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‘The grand tradition … of making heroes and heartbreak, would continue’

Trooping into the Hyde Centre (which, by the way, is really showing its age!), we were not at all confident that Roscommon (and East Galway) could deliver yet again.

Roscommon has a remarkable record of producing fascinating – often truly dramatic – election outcomes. That is seldom much fun for nervous candidates, but it is part of our history, and a tribute to our political astuteness.

As an electorate, we are ruthless, unpredictable, unforgiving, willing to reward where applicable…most of all, we are never to be taken for granted.

We listen, we watch…and we wait. We wondered about last Friday. We had endured a dull campaign and it looked like we might produce a dull election. But the Hyde count of 2016 was not about to distance itself from history.

The grand tradition, with its unapologetic twin effect of making heroes and heartbreak, would continue.

The secrets emerge

The big man, Fitzmaurice, won nearly 10,000 number ones and stormed home in what was his first ‘proper’ national election (his breakthrough came in the 2014 by-election).

A performance such as Fitzmaurice’s would often have been a worthy headline act. But there were two other big shows in town… I passed the count centre at around 7.50 am (I had dropped family members off at the train station in Athlone, if you must know why I was up so early). At 7.50 am, the secrets of the ballot box were still safe.

Soon, cars began to arrive. Counting began at 9 am and shortly afterwards the secrets began to reveal themselves, in instalments. Denis Naughten was rampant. Sinn Fein were doing well, but not nearly well enough. Michael Fitzmaurice would be fine. Shane Curran would not threaten the goal. The fate of Murphy and Hopkins was an unfolding, interlinked story.

Untouchable Naughten

Naughten didn’t just win the race; he destroyed the field. As noted previously on these pages, his is the slickest, most sophisticated campaign machine. It is a machine.

The candidate himself is a force to be reckoned with; the quality of the team behind him makes Naughten untouchable just now in Roscommon politics. No stone was left unturned by the Naughten camp, not unless it made more sense to leave it unturned.

From social media to traditional media to interaction with people on the doorsteps, nothing was left to chance. The Naughten camp outfoxed the Fitzmaurice camp – and all others.

Longest evening of their lives

With the re-election of both Naughten and Fitzmaurice not in doubt, all attention was on the third seat. It was a long day at the count centre. The first count results arrived at about 7 pm.

Ireland had just been counted out by England at Twickenham.

Spectators who had taken a break in the afternoon began to reappear in the Hyde. So many of them familiar faces. Stalwarts of elections past. Familiar poses adopted. Heads lean over the barrier. Smiles are exchanged with the counters, but the smiles of the party hacks are frowns-in-waiting…should things go wrong. It is both exciting and nerve-wracking.

The tallymen and women stare and stroke, tiny pieces of the jigsaw shuffling into place. From early on Saturday, Fianna Fáil were confident that the great coup could happen.

Later, there were gasps when the first count revealed Murphy to be a single vote ahead of Hopkins. It must have been agony for Maura and Eugene. The longest evening of their lives. The others, who had the courage to run, were not to last the distance.

Claire Kerrane, as an election debutante, did well, winning over 3,000 first preferences. On the evidence of her impact over recent months, Sinn Fein have unearthed a great prospect.

John Kelly knew that he was playing into the wind. With due respect to this passionate Roscommon man, wearing the Labour colours doesn’t do it for the electorate here. He’s like a person turning up at a party who is politely refused entry just for producing the wrong pass. I don’t think we’ll see him in the Labour colours again, but who knows, he may line out as an Independent some time in the future, in some electoral setting.

John’s sister, Anne Farrell, running for Renua, expressed disappointment with her vote (520). Eddie Conroy polled well enough to suggest that he could contest Council elections with some confidence.

The election of Denis Naughten was enthusiastically celebrated. It’s his fifth successive triumph in a national election. It may be his sweetest. I didn’t witness the moment, but as Naughten was raised on the shoulders of supporters, Frank Feighan stepped forward and held out his hand in congratulations.

A euro for their thoughts… Feighan was an interested observer, so too ‘Ming’. Paddy Kilduff and John Keogh were even seen having a laugh, with former councillor Michael McGreal a no doubt bemused third party.

Later, with Murphy on the verge of victory, a very gracious Ivan Connaughton came in with his father, the irrepressible Martin. By now, there were enough cast members present to make a classic political soap opera.

After a bit of a stand-off from their base in Hannon’s Hotel, ‘Team Fitzmaurice’ arrived in the Hyde Centre. The word was that Deputy Michael had said he wouldn’t attend unless his supporters were allowed in.

‘Fitz’ got his way and his supporters celebrated his re-election with an infectious joy.

Still Murphy and Hopkins waited…prisoners of the people.

Rollercoaster stops at ‘Promised Land’

After the various eliminations, and the division of surplus votes, it came down to the transfers of Kerrane and Curran. By now, long after midnight, Hopkins had moved 823 clear.

There was a glimmer of hope for Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil activists were noticeably nervous. 2 am came and time ticked on. It was a cliff-hanger.

Then, a ripple of excitement on the floor – amongst the Fianna Fáil faithful. The latest tallies were in. Apparently their man was receiving a huge transfer from Curran.

After all the controversy and comment, Shane Curran was having a significant impact on Election 2016. The Fianna Fáilers were beaming now, hugging, embracing, giving the media a thumbs-up.

The atmosphere was special. They surrounded Murphy. When the news was confirmed just after 2.30 am, they held him aloft, and for Eugene Murphy, it was the most emotional of moments.

A rollercoaster that had been rolling for thirty-one years had just stopped at the ‘Promised Land’.

Hopkins under pressure from Murphy as last seat battle looms

Kerrane a ‘dark horse’

The people who number-crunch while the rest of the population are watching Eastenders or Coronation Street are expecting the quota to be in or around 12,000.

  Get that, and you’re definitely elected.

  Post the Michael Fitzmaurice breakthrough in the 2014 By-Election, seasoned observers predicted the mother of all battles between ‘Fitz’ and Denis Naughten, the man with all the wind at his back after A&E-Gate.

  ‘We can’t elect two Independents’, became the mantra.

  Now the Fianna Fáilers and the Fine Gaelers – for it was they who said it – know what we all know: that we can elect two Independents and that we are very likely to do just that.

