Old certainties changing as contest goes down to wire

GALWAY CITY is unusual. There are the PDs riding high in the national polls with a vertigo-inducing 3% or 4%.

Labour are soaring at dizzying 4% in the polls for the locals in North-West. Yet, in Galway both parties between them account for six of the 15 seats on the city council, with FF and FG making up the balance. The reasons why the pattern is aberrant are not complex. It can be ascribed wholly to just two influences Bobby Molloy and Michael D Higgins, both of whom hold huge sway in the city.

But like other Irish cities, old certainties are changing. The FF-FG hegemony is being challenged here. With Mr Molloy gone, the PDs look in danger of dropping one or more of their seats. Labour may be on the rise. The Greens could finally make its long-anticipated breakthrough here. And in a city with no tradition of republicanism in recent times, Sinn Féin could also pull one out of the hat to return one councillor.

The South Ward extends from Salthill to the massive suburb of Knocknacarra, which has now almost linked the city to the village cum satellite suburb of Barna to the west. This four-seater is the most affluent in the city, yet it has its own peculiar problems associated with the splurge growth of Galway which has over trebled in size in three decades.

Knocknacarra has a population of 10,000 but has no town centre, has inadequate playing and community facilities, and is snarled by early-morning commuter traffic. In straight electoral terms, it is also shaping a titanic contest. Three outgoing councillors, well-known bookmaker John Mulholland of Fine Gael, Donal Lyons and Paul Colleran of the PDs are contesting as is Tom Cox, the brother of Senator Margaret Cox, who is one of the last to give up their seats under the dual mandate rule.

Into the arena this time comes two other high-profile sitting councillors, who are transferring wards. Barrister Catherine Connolly of Labour was first home in the West Ward in 1999 and publican Val Hanley, a larger-than-life figure and a former Mayor of Galway, has moved over from the North-East Ward. If that was not enough, the Green Party's standard-bearer in the city, Niall Ó Brolcháin has also entered the fray.

The upshot is that there are seven strong candidates vying for four seats, in a ward that may be redolent of the political pattern that will emerge in the city.

Though representing diverse parties, there is unanimous agreement among the candidates about the lack of facilities, policing, playing areas and schools in Knocknacarra and a synonymous message that something needs to be done. Ms Connolly says she moved wards because she wants to increase Labour representation.

The PDs' Lyons, who's expected to top the poll, has dominated Knocknacarra. He's confident that the party will return two seats though others say the seat of his running mate, Colleran, a well-known butcher in the city, is vulnerable to a challenge from Connolly or Ó Brolchain.

John Mulholland from FG has been on the council for 19 years and a bookmaker is better placed than most to predict the outcome. This he said will be easily the tightest election since he was first elected in 1985, dominated by serious and strong candidates.

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