Outspoken Independents, a celebrity candidate, and a risk that the result could cause a snap general election mean the sprawling Midlands-North West is set for high drama, writes Political Correspondent
It's an electoral area with something for everyone, Two Fianna Fáil TDs whose election could bring the already shaking confidence and supply deal to a sudden, shuddering halt. Ireland’s answer to Donald Trump, whose “shoot from the lip” approach saw him finish a shock second to Michael D Higgins in the race for the presidency last autumn.
A celebrity Fine Gael candidate who shot to global prominence in 2014 when she won family favourite Rose of Tralee festival and later revealed she is gay. A prominent MEP who is seeking re-election despite already being named as his party’s likely candidate in a general election, which could happen at any time over the next two years.
And one empty seat guaranteed to be up for grabs out of the four on offer, after a long-standing MEP decided she, frankly, has just had enough.
Throw in a sprawling 13-county constituency that stretches from Mayo to Louth, from Donegal to Kildare, and is hampered by broadband, rural recession, housing, farming, and Brexit concerns, and you get the picture.
For a political anorak looking for a bit of drama to brighten up the European election campaign, Midlands-North West has more than enough subplots and undercurrents to mean there is far more riding on it than just the results.
In 2014, the four Midlands-North West seats were taken by long-standing MEPs Mairead McGuinness of Fine Gael and Independent Marian Harkin, and Brussels newcomers Matt Carthy of Sinn Féin and Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan.
Ms McGuinness, Mr Carthy, and Mr Flanagan are strong contenders to retain their seats given their record in recent years and, at this early stage, there are clear reasons why.
While Mr Flanagan — who topped the poll in 2014 with 19.2% of first preference votes and was elected on the second count — has his detractors, his attention to detail, mixed with firebrand politics that previously made him a stand-out figure in the Dáil, continues to appeal to voters and he has also become a prominent voice on rural and farming matters crucial to his Roscommon base.
Similarly, Ms Guinness — who finished second on 14.2% and was elected on the fifth count — is a European parliament vice-president after 15 years in Brussels, a role which has put her to the forefront of the Brexit discussions so acute in her north-east base, meaning she is likely to side-step much of the anti-Fine Gael vote.
And, while he only became an MEP in 2014 — winning the third of four seats at the seventh count despite polling 17.7% of first preferences — Mr Carthy and Sinn Féin’s strong support in the north- east and relatively high profile also mean he is likely to be in contention. Normally, such safe-bet predictions would make the Midlands-North West constituency all a bit, well, dull.
However, the decision by Ms Harkin — who won the fourth and final seat in 2014 with 10.7% of first preferences on the eight count, just 275 votes ahead of Fianna Fáil’s Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher — has lobbed a live grenade into the race.
With her large north-west base now up for grabs and with the remaining sitting MEPs tucked away in the far reaches of Connacht and the north-east leaving the midlands wide open, the two regions are where the real political fireworks will be.
And among the most prominent of the potential new MEPs standing ready and more than willing to light the fuse will be controversial Independent candidate and last year’s presidential election runner-up, Peter Casey, who, along with Solidarity-People Before Profit candidate Cyril Brennan, is one of just two Donegal contenders eyeing up the north-west base.
Far from walking back on his deeply divisive views on the Travelling community, Mr Casey has simply picked up his foghorn and has now added immigration, Ireland’s position in the EU, leaving the euro, and other matters to his list to help win over middle ground voters.
During the first major debate of the campaign on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics 10 days ago, Mr Casey said he is just “passionate about rural Ireland” and wants to help address the problems facing people who feel they have no voice; whether the same trick works twice is another matter.
And given the fact that Mr Casey now has the full arsenal of Fine Gael and, more specifically Fianna Fáil, to contend with this time around, in a far more bruising election contest compared to the refined atmosphere of an Irish presidential race, it is far from clear whether he will succeed.
Fine Gael’s approach in the opening rounds of that fight has centred on personality politics. Their high- profile, if surprising, choice is 2014 Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh, best known for revealing she is gay days after winning the traditional contest, and for whom this is a first foray into front-line politics.