  The traditional powers find themselves scrapping for a seat – while keeping a nervy eye on the Sinn Fein upstarts.

   Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have helped the Independent duo. Fine Gael, due to the Feighan/Naughten/Hospital saga, and Fianna Fáil by indulging in a bizarre courting ritual en route to the altar (where their fate remains to be determined).

  Ultimately however Fitzmaurice and Naughten are the front-runners because of their profiles and popularity; just now, they are the biggest political forces in Roscommon/Galway.

  A desperate scramble for votes continues as I write. Fine Gael are nervous, yet expectant. Maura Hopkins is the favourite to join Fitzmaurice and Naughten on the winners’ podium. But Fine Gael know that the coronation they want could turn into a cliffhanger.

  Hopkins must have a very good chance of succeeding Frank Feighan. Fine Gael have been the dominant force in Roscommon since 2007. In 2011 the party had 38% vote share as compared with a historically low 15% for Fianna Fáil. Thousands of Fine Gael votes will presumably stay with Denis Naughten (ex-Fine Gael, now Independent) but Fine Gael are counting on enough remaining loyal to ensure the election of Hopkins.

  The Fine Gael strategy could be summed up as follows: Maura Hopkins is not Frank Feighan. Maura Hopkins is a new, young candidate with no baggage. Maura Hopkins represents stability and recovery.

  Fianna Fáil people will tell you ‘we have a quota’, but it’s as if they are looking for reassurance. Do they really have a quota? I find it hard to see a quota for Fianna Fáil.

  People are struggling to assess how Shane Curran will do. To some, he is the villain in this story, which is hardly fair. After all, Dublin went on bended knee to him. To others, he is the passionate voice this county needs. No one can say whether Curran will produce a surprisingly high vote or make little impression. He is boxed in a bit in the South and the feeling I am getting is that Cllr. Eugene Murphy still has the most momentum of the Fianna Fáil runners.

  We told them several weeks ago in this column that Claire Kerrane is the dark horse. They doubted us, but they’re not doubting us now. I am giving her somewhere in the region of 4,500-5,000 number ones. I may be completely wrong. I’ll tell you next week.

  I have been rude over recent weeks in not mentioning the presumed ‘losers.’ Here in the Roscommon People we like to say it as it is. By the way, there really are no losers. I imagine it takes real courage to go before the electorate and I think we should respect all of the candidates for that.

  I do not see anyone beyond Fitzmaurice, Naughten, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein being in contention. John Kelly has been a success in the Seanad and would not be out of his depth at the business end of this contest, but he won’t be in contention. Kelly will command a decent vote but he is not wearing the right colours (Labour) insofar that the party doesn’t come near to having the infrastructure in this neck of the woods to elect someone.

  Eddie Conroy might surprise us; he will get a decent vote and must be a potential Council candidate in the future, as must Renua’s enthusiastic candidate Anne Farrell, who will garner a fair degree of support but who won’t be involved at that all-important business end.

  Fitzmaurice will lose votes to Naughten in Roscommon. However Fitzmaurice will do so well in Galway that he is widely expected to top the poll, maybe with in the region of 12,000 number ones. Naughten should be next and both will be comfortably re-elected.

  The other seat? I predict that Maura Hopkins will be chased down to the wire by Eugene Murphy and Claire Kerrane and that we will be in a for a nail-biting finale.

  Hopkins has a lot of ‘early work’ done in Galway from months ago, supported by Dr. John Barton. It could tell in her favour. If she picks up 2,500 number ones in Galway, she may be home and dry. What will also work in her favour is the likelihood of a number of candidates from her part of the county transferring generously to Hopkins.

  But…I’ll go out on a limb in this difficult-to-call election. It will be tight but I have a feeling that Roscommon may continue a long tradition of producing dramatic elections. I have a feeling that there may be a twist in the FF saga and that Cllr. Eugene Murphy, boosted by a sympathy vote (due to how he was treated by HQ) could be poised to pull of a shock win and deny Hopkins.

 Prediction: 2 Independents, 1 Fianna Fáil.  

And now for something completely different…

New reality for FF and FG as Independents poised to dominate
That was then…

Twelve candidates will compete for the three Dáil seats in Roscommon/Galway constituency. The outgoing TDs are Frank Feighan, Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten.

Frank Feighan is not running this time. Up to 50,000 votes are expected to be cast. ‘Topping the poll’ honours are expected to fall to Fitzmaurice or Naughten.

Historically, Fianna Fáil has frequently won two seats in elections in Roscommon, but this time around, the party would be thrilled to scrape one. Fine Gael made a famous breakthrough in 2007, with two Roscommon-based candidates winning seats in Roscommon/South Leitrim. New territory. They then repeated the feat in 2011. Due to the Roscommon A&E closure fall-out – and the ‘Naughten factor’ – the party is understandably setting its sights on just one seat this time.

In 2007, Fine Gael enjoyed a handsome success at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Vote management contributed to a neck and neck finish (on first preferences) with Frank Feighan (9,103) marginally ahead of Fine Gael colleague Denis Naughten (8,928). While Michael Finneran of Fianna Fáil topped the poll (9,982), the party weren’t able to get his Leitrim-based colleague, veteran John Ellis, over the line.

Feighan took the first seat and was followed home by Finneran and Naughten. Fine Gael’s vote share in 2007 was a superb 39.14%. Fianna Fáil’s was 38.84%. Heady days for both parties. Michael Fitzmaurice was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. They weren’t candidates.

Independents only polled about 10%. The future was another country. In 2011, Fine Gael knew that Fianna Fáil were on the ropes. The country was in a deep recession. Michael Finneran was one of several sitting Fianna Fáil TDs who decided to opt out. Ivan Connaughton accepted the baton when others within the party didn’t really want to know. The outgoing Fine Gael duo were conscious of the threat of Sinn Fein and rising Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (by then a councillor) and, to a lesser degree, Labour.

Under pressure from the HAC for months prior to the election, and with Fine Gael seeking an unlikely overall majority, the party went out on a limb on Roscommon Hospital.

Feighan and Naughten looked safe, particularly as Fianna Fáil were in freefall. But, to be sure to be sure, a now infamous written commitment on Roscommon A&E (“Dear people of Roscommon”) was sought from Health spokesperson James Reilly, dispatched and published in the Roscommon People. The rest, we know.

