For a woman who normally displays the shrewdest of political judgement, Orla Leyden appears to have at least temporarily lost her sure touch.
Cllr. Leyden will surely know that her withdrawal this week from the upcoming Fianna Fáil Selection Convention is a PR embarrassment at the very least, and may also have dented her standing with some party grassroots.
Cllr. Leyden has made last-minute convention withdrawals before, but this time it’s different. This time, there had been a real sense that the experienced councillor was finally making a serious bid to enter national politics. When she declared last October, there was no sense that she was being (just) cajoled into action by supporters, no sense that she was uncertain about the timing. It seemed clear that Cllr. Leyden had finally and very deliberately picked her moment. She was (and is) Cathaoirleach of Roscommon County Council; the reconfigurated constituency (Roscommon/Galway) was seen as suiting her perfectly; most persuasively of all, there were Cllr. Leyden’s own confident words:
“…I want to continue making a contribution in both Co. Roscommon and nationally…”
“There are so many areas I feel I could improve as a TD but where I’m limited as a councillor”.
“I’m determined and there is an opening and while the time wasn’t right last time around, it is now”.
There have been false dawns in the past, but Cllr. Leyden made it clear last October that a marriage of circumstances – including her own belief that she could now balance the demands of family and politics should she be elected to the Dáil – had led to her conviction that ‘the time was right.’
Three months on, and Leyden has again withdrawn at the last moment, perhaps for once and for all ending whatever Dáil ambitions she has toyed with.
Just what went wrong in ‘Camp Leyden’ is not really clear.
You can, when looking for grounds for the u-turn, dismiss Cllr. Leyden’s vague statement this week. Cllr. Leyden simply says her focus for 2018 will be on completing her term as Cathaoirleach. But in October, Cllr. Leyden was pointing to this very role as grounds for her candidature, saying “being Cathaoirleach has made me realise I’m up for the challenge”.
The rumour mill suggests that the real reason for the Leyden withdrawal lies with a fierce campaign from the Eugene Murphy camp and a growing belief that Cllr. John Keogh is a ‘chosen one’ from the perspective of FF HQ.
The Roscommon People understands that supporters of Deputy Eugene Murphy have vigorously made the case to party TDs and Senators (and the all-important HQ) that Cllr. Leyden is too close geographically to ‘their’ candidate. Representations to the contrary were of course made on behalf of Cllr. Leyden. There are reports of very tense exchanges between both camps.
There is also speculation that the convention numbers may not have been adding up for Cllr. Leyden. Deputy Murphy retains significant support amongst delegates. If defeated at convention, Leyden may not have been added on, certainly not if Keogh is the darling of Dublin.
Cllr. Leyden isn’t unique in withdrawing from an election race shortly after declaring, but the u-turn of January 2018 has taken many within her party by surprise.
Public reaction to Cllr. Leyden’s declaration in October had suggested that, if she could get through convention, she was destined to poll very well. Getting on to the ballot paper was the challenge. Orla is regarded by many as the most capable member of Roscommon County Council, with an impressive grasp of her brief.
To borrow/paraphrase football parlance, she may go down as one of the best TDs that Roscommon never had! (Of course a Senate run by Orla, post the retirement of her father, Terry, cannot be ruled out).
Meanwhile, there is speculation that, irrespective of how he fares in an open vote at convention, Cllr. John Keogh can count on being added on by Fianna Fáil HQ. That, and much else, remains to be seen. Seán Óg Higgins and Cllr. Michael Connolly are still in the race, but as of now the odds favour a Murphy/Keogh FF ticket in Roscommon/Galway.