It is all eyes on Fianna Fáil in Cork North-Central where the party is scrambling to continue its presence in the wake of Billy Kelleher’s departure to Europe. The current Cork North-Central constituency came into being in 1981 and, since, has been dominated by Fianna Fáil.
In its previous guises as Cork Borough, Cork City and Cork City North-West, Fianna Fáil has always been a factor, too, first seeing Seán French elected in 1927. It is, of course, the constituency of Jack Lynch, too.
The current constituency is split between a large rural belt and parts of the city centre.
It includes the small towns and villages of Blarney, Whitechurch and Glanmire, as well as numerous working class communities from Knocknaheeny across Gurranabraher, Farranree, and Churchfield, down into Blackpool and on to Ballyvolane and Mayfield.
It also is home to the more rarefied middle class voters of Sunday’s Well and Montenotte. Ahead of the 2016 election, it was extended to incorporate Bishopstown and areas like the Mardyke in the city centre.
Billy Kelleher topped the poll in 2016, accruing some 4,000 votes above the quota, picking up 27.9% of the first-preference votes. It continued the party’s dominance in the area.
Bar a spell in the early 1990s where they had just one seat, from 1981 to 2011, the party had either two or three representatives. In 2011, things changed somewhat.
Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien was elected for the first time, winning the party’s first seat in Cork North-Central. Labour’s Kathleen Lynch also won a seat, retaining the one she had won in 2002 and 2007, leaving one each for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
By the time 2016 rolled around, it was even more turbulent. While Kelleher topped the poll, Mick Barry, then of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and now Solidarity, won a seat too. With O’Brien and Dara Murphy also making the cut, it left no room for Labour.
Three years on, Kelleher has departed for the European Parliament after 22 years in the area and there is quite a scrum to replace him. Fianna Fáil’s Padraig O’Sullivan, a second-term county councillor, has occupied Kelleher’s former constituency office in Dillon’s Cross, marking his first foray into the city.
O’Sullivan is from Little Island and is based in nearby Glanmire. A secondary school teacher, he has proven popular and faced a battle to eventually secure a spot on the ticket.
In August, he was added at the party’s selection convention, pipping former lord mayor of Cork Cllr Tony Fitzgerald and former deputy lord mayor Cllr Kenneth O’Flynn, son of Noel O’Flynn who had a seat here from 1997 to 2007.
O’Sullivan’s critics have pointed out that he had already been selected as a candidate for the general election in Cork East, while large parts of his council constituency — the Cobh Local Electoral Area — lie there and not within Cork North-Central.
Despite that, though, the party is confident in their choice. Kelleher had 4,000 first-preference votes going spare in 2016 — if O’Sullivan can sweep up the bulk of his support, he should be in the clear.
One of the biggest names to challenge him, though, is Senator Colm Burke. This isn’t Burke’s first election race — he lost out in the by-election in 1994 and also missed out in November 1982 — but he has been a Lord Mayor of Cork, a member of the European Parliament and a senator.
He has the name recognition, though he was vocally unhappy in 2016 when the party didn’t add him to the ticket. They opted for solicitor Julie O’Leary instead. But, three years on, Burke is on the card again.
Unfortunately for him, it has not been a stellar few years for Fine Gael in Cork North-Central. Dara Murphy has, essentially, gone AWOL, and opponents have pointed this out at every available opportunity.
Murphy was director of elections for the European People’s Party’s 2019 European Parliament campaign and is due to step down from the Dáil at the next election. He has repeatedly refuted suggestions that he is an “absentee TD”.
However, it is merely the latest factor raised by opponents who claim that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have “abandoned” the northside of Cork. Whether Burke and his strong rural base can overcome this remains to be seen.
Among those who will ensure that it is not forgotten, though, is Cllr Thomas Gould, a Sinn Féin member who ran in 2016 but missed out on a seat. He is convinced that there is space in the constituency for two Sinn Féin seats — Jonathan O’Brien has been a member of Dáil Éireann since 2011 — and party leader Mary Lou McDonald agrees.
Speaking in Cork recently, she said, “[Thomas Gould] is very passionate and evidence of that can be seen in his service as a councillor and that would follow over into the Dáil.”
Gould is city-based and popular in areas like Blackpool, Gurranabraher, and Farranree. He has invoked the ire of other candidates by claiming that the public has a choice “of supporting Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, or backing a left-wing candidate” but where many of his Sinn Féin colleagues struggled in the local election earlier this year, he thrived.
There are some, though, that think he hasn’t learnt any lessons from the party’s struggles in May. Among those is Oliver Moran, a Green Party councillor, who has pointed out that the two parties have the same number of seats on Cork City Council.
“If Cllr Gould thinks this is a three-horse race then he hasn’t learned the lesson of May’s local elections for Sinn Féin in Cork,” Mr Moran said.
The Green Party are entering this by-election as a force on the rise in Cork, ready to overtake Sinn Féin.
The ‘green wave’ became the story of the local and European elections earlier this year and the party is optimistic that they can build on this as the green agenda becomes more central to the public’s concerns.
A potential fly in the ointment for the other large parties is Labour’s John Maher. Maher was the one bright point for Labour in the local election in Cork City, claiming their only seat on the council. Long-standing member Kathleen Lynch was so impressed with his performance that she was convinced that now was the time to step down from running in politics, and the party is backing Maher to go big.
It was always a big player in the area, with Lynch claiming her own seat in 1994’s by-election. Solidarity councillor Fiona Ryan will also be optimistic of challenging the established parties. A vocal campaigner, she retained her council seat this year, though she polled behind two Sinn Féin candidates.
That said, Solidarity and, particularly, Mick Barry have high hopes for her. Outside these, it is hard to see other candidates making too big a dent. Social Democrats’ Sinéad Halpin picked up 2.3% of first-preference votes in the local election but was eliminated on the fourth count having failed to do particularly well in transfers, though that was true for all of the party’s candidates.
Similarly, Aontú’s Finian Toomey, from Blarney, and Thomas Kiely (HRRA) both picked up fewer than 500 votes in the local elections, while Workers’ Party candidate James Coughlan last ran in 2016, but is well-known locally as a vice-chairman of the Cork local authority branch of Siptu.