As to the election ‘stats,’ Fine Gael predictably retained their seats. This time it was Naughten who topped the poll, with Feighan in close pursuit. When it came to sophisticated (notwithstanding behind-the-scenes tensions between the Feighan and Naughten camps) electioneering, Fine Gael in Roscommon were the new Fianna Fáil in Roscommon. Fine Gael vote share in Roscommon/South Leitrim in 2011 was 38.53%. Fianna Fáil plummeted to a fairly pitiful 15% and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan took the first seat, the constituency returning two Fine Gael TDs and one Independent (no Fianna Fáil TD in Roscommon for the first time ever).

The 2014 By-election (required due to Ming’s election to the European Parliament) is worthy of some reflection, I guess. Of course there was no Denis Naughten, no Frank Feighan, no Ming, just one candidate for each party. Accordingly, it’s a distorted update on how the voters were thinking!

The by-election was won by Michael Fitzmaurice, the turfcutters’ champion from Glinsk. Ivan Connaughton (Fianna Fáil) topped the poll, but it had been obvious in the fortnight leading up to polling day that the wind was at Fitzmaurice’s back. And that wind swept all before it.

… but what now?

Twelve candidates, three seats, perhaps in the region of 50,000 votes to be cast… In politics, you never really know what’s around the corner.

On Election Day in 2011, who could have forecast that neither Frank Feighan or Denis Naughten would be running in FG colours next time around? Who, in 2011, could have forecast that a phenomenon called Michael Fitzmaurice would be the bookies’ favourite to top the poll in 2016?

Who could have forecast that the Fianna Fáil ticket would be Shane Curran and Eugene Murphy? ‘Surely we can’t elect two Independents?’ a number of both startled and seasoned political observers asked one another in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 by-election. But the particular circumstances of this moment in time would suggest that this is precisely what will happen.

Fitzmaurice polled well over 4,000 number ones in County Roscommon in 2014. Many of these were ‘borrowed’ from Denis Naughten and will return to the latter. Up to 14-15,000 votes could be cast in the Galway end of the constituency.

Everyone will pick up something there, but Fitzmaurice is set to sweep the board in Galway. He could end up on 11,000-12,000 number ones – or more. This is Denis Naughten’s first time to run as an Independent. There is no love lost between Fine Gael and the Naughten camp ‘on the ground’ in Roscommon. The assumption is that Naughten, who parted from Fine Gael over Roscommon Hospital, will attract a big personal vote – at the expense of his old party.

Some observers see Naughten as a potential poll-topper (although Fitzmaurice is favourite, and Shane Curran’s candidacy will dent Naughten’s first preference haul). At the very least, Naughten will poll very well (he is also likely to be very transfer-friendly). He is running a slick campaign which very directly reminds the electorate of the stance that Naughten took on Roscommon Hospital. ‘Keeps his promises’ is his campaign slogan.

Naughten will be returned and has pledged to remain an Independent at least for the duration of the next Dáil. The other seat looks set to be fought over by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. I expect Claire Kerrane (Sinn Féin) to surprise people.

Some observers that I have spoken to are dismissing her. I think she will do better than people think; she’ll attract several thousand number ones, stay in contention for a while – but probably not to the end.

Fine Gael will shed votes in the Mid Roscommon area (particularly) over the hospital issue, but Cllr. Hopkins, a personable new political force in the area, will also appeal to many voters. For FG HQ, she is just what they wanted; a new, young candidate, a break from the past, the future brought forward.

Selling Fine Gael’s message on stability and recovery, she must remain slight favourite, at this point in the campaign, to make it over the line. Cllr. Hopkins won’t be able to stop a Naughten ‘vote grab’ from Fine Gael in parts of Roscommon, but she will command some of Frank Feighan’s vote and also make her own mark. She will do well on transfers too.

As for the chaos within Fianna Fáil, the situation there remains interesting. Just now, it is not at all clear which of the two Fianna Fáil candidates has the most momentum. The worry for Eugene Murphy is that FF grassroot fury with HQ’s handling of the saga may ease as we move closer to polling day and that Shane Curran, already showing signs of growing into the campaign, will begin to gain further ground.

The other scenario is that the Curran decision will backfire on HQ and that Murphy, with his back to the wall, will relish the role he has been cast in. Curran has former Minister Michael Finneran on his side, but Murphy has almost all the Fianna Fáil councillors out canvassing for him. My instinct from the moment Shane was added was that this could possibly work in Eugene Murphy’s favour.

I am assuming that Eugene Murphy’s campaign – quite ironically – will be galvanised by the addition of Curran. In fact Murphy’s campaign might be elevated to a level that it would not have otherwise reached. It’s all to play for, but my instinct is that Murphy will be involved in that final seat shoot-out with Maura Hopkins.

* Also running: Tony Coleman (Independent); Eddie Conroy (People Before Profit); Thomas D Fallon (Independent); Anne Farrell (Renua); Miriam Hennessy (Green Party); John Kelly (Labour); Claire Kerrane (Sinn Fein).

* See Paul Healy’s ELECTION (B)LOG on www.roscommonpeople.ie throughout the campaign

Currangate: HQ get their man, but will FF get a seat?

Could bizarre episode boost Murphy?
The man who walked away

“What in God’s name was Ivan Connaughton thinking?”

That – sometimes with God invoked, sometimes just Micheál Martin – is a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times in the past couple of years. Fianna Fáil’s chaotic search for a candidate or candidates to contest the 2016 General Election in Roscommon/Galway can be traced back to Connaughton’s explosive interview in the Roscommon People over Christmas 2014.

In that bombshell interview, Connaughton called for his party leader Micheál Martin to resign, slammed FF HQ, and was critical of the party organisation in Roscommon. Most surprisingly of all, he flatly ruled out contesting a General Election ever again as long as Micheál Martin remains leader. Some milk was spilt over breakfast in grassroot Fianna Fáil households that morning… It was quite an outburst by Connaughton.

It’s not for me to say what his precise motivation was in saying all he did and when he did – I was merely the messenger. I was happy to be the messenger too, and one thing I will say is that Ivan Connaughton did not need any persuading on the day.

He wasn’t just happy to talk remarkably openly and critically about his disdain for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil HQ – he wanted to get that stuff off his chest. He had clearly thought through what he wanted to say in that interview. He wasn’t going to hold back, and there would be no turning back.