The Government strategy appears to be focussed on the hope that, coupled with Mairead McGuinness’s transfers from the eastern side of the sprawling constituency, Ms Walsh’s appeal to younger voters who would not necessarily vote Fine Gael will help get her over the line in the west, where the Mayo woman is based.
However, while the sound bites and positive PR mean Ms Walsh is nirvana to Government spin-doctors, she will have to prove her credentials in the rough and ready — and occasionally downright nasty — realm of public debate which has consumed more experienced operators than her in the past.
The approach of Fianna Fáil — seeking to win back at least one of two seats it last held in 2009, before the East and North West constituencies merged in 2014 — is somewhat more complex.
On the surface running a ticket of east Galway-based Anne Rabbitte and Cavan-based Brendan Smith — thereby allowing one to have a foot each in Connacht and the midlands, and the other to concentrate on border regions while playing up the “south Ulster” selling point to Donegal and Sligo voters — makes complete tactical sense.
However, politics always has more than one agenda at play. Late last year, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin made it abundantly clear he did not want sitting TDs to run in the MEP hustings, as doing so could risk destabilising the confidence and supply deal even further due to the tight Dáil numbers.
And, ever the obliging types, a handful of Fianna Fáil TDs listened carefully to their dear leader’s message — before doing the exact opposite, including Ms Rabbitte and Mr Smith, who have seen an opportunity to both run for Brussels and to press the flesh with potential general election voters.
Fianna Fáil has since been keen to brush the issue under the carpet — nothing says united party like pragmatism, after all.
However, it cannot be ignored that if either candidate is elected, their transfer to the European Parliament and potentially that of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs in other constituencies has the genuine potential to shove the country into a snap general election this summer.
Speaking of general elections, there is one other sub-plot in the Midlands North West election tale, namely that of Matt Carthy.
While he is seeking to retain the MEP seat he won in 2014, Mr Carthy was also named last year as Sinn Féin’s candidate for Cavan-Monaghan whenever the next general election comes.
Asked about this double trouble on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Mr Carthy trotted out the usual line that his only focus is on winning an MEP seat, while carefully avoiding the question of whether he would serve the full five-year term until he was eventually pinned down. “I don’t know, is the honest answer,” he said.
It is of course not uncommon for a politician to run for Europe and then quickly sprint for the Dáil, leaving a substitute to take their place. Just ask Alan Kelly, Paul Murphy, or others.
But with voters taking a greater interest in the MEP elections this time around it is undoubtedly one of dozens of tough questions set to be thrown at Mr Carthy and the 16 other candidates — who also include ex-Labour TD Dominic Hannigan, Independent ex-senator Fidelma Healy Eames, and a host of Independents — over the coming fortnight, with “I don’t know” no longer an adequate response.
Midlands North West represents a heated battleground
When an electoral battleground stretches from Mayo to Louth, Donegal to Kildare, you can be guaranteed just about any question will be asked of candidates knocking at people’s doors, even if MEPs may have no actual power to do anything about them.
And as a result, those seeking to win one of four European Parliament seats in the 13-county-strong Midlands North West constituency will have to have clear answers on a wider than normal number of topics if they want to make it to Brussels on May 24.
Among the most pressing issues to affect the constituency is broadband, or rather the lack of it, a problem which is hamstringing any opportunity to build businesses in some of Ireland’s worst-affected employment black spots.
The Government, and, therefore, Fine Gael candidates Mairead McGuinness and Maria Walsh, have tied themselves to backing the now budget-bloated €3bn broadband plan.
However, for other candidates — including Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, Labour’s Dominic Hannigan and Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte and Brid Smith — the message will be that a review of the entire project is needed, if only to ensure rural Ireland gets the high-quality service it deserves.
Climate change will also be high on the agenda, with Independent MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan’s pursuit of greater protections for Ireland’s natural surroundings.
He will be added to by Green’s candidate Saoirse McHugh, an Achill Island native and environmentalist who feels the climate change message is finally resonating with the public, and Labour’s Dominic Hannigan, who launched his climate change plans this week.
Given the dependence on much of the sprawling 13-county constituency on agriculture, issues relating to farming and fishing rights in light of the ongoing Brexit crisis are a further certainty to dominate debate, particularly in the north-west and midlands regions crucial to the election race result.
