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Is this the most boring constituency in Ireland?

Just six candidates are running in three-seat Laois where many believe the result is a foregone conclusion.

SO STRONG ARE party loyalties in Laois that Sinead Moore had to convince her own mother to vote for her in next week’s election.

The Green Party candidate, a teacher based in north Dublin, freely admits there is “not a hope in hell” of her winning a seat “unless there’s an absolute miracle”.

That sort of realism is perhaps why Laois has been described as the most boring and predictable constituency in this election. Just six candidates, including three sitting TDs, are fighting it out for the three seats.

laois candidates

It used to be part of the Laois-Offaly constituency but the boundary redraw in 2012 saw the large five-seater split into two three-seaters with the county of Laois taking in six electoral districts from Kildare South.

Sitting Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan describes the constituency as a “microcosm of Ireland in 2016″ with the urban centres of Portlaoise and Portarlington towards the north and the rural farmlands in the south, east and west.

“In east Laois you have the grain farmers, in the south-west you have the dairy farmers and in mid-Laois you have the beef farmers, and then the towns and the challenges they face,” he said.

Many analysts expect the incumbents – Fine Gael’s Flanagan, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Fleming and Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley – to be returned without too much trouble.

19/6/2012. SF Against Household Charge Bills Brian Stanley Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Noel Whelan, the author of The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook, described Laois as “the most interesting constituency because it’s the most boring”.

“You have three strong, well-placed incumbents who spent their time previously running in a two-county constituency where it was all about ensuring tribal county loyalties to hold the seat,” Whelan explained.

Charlie Flanagan was the Laois Fine Gael candidate as was Seán Fleming for Fianna Fáil. None of their parties are vulnerable. If you had a vulnerable incumbent, there would be a possibility, but none of the three sitting guys look like they could be replaced.

Whelan believes the tradition of party loyalties, along with three strong incumbents has meant potential candidates took a look at the constituency and decided against running.

Stanley, the Sinn Féin TD, believes that Laois has never been a hotbed of independent candidates.

“Independents, in the past, wouldn’t have polled exceptionally well in national elections. They haven’t gained too much traction in the past. when you compare it to what’s happening in other parts of the country,” he said.

Moore Sinead Moore

Moore, who grew up on a farm in the village of Emo, has a blunt assessment of the outcome next week. She said: “The reason why there are only six candidates going is the three seats are sewn up.

There’s such little chance of breaking through. I had to fight with my mother for her to give me her vote. She is going to vote for me, but I had to work at it!

Moore said she’s pretty much on her own as there is no Green Party in Laois, adding that she hopes to help the party regain state funding it lost in 2011 as a result of garnering less than 2% of the the national vote.

But some in the constituency don’t see the outcome as a foregone conclusion.

Labour senator John Whelan insists he has a genuine chance of taking a seat from Sinn Féin’s Stanley.

Despite his Labour affiliation, Whelan thinks his opposition to the construction of large scale wind farms in the area has galvanised support around his campaign, rather than an independent or single-issue candidate.

He dismissed analyses which say this constituency is already decided:

What’s not being taken into account is I am getting a very positive reaction on the doors. Your analysis is fine on paper, but it doesn’t take into account the boundary review which gifted me a Labour stronghold.

Whelan believes that the addition of six electoral districts, which include 7,500 votes, from Kildare South will help his cause. Labour returned two councillors from that area in the 2014 local elections, bucking a national trend. Whelan repeatedly points out that he was born and raised in Monasterevin, which is now party of the constituency.

If he is within 1,000 votes of Stanley after the first count on Saturday week, Whelan believes he can get sufficient transfers to take the seat.

Stanley believes everybody poses a threat, not just Whelan and insisted: “I am out to maximise the vote for our party.”

The Borris-in-Ossory native disputes the claim that the inclusion of parts of south Kildare will benefit the Labour hopeful.

“I’ve been working on the ground in south Kildare for the last four years and I don’t detect any great support for Labour,” Stanley said.

I know Labour got a very hostile reception there recently when Joan Burton visited. I do know people in the area feel that Labour has neglected the area.

tc Thomasina Connell

Furthermore, Whelan’s transfer situation is not helped by the addition of a second Fine Gael candidate in Thomasina Connell, which the Labour senator described as “not the most cooperative move from them [Fine Gael]“.

Unsurprisingly, Ballybrittas-based Connell takes a very different view and believes she’s energised the youth vote in the area.

The three sitting TDs are all men in their 50s. I am the youngest candidate and there’s a good response to me.

“People want someone young, the amount of people who have said that to me is unbelievable. We’ve never elected a woman in Laois,” the solicitor said.

Connell believes she can benefit from an increased number of younger voters who were energised by the marriage referendum last year.

One of the men in their 50s she refers to is Seán Fleming, Fianna Fáil’s long-serving TD, who rejected claims that the constituency is all sewn-up for him.

“Ivan Yates has said that and Paddy Power has said that, but nobody has won anything until the final whistle,” he insisted.

26/11/2014. Fianna Fail. Pictured Fianna Fail Spok Seán Fleming Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

The last seat is always up for grabs because Fine Gael have two candidates and John Whelan’s view is that he could end up with a surplus that, if that gap between him and Sinn Féin isn’t that big, he might be able to bridge it.

Similarly, Flanagan, who succeeded his father Oliver in 1987, takes nothing for granted.

“There’s no such thing as an easy election, there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion, there’s no such thing as a safe seat,” the current Foreign Affairs Minister said.

Flanagan thinks the reason for a lack of independents or other party candidates is “maybe” the view that the politicians who are already elected are “hard working and cover the ground”.

“There is a strong sense of loyalty to parties,” he said.

All candidates agree that the big issue on the doors is the future of services at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise.

There are fears the 24/7 Emergency Department will be downgraded to a day service, but any decision by the HSE has been put off until after the election.

Everyone is quick to stress that the situation is not similar to Roscommon Hospital in 2011, where the downgrading of services led to the departure of Fine Gael TD Denis Naughten.

Portlaoise is a busier hospital, serving a population of over 250,000 in Laois and the surrounding areas.

Flanagan said he will be a tireless advocate for the hospital, but Whelan insisted he will vote against any effort to downgrade services, even if a Fine Gael-Labour government supports it.

Fleming describes the proposal to downgrade services as “ridiculous” and says it should be withdrawn. Stanley said that a report on the matter had been “put under a cushion until after the election”.

Whatever happens everyone’s expecting it to be over quickly on Saturday week, with John Whelan predicting: ”We’ll be able to call the result on the first count.”

Boring and predictable it might be, but Laois should at least provide a quick count on 27 February.

Read: People are bankrupting themselves to help the SocDems – Catherine Murphy

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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