Over a year on, and with his party having gone through a controversial and divisive election candidate selection process, you’d think that Connaughton, now an FF councillor, might regret talking himself out of contention.

But he doesn’t have any regrets. Instead he is content with the stance he took. And, he remains a young man who is not in a hurry.

‘She stepped out and I stepped in again’

Connaughton had contested both the 2011 General Election and the 2014 By-election for Fianna Fáil. Now, in the post-Michael Finneran era, and with Connaughton out of the picture, Fianna Fáil turned its attention to seeking out a new candidate. Approaches were made to Dr. Martin Daly (he decided against entering the political fray), and there was much speculation about Dr. Keith Swanick (currently running for the Seanad, and a likely Dail contender in the future) and about various councillors.

A number of councillors were nominated over the past year or so. One by one, most opted out. They pulled out for a variety of mainly unspoken reasons. I suspect that some of these reasons were as follows: ‘I wouldn’t win’ ‘Not this time, I’ll wait for a better opportunity’ ‘I want nothing to do with that farce’ It was becoming a bit of a farce.

Cllr. Eugene Murphy, a wily operator and veteran Convention contender, decided to hang in there. A relative unknown, Sean Og Higgins, emerged too. Although there were at least two people willing to turn up and dance, FF HQ wouldn’t pick a date, a venue or a band. Fianna Fáil lost critical time and played into the hands of their opponents.

It was obvious that the party was desperately scrambling around for a candidate other than Mr. Murphy or Mr. Higgins. Few people took the speculation about Conor Lenihan seriously. Ultimately it only added to the sense of a chaotic ‘process.’ As Christmas 2015 neared, it was (long overdue) time to bring everything to a head.

Fianna Fáil grassroots in Roscommon wanted and expected a Selection Convention. The two remaining candidates were waiting. But Fianna Fáil HQ didn’t want Cllr. Eugene Murphy. It wasn’t personal, as such – they just didn’t see him as a seat-winner. Issues around loyalty (to Murphy) wouldn’t arise. Issues around ruthlessness would.

Issues around democracy, HQ could take or leave, as we would see… Fianna Fáil General Secretary Sean Dorgan travelled to a hotel in Co. Roscommon towards the end of the year. He met Cllr. Eugene Murphy and conveyed the concerns of HQ. Cllr. Murphy was told that internal party polling suggested he wouldn’t win a seat. Murphy defended himself and, under pressure from HQ, dismissed out of hand any notion of stepping aside.

Tails briefly between their legs, HQ gave the green light for a convention. Many within the party locally believe that FF HQ threw its weight in behind Higgins, in the hope that he would cause a convention upset.

The speculation is that had Higgins (who is entitled to feel aggrieved at recent events) won the convention, he would subsequently have been cast as a running mate for a new, high profile candidate. As it turned out, Murphy won the convention fairly comfortably.

The Cake rises…

January was a long month. The speculation about former Roscommon GAA star Shane Curran being added to the Fianna Fáil ticket had been around in December and had peaked in early January.

The Murphy camp led resistance to any Curran candidacy, with supporters of the Strokestown councillor contacting FF HQ to make their feelings known. They were formally supported by the Fianna Fail Comhairle Dail Ceantair. The speculation ebbed away.

Behind the scenes however, the contacts between HQ and Curran continued. Murphy was out canvassing last Thursday when, metaphorically speaking, the thunder began to roll again. Text messages and tweets began to circulate. Fianna Fáil were about to bag their man. Curran travelled to Dublin to complete the formalities.

By about 10.30 pm on Thursday night, Shane Curran was officially a Fianna Fáil candidate in Roscommon/Galway. Murphy got the phone call he had feared. A big personality, with contacts in Castlerea and South Roscommon – and of course recognisable throughout the constituency – the bookies now have Curran at 11/8 to take a Dail seat.

But the bookies, and most punters, don’t see Fianna Fail winning a seat. Murphy came out fighting on Friday in an interview with Mary Claire Grealy. The Murphy and Curran camps are now on solo runs.

And now…they’re off! What now?

The interesting thing is that, after all the chaos, Fianna Fáil could possibly have actually enhanced its prospects of winning a seat. Fianna Fáil are still playing catch-up on other candidates – there’s no doubt about that – but the dual-candidate strategy, as ham-fisted as its creation was, may yet get one of their runners over the line.

The high profile Shane Curran is seen by the bookies as the frontrunner of the Fianna Fáil duo. However I certainly would not discount a Murphy surge. Here’s a possible scenario: Murphy’s perceived plight could have the effect of mobilising grassroots/attracting a ‘sympathy’ vote.

If this happens, he will be very much in contention. Whatever the majority of grassroots think, the fact is that Fianna Fáil now suddenly find themselves with both ends of the constituency covered. Now I know that formal vote management between Curran and Murphy is about as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas, but a two-candidate approach might just keep one of the party’s candidates in the hunt for a seat. For that to happen, either Murphy or Curran will need to be very close to Cllr. Maura Hopkins on first preferences.

Which Fianna Fáil candidate attracts the highest first preference vote remains to be seen. Just now, it’s all to play for. We don’t know yet which member of Fianna Fáil’s ‘arranged marriage’ will garner the most momentum.

So, Fianna Fáil will either (a) scrape a seat after the most bizarre build-up – or (b) pay the ultimate price for prevarication after the most bizarre build-up. If it’s the latter, expect the mother of all inquests.

A&E Unit – the words that time forgot!

Now it’s official, folks. In reality, we’ve known it for a long time.  If you say something often enough, it tends to become accepted wisdom. 

  And, in recent years, we’ve been conditioned, step by step, bit by bit, to accept that Roscommon A&E is unlikely to ever re-open.

  It’s been apparent for some time that the fight for restoration of the A&E Unit – as we knew it – is over.

  What’s interesting now, as we enter a General Election campaign, is that the traditional/principal election ‘players’ aren’t even pretending otherwise.

  None of the traditional political ‘old guard’ are making restoration of Roscommon A&E a red-line issue (to use that popular new term) in Election 2016.

  Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour all entered the 2011 General Election assuring the public of their absolute commitment to the retention of emergency services at Roscommon County Hospital.

