tony Mulcahy’s votes, to push him past the quota of 11,584. That vote distribution also led to McNamara’s election.
Fine Gael, a party on its knees after the 2002 General Election, has resurrected itself and is riding the crest of a wave. In Clare, their first preference vote jumped by 7.1% to an all-time high of 42.3% or 24,524 votes and once Joe Carey came in ahead of Tony Mulcahy in first preferences, he was always likely to return to Leinster House.
However, just like in 2007, Carey had to wait until the final count before being elected. He exceeded the quota on the back of Pat Breen’s surplus and a strong inter-party transfer strategy.
The candidate to experience the lows of public life once more, as in the last election, was Independent James Breen, who polled 6,491 first preferences but suffered in transfers. He was 1,500 votes behind Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley when he was elected on the twelfth count without reaching the quota.
Public anger at the mismanagement of the economy came back to haunt both outgoing government parties, Fianna Fáil and the Greens, in Clare.
Clare, once seen as Dev’s county, is now anything but. The decision by party activists to go with a two-candidate strategy eliminated the prospects of scoring well on transfers and with Timmy Dooley and Dr John Hillery unlikely to reach the quota on the first count, one seat was always going to be their height of their ambition.
Between them they accumulated 12,804 or 22.2% of the electorate. Their returns saw Fianna Fáil plummet by almost 50% from 2007. The party now has a mere 20 Dáil seats.
Just like Labour did in 2002, the Green Party paid a heavy political price for short-term power, by going into government with Fianna Fáil. Brian Meaney’s vote dropped by 3.3% to 1.92%, his worst performance by far of the last three general elections.
Another candidate to grab the spotlight was the heretofore unknown Brian Markham. For a first foray into the world of politics, he left his mark, securing in excess of 2,000 votes before his elimination.
His performance will not have gone un-noticed and it is only a matter of time before he is courted by the main political parties. For now, however, he had no intention of shedding his independent political tag, but what is a certainty is that he will be a candidate in the local elections in two years.
The extent of the public backlash has left Fianna Fáil on the ropes and Clare constituency organiser, Michael Neylon, believes if the party is to resurrect itself, it needs to “rebuild and restructure”.
In a telling admission, he added that the party “is going nowhere without change” and that the party hierarchy has to reconnect with the grassroots membership from who they had become disjointed.
“We need to sit down and take stock. We need to rebuild the party using young, energetic people and I believe that is going to be the secret for Fianna Fáil if it is to be resurrected from the gutter,” he maintained.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael’s director of elections, Edmond Jennings, has conceded that a third seat for the party was never a realistic objective and that fielding a fourth candidate wouldn’t have made any real difference.
“I don’t think we were ever going to get a large enough share of the overall vote to be challenging for the third seat. I don’t think it would have made any difference if we had run a fourth candidate. There wasn’t a third quota.
“It would have been a very exceptional outcome and a very fair wind if we did better than the two seats,” he said.
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