Saturday, January 25, 2020

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As an electoral contest, Mayo will not be the most compelling of Election 2020.

None of them will thank me for the observation but Michael Ring, Dara Calleary and Lisa Chambers look like shoe-ins. The only seat in doubt is the second Fine Gael one: for that you will hear the name Mulherin or Dillon from about an equal number of people. Rose Conway-Walsh is a good candidate, but the Sinn Fein tide will have to rise high over the next while to pull it off. The same is true of Saoirse McHugh for the Green Party. If she polls well, a spot in the Seanad will be surely deserved. It is hard to see any independent candidate winning, though an independent candidate might decide the fourth seat between the north and the west of the county.

There will be much shouting and roaring about candidates crossing boundaries, the modern version of all those cattle raids in our early history. But unlike the raid of Cooley, it will be no epic.

Every political party and analyst have the figures thus: Mayo – Fine Gael 2, Fianna Fáil 2. In every sense of the words, it will be No Change in Mayo. The result of General Election 2020 will be decided elsewhere.

But while the party seats in Mayo won’t change, the holders of ministerial office sure might. That is where our eyes should be fixed in this election.

It is not by accident that the three most likely to be elected are those with the best chance of holding ministerial office. Ministerial mettle matters when voters are deciding who to vote for. This is especially so in Mayo, where we have got used to having representation at the cabinet table. Mayo people – including those who don’t think we got enough out of it these past ten years – will be thirsty for more. That thirst does not arise from a great desire to see one of our own shaping national policy. Lurking within every voter is a little Healy-Rae, only too anxious to send our chieftain east to raid the Pale.

So leaving aside that fourth seat, what will really have the contenders on tenterhooks will be the call afterwards from Taoiseach Varadkar or Martin. That call will set the bonfires burning – though not real ones, of course, for surely the Greens will not allow the new government light them.

Who might be making the call is anyone’s guess. Who they might call is a little easier to assess.

If Fine Gael win and lead the next government, Michael Ring will certainly have a strong chance of being re-appointed. He is a popular Minister and is seen to have done well. He is politically important to Fine Gael in that he is the person they point to when they are accused of being out of touch or too urban-focused. Ring gives them rural cred.

Now there may be some who say that Fine Gael, if re-elected, will want to pass the ministerial torch onto a new generation. Michael Ring is presumably – and understandably – not running again for election purely in order to pass on the torch. I would be very surprised if Leo Varadkar does not know and understand that very well. If Fine Gael win, the day for change will come, but probably not until after the first reshuffle of the new government. Which cabinet post would he get? There are so many variables in specific cabinet posts that it is a fool who predicts. But if he came back with the one he has now neither wise person or fool would be surprised.

The second Fine Gael TD – whoever they are – will no doubt hope for junior ministerial office. You can make an argument as to why it is not implausible. But with the perception nationally that Mayo has done well in ministerial terms over the past decade, it may be hard for them to win the case. But if Michael Ring was no longer in the cabinet at some point over the life of the next Dáil, that second Fine Gael TD would certainly have a strong case for a junior ministry. Michelle Mulherin and Alan Dillon can therefore plausibly say that they are fighting for more than a Dáil seat. When you are a candidate with a big political beast like Ring as a running mate, that is not bad. In any scenario, government or not, whichever of them wins will become the lead Fine Gaeler in Mayo before too long. That also raises the stakes.

In Fianna Fáil, it is rather more straightforward. Should their party win, both of their candidates have compelling cases for ministerial office. Dara Calleary will be preferred for cabinet. He is the Party’s Director of Elections and Deputy Leader, and while the need for coalition partners would prevent him becoming Tánaiste, the Deputy Leader will be in cabinet. Being Deputy Leader of any political party is a great honour, and a terrible job. It essentially involves you getting all the jobs the Party Leader doesn’t want to do or can’t do. Bad news to deliver to a potential election candidate? A funeral on the other side of the country – in the middle of winter – that the Party Leader can’t attend? Someone to do a radio interview about some cock-up the party made? You guessed it, the Deputy Leader gets them all. But in return they get in the cabinet, so it’s not so bad after all.

With a Fianna Fáil win, Lisa Chambers will surely also get a ministerial portfolio. Able, intelligent and articulate, attributes she has in more than sufficient quantity to be appointed in any event, she is also young and female in a party whose cup is not exactly overflowing in those regards. That is precisely why Fine Gael was so keen to go after her about the voting issue in the Dáil. They see her – rightly – as a major asset for Fianna Fáil in the election. But with all that, it is very hard to see two cabinet ministers in Mayo. If Fianna Fáil win, the smart money would be on her getting a serious junior ministry – no small thing.

In deciding who gets what in Mayo’s ministerial battle, there will be one dimension more important than all. The west of the county has exclusively held Mayo’s cabinet posts for over 30 years. This is not a point that registers in the west in the same way as it does most especially in the north, in Ballina above all – where every issue, infrastructural, economic and social is seen through that prism. It will – in time – also become a burning electoral issue in the south and east of the county, which will soon grow tired of becoming a new Erris – a place where the parties get votes but not TDs. In particular, a growing Claremorris will not tolerate that much longer.

A coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is the only way the west and north of our county could both get cabinet positions, but the two parties won’t want you to dwell on that.

Mayo’s ministerial history and future will undoubtedly be a factor in the election and whoever wins, it will play a big part in the politics and the state’s investment priorities in the county post-election. That divide, of course, crosses party lines. So, in Election 2020, if you are looking for smoke on the election battlegrounds of Mayo, you will find it not in party politics, but in county geography.

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