Of key importance will be clarity on the European Commission’s emergency funds to stop hard-pressed farmers going under due to the deepening Brexit crisis, an issue which saw the Irish Farmers’ Association protest outside the Government’s special cabinet meeting at Cork City Hall last week.
And while candidates such as Fianna Fáil TD and ex-agriculture minister Brendan Smith and Independent candidate and farmer James Miller will try to make literal hay on the issue while the campaign sun shines, other rivals may struggle to come up with coherent answers.
Other candidates, including Independents Olive O’Connor and Dr Dilip Mahapatra, will focus on health, while the need to boost the local economy by being pro-business is likely to be one of Independent Peter Casey’s strong points.
However, for some voters it will be difficult to shake the belief that most candidates only have questions to answer rather than clear solutions to offer, with the deadline for clarity just over two weeks away.
Runners and riders of Midlands North-West
Co Donegal-based Cyril Brennan is the national co-ordinator of the Still Waiting Health Campaign and is basing his MEP seat bid on healthcare reform.
One of three of the four sitting Midlands-North West MEPs to contest the upcoming European elections, Mr Carthy is seeking to retain the seat he won in 2014. Last year, he was selected as Sinn Féin’s Cavan-Monaghan general election candidate.
The self-made millionaire made his public name on RTÉ’s Dragon’s Den, before finishing as the surprise runner-up in last autumn’s presidential election, gaining 23.3% of the votes. He has been widely derided due to his tendency to court divisive views on Travellers, social welfare, and the EU. Expect more ‘shooting from the lip’ regardless of politically correct considerations.
A former TD and left-wing firebrand, Mr Flanagan has been an MEP since 2014, when he infamously announced his campaign by saying: “I’m sick and tired of dealing with the monkey, I want to go and deal with the organ grinder.”
The Direct Democracy Ireland candidate is running on a campaign opposed to property taxes and any return of water charges. He polled 124 votes in the 2014 local elections.
A local councillor between 2004 and 2007, senator from 2007 to 2011 and TD between 2011 and 2016, Mr Hannigan now seeks to add a fourth position to his political CV.
A former senator from 2011 to 2016, Ms Healy-Eames initially retired from politics before being encouraged to run in the European elections. During last year’s Eighth Amendment referendum she urged women to continue crisis pregnancies and have adoptions instead of abortions.
The Dundalk-based doctor is running as an Independent having previously courted the attention of Fianna Fáil, before losing out at the party’s selection convention to TDs Anne Rabbitte and Brendan Smith.
Current MEP and European Parliament vice-president Ms McGuinness is one of the clear front-runners in the constituency, having been an MEP since 2004.
From Achill Island in Co Mayo, Ms McHugh is involved in grassroots groups including Food Sovereignty Ireland, the Irish Seed Savers Association, and other environmental groups.
Mr Miller is basing his campaign on the need to “support and protect the traditional Irish family”, “increased support for crisis pregnancy centres”, opposing any EU army, and broadband 5G opposition “until it is proven safe for our environment and people”.
Mr Mulcahy is running to highlight the impact of global warming on Ireland and the world, saying Ireland cannot be “naive”.
Ms O’Connor is running on a ticket based on the need for safer and more accessible health services for all people in Ireland, under the hashtag #healthfirst.
A brother of Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd, the former two-time mayor of Drogheda, Co Louth, and former Fine Gael member is running under a “family, community, and country” campaign he says is opposed to the “super-power” EU bureaucrats.
One of two Fianna Fáil TDs who have chosen to contest the MEP elections against the request from party leader Micheál Martin late last year not to do so. A first-time TD for Galway East, Ms Rabbitte is Fianna Fáil’s children’s spokeswoman and was prominent on the Oireachtas Eighth Amendment committee due to her soft conservative stance.
The second of two sitting Fianna Fáil TDs to contest the constituency, Mr Smith is a long-time member of the Dáil having first won his Cavan-Monaghan seat in 1992. Among other roles, he has previously served as agriculture minister, minister of state for food and minister of state for children.
The 2014 Rose of Tralee, who gained worldwide interest when she announced days after winning the contest that she is gay, follows in a long line of Fine Gael celebrity candidates. However, she says there is more to her than a one- moment wonder, something the Government party will be banking on.