Cowley’s success causes Mayo fall-out

By Terry Reilly (c)

FROM once he entered the race everyone treated Dr Jerry Cowley as a real contender for one of the five Mayo seats. But few, if any, predicted he would take the first seat ahead of FG’s Michael Ring.

That he did, and in stunning style, taking votes from virtually every ballot box, showing in the process the level of discontent which dwells within the Mayo electorate. Last week this newspaper urged that the Mayo electorate be not taken for granted yet again. To its credit it hasn’t been, and the vote for Cowley reflects that. He will make a fine, campaigning TD, and with Marian Harkin in Sligo/Leitrim and possibly more of the fourteen Independents returned, they can form a real rump for infrastructural development in disadvantaged regions. That has to be the hope.

The scenario in Mayo was that if Cowley was going to make it to the 29th Dail he’d have to do so at the expense of one of the sitting TDS. As things transpired, two sitting TDs were unseated in the fall-out. Ironically, the real loser was FG.  Jim Higgins, one of the ablest 28th Dail members, was always going to be under threat given the obvious decline in the vote of his traditional running mate, Ernie Caffrey, and the powerful performance by Fianna Fail’s John Carty in his backyard. In the end, the combination of both rather than any national decline in the FG share, took him out ahead of Enda Kenny who benefited more comprehensively from geographical transfers. Jim Higgins might have requested a recount: he didn’t, and the magnanimous manner of his departure was in keeping with his high political standing. He might have been a future leader of FG for he had all the qualities, but he will now almost certainly look to the next European election to rebuild his career. Meanwhile, his brother, John, can reflect on a great outing for the Progressive Democrats under his guidance.  Fianna Fail’s Dr Tom Moffatt, the second casualty, should surely have done better. As Junior Minister for the past five years he should have been in a position to hold on, especially with the national trend in his favour. Serious questions must be asked of his back-up team for this major slip-up. To lose a seat from such a powerful base as Ballina, which has returned a FF deputy on every occasion since the founding of the State, is incredible. However, that scenario was predicted five years ago when the performance was sluggish. It turned out to be a costly lesson.

The ousting of Dr Moffatt now leaves the whole of North Mayo without a TD, an extraordinary situation. While West Mayo has three deputies (Cooper-Flynn, Kenny and Cowley) and East Mayo one (Carty) the vast tract of the north of the county has become a wasteland, and indeed the same might be said for South Mayo though it has not the same tradition for returning deputies as North Mayo, with Ruttledge, the Callearys, Pat Lindsay, Joe Lenehan, Miko Browne, Tommy O’Hara (albeit from Foxford) and Paddy O’Toole springing to mind.  Fine Gael in North Mayo has not returned a TD since Paddy O’Toole lost his seat in the 80s and does not look like doing so in the immediate future. Fianna Fail will have to look to its oars if it wants to avoid comparison.

A long-term beneficiary of the north Mayo upset could well be Dr Cowley who has strong links with the area and who polled exceptionally well there. He can be expected to explore and exploit that potential in the certain knowledge that he will be targeted by both FF and FG at the next general election  Elsewhere, the performance of John Carty was out of the top drawer and will have pleased no end former TD P. J. Morley and his camp. He ran a highly organised campaign and by keeping ahead of the Higgins’ vote guaranteed his election.  Beverley Cooper-Flynn was always fighting a rearguard action, but the opinion polls provided the wake-up call required: this doughty fighter is always at her best when the odds are against her and she put in a sterling performance even if she did at times appear to be outside the ‘official’ camp.  Enda Kenny is a survivor and has done it again, even if his seat looks increasingly vulnerable. He benefited from his high profile as a leadership contender, and from transfers from all and sundry, and most particularly from Frank Chambers who put in a great performance. Kenny’s role in the reshaping of his party will be a crucial one.  First preference poll topper Michael Ring was always a certainty: he is a unique personality, and his work rate is just phenomenal. If his party had more Rings then talk of meltdowns would be unheard of in FG which has paid a terrible price for a five percent drop in vote share nationally.  General elections are all about learning lessons. Fine Gael did not learn anything from 1997, or of they did they did not act accordingly.

Five years ago they had a leadership image problem: there was just no one they could brand in contrast to FF’s Bertie Ahern. Michael Noonan, fine man and all as he is, just did not measure up when it came to slick marketing. And around the country the party has been clearly under-resourced and in some instances poorly organised.  As the major opposition party they should have been right up there punching their weight over the past five years, presenting themselves as a real alternative. To do that they needed to convince Labour that a pact was essential, that a credible alternative had to be presented to the electorate.

That should have been done at least six months ago. But Labour saw as much merit in going into government with Fianna Fail as in a Rainbow Coalition and were not convinced. That was Fine Gael’s lost opportunity and one they will have to resurrect well in advance of the next general election if they are to recover from this debacle. And, if it’s any consolation to FG, Labour won’t be in a position to be as choosy next time out.

* This article first appreared in The Western People newspaper.

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