  Denis Naughten and Frank Feighan received what seemed like dream backing from then Health spokesperson James Reilly and party leader Enda Kenny.

  Fianna Fail went into that election with the same stance, and would have been deeply hurt at any suggestion that they would ever threaten the future of emergency services at Roscommon Hospital (“didn’t we put the A&E in?” would have been their opening retort).

  Labour also assured us that A&E would be completely safe on their watch.

  As we know, Fine Gael and Labour subsequently shut it down.

  None of those parties are making any pledges now about restoration of Roscommon A&E. Their candidates in Roscommon/Galway – Eugene Murphy, Maura Hopkins and John Kelly – can say all they like about the health service here, but they can’t deliver on A&E.

  Now, Independent TD Denis Naughten has also made it clear that re-opening of Roscommon A&E won’t be a red-line issue for him going forward.

  Naughten has confirmed what has been obvious to close observers in recent years…that he is no longer insisting on the presence of a functioning A&E Unit in Roscommon Hospital as a price for his support for a Fine Gael-led Government.  

  For Naughten, this is tricky territory. Deputy Naughten parted company with Fine Gael because they were closing Roscommon A&E; now he is not insisting on its re-opening in return for his support (should such an alliance arise) for a new FG-led government. (Or a government led by any other party). He will hope that most people will see his approach as the pragmatic one. For anyone who won’t be impressed by Naughten’s softened position, he will hope that getting his stance out good and early will take the sting out of any outcry.

  What the candidates in question will all tell us is that they are just being pragmatic. They will say they are merely reflecting the reality on the ground. It is much harder, our ‘A&E not a red-line issue’ politicians will argue, to restore something that is gone, than it is to maintain something that is still there. In particular, they will point out that staffing a restored Roscommon A&E would be a momentous challenge.

  All fine, to a point. After all, in recent years most of us have started to reluctantly accept that there is hardly any prospect of Roscommon A&E – as we knew it – ever re-opening.

  But it is very convenient for our principal local politicians to now concentrate on the vague area of ‘enhanced emergency services’ instead of reminding whatever parties will form the next Government of the across-the-political-divide commitment to Roscommon A&E that existed pre-2011.

  The expression ‘letting them off the hook’ springs to mind.

  This brings us to the HAC (Hospital Action Committee), which could also be accused this week of letting candidates in Roscommon/Galway off the hook. The HAC is not insisting on re-opening of Roscommon A&E as, yep, a ‘red-line issue.”

  A lot has changed in five years, hasn’t it?

  Also interesting in this saga is the position of consultants at the County Hospital. Consultants who were very vocal in support of A&E when the HAC were organising mass rallies five or six years ago, have since gone very quiet. Why is this? If they felt that A&E was viable back in 2009-2011, why did they take a vow of silence in the years since? Sure, everyone is fatigued from the saga, but if it was wrong to close down A&E in 2011… 

  Consultant Mr. Liam McMullen did go public lately, with an intriguing letter to the Roscommon People, in the course of which he asked voters not to be fooled by election candidates promising to restore A&E. As it happens, he need not have worried!

   For the record, I note that Sinn Fein (who are running Claire Kerrane here) are stating that, on entering Government, they will re-open Roscommon A&E. We will see.

  So, there you have it. Denis Naughten, who undoubtedly paid a heavy career price when he refused to vote with Fine Gael on the A&E closure, talks of insisting on a greatly improved emergency service in return for his support for the next Government.

            Michael Fitzmaurice is saying something similar. People will have an opportunity to scrutinise what they and all other candidates are saying. In time, we will see the shape of the enhanced services which we would all welcome.

  Meanwhile, after all the noise and all the years, it’s ending with a whimper. The public, by and large, lost their appetite for the battle over recent years. Our leading political players have moved on too, and they have largely dropped A&E from their vocabulary.

  In the 2011 General Election, it was the most explosive topic we’d ever encountered. In the 2016 General Election, it’s the controversy that daren’t be mentioned.

  Roscommon A&E? The words that time forgot.

A&E Unit – the words that time forgot!

Now it’s official, folks. In reality, we’ve known it for a long time.  If you say something often enough, it tends to become accepted wisdom. 

  And, in recent years, we’ve been conditioned, step by step, bit by bit, to accept that Roscommon A&E is unlikely to ever re-open.

  It’s been apparent for some time that the fight for restoration of the A&E Unit – as we knew it – is over.

  What’s interesting now, as we enter a General Election campaign, is that the traditional/principal election ‘players’ aren’t even pretending otherwise.

  None of the traditional political ‘old guard’ are making restoration of Roscommon A&E a red-line issue (to use that popular new term) in Election 2016.

  Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour all entered the 2011 General Election assuring the public of their absolute commitment to the retention of emergency services at Roscommon County Hospital.

  Denis Naughten and Frank Feighan received what seemed like dream backing from then Health spokesperson James Reilly and party leader Enda Kenny.

  Fianna Fail went into that election with the same stance, and would have been deeply hurt at any suggestion that they would ever threaten the future of emergency services at Roscommon Hospital (“didn’t we put the A&E in?” would have been their opening retort).

  Labour also assured us that A&E would be completely safe on their watch.

  As we know, Fine Gael and Labour subsequently shut it down.

  None of those parties are making any pledges now about restoration of Roscommon A&E. Their candidates in Roscommon/Galway – Eugene Murphy, Maura Hopkins and John Kelly – can say all they like about the health service here, but they can’t deliver on A&E.

  Now, Independent TD Denis Naughten has also made it clear that re-opening of Roscommon A&E won’t be a red-line issue for him going forward.

  Naughten has confirmed what has been obvious to close observers in recent years…that he is no longer insisting on the presence of a functioning A&E Unit in Roscommon Hospital as a price for his support for a Fine Gael-led Government.  

  For Naughten, this is tricky territory. Deputy Naughten parted company with Fine Gael because they were closing Roscommon A&E; now he is not insisting on its re-opening in return for his support (should such an alliance arise) for a new FG-led government. (Or a government led by any other party). He will hope that most people will see his approach as the pragmatic one. For anyone who won’t be impressed by Naughten’s softened position, he will hope that getting his stance out good and early will take the sting out of any outcry.

  What the candidates in question will all tell us is that they are just being pragmatic. They will say they are merely reflecting the reality on the ground. It is much harder, our ‘A&E not a red-line issue’ politicians will argue, to restore something that is gone, than it is to maintain something that is still there. In particular, they will point out that staffing a restored Roscommon A&E would be a momentous challenge.

  All fine, to a point. After all, in recent years most of us have started to reluctantly accept that there is hardly any prospect of Roscommon A&E – as we knew it – ever re-opening.

  But it is very convenient for our principal local politicians to now concentrate on the vague area of ‘enhanced emergency services’ instead of reminding whatever parties will form the next Government of the across-the-political-divide commitment to Roscommon A&E that existed pre-2011.

  The expression ‘letting them off the hook’ springs to mind.

  This brings us to the HAC (Hospital Action Committee), which could also be accused this week of letting candidates in Roscommon/Galway off the hook. The HAC is not insisting on re-opening of Roscommon A&E as, yep, a ‘red-line issue.”

  A lot has changed in five years, hasn’t it?

  Also interesting in this saga is the position of consultants at the County Hospital. Consultants who were very vocal in support of A&E when the HAC were organising mass rallies five or six years ago, have since gone very quiet. Why is this? If they felt that A&E was viable back in 2009-2011, why did they take a vow of silence in the years since? Sure, everyone is fatigued from the saga, but if it was wrong to close down A&E in 2011… 

  Consultant Mr. Liam McMullen did go public lately, with an intriguing letter to the Roscommon People, in the course of which he asked voters not to be fooled by election candidates promising to restore A&E. As it happens, he need not have worried!

   For the record, I note that Sinn Fein (who are running Claire Kerrane here) are stating that, on entering Government, they will re-open Roscommon A&E. We will see.

  So, there you have it. Denis Naughten, who undoubtedly paid a heavy career price when he refused to vote with Fine Gael on the A&E closure, talks of insisting on a greatly improved emergency service in return for his support for the next Government.

            Michael Fitzmaurice is saying something similar. People will have an opportunity to scrutinise what they and all other candidates are saying. In time, we will see the shape of the enhanced services which we would all welcome.

  Meanwhile, after all the noise and all the years, it’s ending with a whimper. The public, by and large, lost their appetite for the battle over recent years. Our leading political players have moved on too, and they have largely dropped A&E from their vocabulary.

  In the 2011 General Election, it was the most explosive topic we’d ever encountered. In the 2016 General Election, it’s the controversy that daren’t be mentioned.

  Roscommon A&E? The words that time forgot.

Custard pies, cabbage and close encounters

Election (B)log – Paul Healy

I was very excited, not to mention very nervous, when the man from Rooskey agreed to be interviewed.

  The man from Rooskey was Albert Reynolds, and he was Taoiseach at the time.

  I was working for the Longford NEWS then. It was the early 1990s. Albert was immersed in the historic peace process, but, despite his busy schedule at home and abroad, he always had an eye on – and frequently both feet in – Longford.

  We arranged to meet in the Longford Arms Hotel. I got there at the appointed time, a bag of nerves. I had expected the lobby or bar to be quiet, but, lo and behold, the place was overflowing with wedding guests.

  I rang the Taoiseach directly (it was the early 1990s, after all). I was only in my twenties. I was panicking. The hotel is full, I said, wondering if he wanted to suggest a change of venue.

  ‘Ask for a room upstairs’ he advised, and I wondered at my stupidity.

  We ‘got a room,’ so to speak, and Albert – with no advisors present – proceeded to give the Longford NEWS man a state of the nation interview.

  There was only one interruption: when Gerry Adams rang. Rang Albert that is, not me.

  “Do you trust him?” I asked when Albert had finished with Gerry Adams.

  “He paused for a few seconds.

  “I do. Gerry has worked hard for peace.”

 As a journalist based outside Dublin, it’s primarily at election-time that I get up close and personal with the political leaders.

  When I was with the Roscommon Champion, I remember Charlie Haughey arriving in Athlone in 1991, as Taoiseach, to open the bypass. He got a hero’s welcome; crowds surged forward to acclaim him.

  He oozed charisma. At a press conference, someone asked Charlie how he expected Fianna Fail to do in Roscommon in the then upcoming local elections.

  Haughey said words to this effect: “I expect Brian Mullooly (then Council chairman) to deliver lots of seats for us.”

  All Brian, a true gentleman, could do was smile. No pressure, then!

  Haughey came to Roscommon, but I never went to Kinsealy. Had I done so, I would have seen the antique bar taps in Haughey’s private bar, which Charlie bought from my father on a visit to the Kon Tiki (which we owned at the time) in Rooskey. On that far-off night in the early 1970s, Haughey and Brian Lenihan Senior arrived in the Kon Tiki bar with Peter Hanley of Hanley’s bacon factory in Rooskey. Haughey took a shine to the bar taps and they had pride of place in Kinsealy from then on.

  Many years later, a friend who did get to Kinsealy – for a charity dinner – thrust his menu in front of Haughey and asked him to sign it for “Paul Healy, a journalist who I think has a soft spot for you.”

  The by-then-retired Haughey looked up.

  “A journalist with a soft spot for me? Where were they when I needed them!”

  Bertie? He called during every election campaign. On one visit, the hangers-on trailed him like he was the pied piper. In the Lyon’s Den pub in Roscommon town, that well-known character, Sean Callery, now deceased, was having a quiet pint when the leader of the country breezed in.

  “Bertie!” said a startled Sean, “many’s a pint I had in Fagan’s in Drumcondra!”

  On a later visit, Bertie paused – I think they have to, by law – to hold up cabbage plants in Main Street, Roscommon, so that the photographers could capture the ‘funny’ and ‘man of the people’ moment.

  ‘Country on verge of nervous breakdown; leader holds cabbage aloft and smiles’ – that’s how we do things here.

  Back in my Longford NEWS days, I remember then-Taoiseach John Bruton arriving in town to officially open the Longford bypass. Afterwards, well over 100 guests went to the old Annaly Hotel for dinner.

  Bruton, an affable man, sat at the top table with Louis Belton and others. He ordered a pint of Guinness.

  Then he ordered another.

  And another.

 And another.

  It was extraordinary. He was fairly letting them down. The Taoiseach of the country, who could sink a pint very quickly indeed, was lowering four or five of them over lunch. It didn’t seem to have the slightest effect on him. It was kind of refreshing to see. Presumably he had a clear enough diary that night.

  Perhaps a young Enda Kenny or some minister had been left in charge.

 Brian Cowen called to the Roscommon People office in 2007, posed holding a photo with the paper, and then the worst recession in history came along.

   Actually he too was personable and ‘sound.’ He was Minister for Finance at the time, and what a time it was. The country was awash with money and optimism. We had no idea of what was to come.

  Micheal Martin, as has been much documented, was a regular presence in Roscommon at the time of the 2014 by-election. Nice man, shame about the shadow of the IMF. Still, he’s still hanging in there.   I was on holidays in France when Gerry Adams appeared in our office in Abbey Street, supporting Martin Kenny in the 2011 General Election.

  Apparently, when told the Editor was away, he said: “Tell that mon I’ll be back.” I expect he will be back soon.

  Pat Rabbitte sat in my office with Senator John Kelly, and a few years later, with Rabbitte now gone as Labour leader, it was Eamon Gilmore who was talking up their candidate’s chances.

  I asked Gilmore about Roscommon A&E. This was a few weeks before the 2011 General Election. He assured me it would be safe on his watch.

  When Michael Noonan was Fine Gael leader, I had a chat with him outside Regan’s in Roscommon, where he was due to address supporters. I don’t know what refreshments he had there, but dessert came later in Boyle, when a disenchanted woman covered Noonan’s face with a custard pie.

  The political leaders. They’re all the same, they’re all different.

  Probably – certainly possibly – wonderful, lovely people in private, but metamorphorised when in public, part-ruthless, part-disingenuous, part-performing, part-circus act, part-actor, parts of everything.

  I’ve met Enda a few times. I am sure he doesn’t remember. He was perfectly pleasant. It was pre-2011. Also pre-2011, I met James Reilly, I as a member of Roscommon Lions Club, James bursting with enthusiasm as Fine Gael Health spokesperson and soon-to-be Health Minister.

    At the end of the meeting, he made impressive eye contact with me, handed me his card and said ‘ring me any time.’

  I never rang him, and he never rings me…sure what would we talk about? 

  ‘Do you trust Gerry Adams?’ I had asked Albert, the man from Rooskey.

  Do we trust Charlie? Bertie? Enda? James? Eamon?

  Oh, well, most of it is water under the bridge now. The faces change, but not much else does. The circus comes to town again in the next few weeks. I look forward to the visits of the leaders. Codding ourselves no doubt, we will have our questions ready.

  More importantly, the lads in Main Street have the cabbages lined up.

 * See updates on PAUL HEALY’S ELECTION (B)LOG throughout the campaign on www.roscommonpeople.ie

‘They think it’s all over…surely not?’

‘There was menace in the air. It had been brewing. I remember instructions were given out that all chairs in the count centre were to be removed. The Gardai were fearful they might be used as missiles.’

The above is a quote from Denis Naughten, as published in my book ‘Nothing About Sheep Stealing.’ Denis, now an Independent TD, was recalling the incredible drama and tension that prevailed at the count centre during the 1987 General Election. He was only fourteen years old at the time of the count. His father, Liam Naughten (now deceased) was involved in an epic battle (featuring incredibly tense recounts) with party colleague John Connor.

  The count featured arguments, scuffles and outbreaks of fighting that led to Garda intervention. And that was the Fine Gael supporters fighting amongst themselves (the Fianna Failers were looking on, with holier-than-thou expressions!).

  That 1987 count was pretty exceptional – for its mood of menace – but the atmosphere was fairly reflective of the huge tension and fierce rivalry that loomed large on the political landscape in Roscommon for many decades.

  No one wants to see a return to the chaos of the 1987 count, but one certainly hopes that reports of the demise of ‘dramatic Roscommon elections’ has, to paraphrase Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated.

  I’ve been covering elections in Roscommon since 1989. Before becoming a journalist, I had observed the elections of the 1970s and ‘80s. I can’t recall any of these elections being predictable or dull, either in the build-up or in how they eventually panned out.

  Is the upcoming election in Roscommon/Galway set to dishonour our tradition? What tradition, you might ask? Well, we have a long track record here of making devastating, informed and clinical calls when we enter the ballot booths. We turf out giants if we feel they have failed us. We lower egos. We punish arrogance. We spot fools and send them packing. We raise new heroes from obscurity. Faced with factions forming within parties, we say ‘bring it on.’ We relish the combat, we pounce on complacency and we reward the honourable.

  It usually ends up in drama, frequently in shocks, always in a sense of an electorate having clinically parsed through the spoofing, the substance and the stuff in between, before delivering their verdict.

  And, after watching this unfold for well over a quarter of a century, I can vouch for the fact that the electorate here ultimately makes impressively informed choices.

  So I won’t be arguing with whatever the people decide in a few weeks’ time, but I will be very nostalgic, not to mention deflated and feeling shortchanged, if current predictions to the effect that ‘it’s all over bar the shouting’ prove accurate.

  Surely Roscommon/Galway isn’t going to serve up a dull election? Please say it ain’t so.

  Anyways, I don’t know what the dogs on the street are saying, but the political pundits and the grassroot warriors and the merely ‘mildly interested’ are – with a few exceptions perhaps – calling this election already, even though Enda hasn’t fired his starting pistol.

  And what they’re saying is that both Denis Naughten and Michael Fitzmaurice should book return tickets when they vacate the Dail to formally hit the campaign trail. 

  The word on the street is that Naughten and Fitzmaurice are shoo-ins to be returned.

  And that the third seat is Maura Hopkins’ to lose.

  By the sound of this, there’ll be little need for chairs at all in the count centre, much less for said chairs to then be removed by Gardai.

  (And, as an aside, the ‘seats as potential missiles warning’ does not apply for the weekly bingo sessions that are held in the Hyde Centre).

  It goes without saying that – whatever about big-hitters Fitzmaurice and Naughten – not everyone is signing up to the presumption that Cllr. Maura Hopkins of Fine Gael is safe.

  It remains to be seen how Cllr. Hopkins fares on the campaign trail, particularly when pressed on the Roscommon Hospital controversy and her less than unequivocal stance on the ‘Save Roscommon’ issue. Cllr. Hopkins is a new political force here and she will poll very well, but she has a few potholes to dodge on the road to Dail Eireann. As of now, she is well placed to win a seat, but by no means certain of doing so.

  The best prospect of a close (“it’s down to transfers”) contest materialising probably lies with Fianna Fail getting its house in order, rallying its troops and finding some momentum. It is too early to assess how Cllr. Eugene Murphy is going; suffice to say he has a tough battle on his hands. As I write, it appears increasingly likely that Murphy will be a sole FF runner.

  The ‘dark horse’ must be Claire Kerrane of Sinn Fein, who will poll strongly. I won’t dismiss the prospects of any of the other candidates, not yet anyway. The game hasn’t even kicked off and they are all entitled to go out, do their stuff and try to woo the audience.

  The election is about issues (we will return to that) but it is also the proverbial ‘bloodsport.’

  Roscommon doesn’t do dull elections. Why start now? 

* See updates on PAUL HEALY’S ELECTION (B)LOG throughout the campaign on www.roscommonpeople.ie

 

Dirty linen…and dirty tricks

I didn’t really feel any compelling temptation to buy a copy of The Irish Sun on Monday.  This is despite the fact that Roscommon’s current First Citizen was at the heart of that newspaper’s lead story.

  It’s not every day that the lead story on a national tabloid features Paddy Kilduff in full flow, via a secret recording, voicing his views on same-sex marriage and related matters. 

  But I had no interest in buying The Irish Sun because, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t think there was much to this story.

  I still don’t.

  Well, not on the surface, anyway.

  The stuff that might be considered interesting here is actually below the surface. But it’s really only for political junkies.

  We will come to that.

  These being the times that are in it, I am probably obliged to make the point that I am not making light of the comments made by Cllr. Kilduff at a meeting in Strokestown almost a year ago.

  I know those comments will have upset some people. But others will agree with the comments, and there will be others still who don’t care either way.

  But was this Sun exclusive much of a story at all?

  After all, people are entitled to their views. Paddy Kilduff is entitled to his views. And, when it comes to the subject in question, Paddy’s views have been well known for years. Including at the highest level within the Fianna Fáil hierarchy…

  Paddy opposes same-sex marriage. Paddy doesn’t approve of couples of the same gender raising children. Paddy has no issue with civil partnerships and Paddy has no issue with gay or lesbian people. These are his stated views.

  Many other people in Ireland hold similar views to Paddy’s. In the modern Ireland, Paddy’s view may not be the majority view, but that’s beside the point. Paddy’s entitled to air his view. He’s articulating an opinion that’s held by many other people.   Indeed it’s to Paddy’s credit that, unlike a lot of other politicians, he says in public what he thinks in private. That’s one of the reasons why he has loyal supporters and why he’s popular in his native area, including amongst people of opposing political backgrounds. 

The timing: Why now?

Where the ‘Sun’ story begins to get interesting – at least for political enthusiasts – is when you reflect on the timing of its publication.

  Here at the Roscommon People, we’ve known for several months about Paddy’s Strokestown speech from last year. We’ve known for a long time that he was secretly recorded on the night. So too have one or more other media outlets. None of them chose to go the route of The Irish Sun and make a story of it. So be it.

  The timing of the story is, of course, clearly linked to the ongoing turmoil within Fianna Fáil in Roscommon. Fianna Fáil are not only washing their dirty linen in public; they are washing it, drying it, ironing it, dirtying it again and washing it again, all the time oblivious – it would seem – to the presence of the wide-eyed spectators.

  Speaking of dirt, dirty tricks are at play here. Whoever arranged the secret recording of Cllr. Kilduff in Strokestown knew that he was likely to speak out about the same-sex marriage referendum. They judged that Cllr. Kilduff was likely to say something controversial, better still (from their point of view) that he might utter words that could come back to haunt him.

  Readers will have to speculate for themselves as to why the contents of the tape were not released to the media for many months.

  As tensions within the party grew in the latter part of 2015, hints were dropped about what Kilduff had said in Strokestown, and about the existence of the tape.

  How much, if anything, this attempt to embarrass Cllr. Kilduff had to do with the party’s chaotic search for a General Election candidate or candidates is anyone’s guess. One by one, over recent months, would-be candidates fell by the wayside as the party HQ scrambled to find a suitor of their preference.

  Ultimately, a resilient Cllr. Eugene Murphy emerged victorious at the convention, a result which was not to the liking of party chiefs in Dublin. It was a career milestone for Murphy, but most seasoned observers felt there would be another twist in this tale. Murphy could pop a bottle of champagne…but would it be served with Cake?

  Fast-forward to recent days. Last Saturday’s Irish Sun reported that colourful GAA personality Shane ‘Cake’ Curran would be added to the Fianna Fáil ticket in Roscommon/Galway. The story wasn’t merely speculative. It went out on a limb; Curran would be unveiled on Monday (in fact Curran hasn’t yet been added).

  Two days later, the same Irish Sun ran its story on Paddy Kilduff’s opposition ­– voiced a year ago ­– to same-sex couples raising children.  

  With all the washing of dirty linen that’s going on in Roscommon Fianna Fáil, someone is leaking – a lot.

  It is certainly interesting that the leaks on Shane Curran’s possible candidacy and Paddy Kilduff’s Strokestown speech should both make in into print in the same national newspaper within a 48-hour timeframe. (There is no suggestion that Cllr. Murphy or Mr. Curran were involved in leaking to The Sun; I don’t believe the leaks came from within their ranks; I believe they came from elsewhere).

  I know Paddy Kilduff a long time, for over twenty years in fact. No one should presume that I agree with his views – in fact I may not agree with any of his views! I watch him and other politicians with interest. With Paddy Kilduff, people generally know where they stand; his private views don’t get massaged and aren’t given the politically correct treatment before they go public. When it comes to political correctness, Paddy hasn’t signed up yet.

  I welcome the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum. But I don’t welcome the new trend whereby people who voice their sincerely-held views are often attacked and abused by the judges and jury on social media. Paddy is entitled to his views. His speech from a year ago isn’t the story. It’s not a story; it’s history. The dirty tricks campaign is the story.

  Meanwhile, Fine Gael’s Cllr. Maura Hopkins must be viewing Fianna Fáil as ‘the gift that just keeps giving’…

 * See updates on PAUL HEALY’S ELECTION (B)LOG throughout the campaign on www.roscommonpeople.ie

 

 

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