A pinch of salt!

3 December 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

While the increasingly precious commodity of salt is being put to intensive use on the frozen roads of the constituency just now, we suggest that just a pinch of it be held back to be taken with the current intensive speculation surrounding the identity of the candidates who will battle for Cavan/Monaghan seats in the imminent General Election.

The news that sitting TDs Seymour Crawford of Fine Gael and Dr Rory O’Hanlon of Fianna Fáil will not be seeking re-election heralds a watershed moment in national representative politics in this county. Dr O’Hanlon has occupied a prominent position in his party through four decades, serving as a Minister of Government during dramatic and defining moments of recent Irish political history before becoming an exemplary Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil. Deputy Crawford has been a somewhat less prominent but arguably no less influential figure in the policy course embraced by FG in recent decades, and has advocated indefatigably from the backbenches for the agricultural, health and social betterment of his constituents over a vast range of issues.

Both men have been major characters in the drama of Cavan/Monaghan politics, and are likely to fare well from the assessment of their legacies that will naturally follow upon their departure from the stage. But the work of composing their critiques or hagiographies will not stay the manoeuvring to become their successors.

That chess game is only in its opening moves – hence our caution to keep the condiments handy when digesting the stream of current speculation that suggests the process is in some instances already a fait accompli.

For example, we are told that Fianna Fáil are already resolved to field only sitting TDs Margaret Conlon and Brendan Smith when the General Election bell next tolls in this constituency. This would seem a sound exercise in pragmatism given the punitive backlash from the electorate awaiting the party as a consequence of the economic situation. But such a decision is unlikely to play well in local cumainn, either in the south or the north of the county.

The question of who will assume the mantle of Dr O’Hanlon upon his retirement has animated political discussion in South Monaghan for some time, and it may be a source of local discontent if Deputy Conlon is now decreed his de facto successor by FF HQ without recourse to local selection processes. Such a defensive strategy as fielding only the brace of sitting candidates would also represent an effective abandonment of the historical claim by FF to a seat in North Monaghan, to the undoubted disaffection of the grassroots in that locality. It is difficult to countenance, despite the anticipated plummet in its fortunes, that FF would surrender any claims to a third seat in the constituency so tamely.

For Fine Gael, Heather Humphreys was being regarded in some sections of the media this week as the agreed local choice as Deputy Crawford’s heir. The Clones Area Co Councillor and former Co Monaghan Mayor ticks many of the boxes to appeal to the departing Deputy’s core support, but it is unlikely that the nomination of a candidate will be uncontested. Ballybay councillor Sean Conlan, whose father the late John F Conlan gave this constituency a long and distinguished period of service in the Dáil, has already signalled his interest in seeking the nomination, and there are several more potential candidates within the ranks of FG’s local political representation at Co and Town Council level who have yet to declare their hand. A vigorously contested selection convention, or an equally vigorous period of parley beforehand, is likely to animate the party’s ranks. It should also be remembered that Cavan’s Joe O’Reilly has fought a stalwart battle to boost the party’s vote in a number of election contests in recent times, and may feel that a favoured position in the field of candidates eventually selected by the party in Cavan/Monaghan is now no more than his due.

Sinn Féin will undoubtedly perceive the current climate as conducive to challenging strongly for a second seat in the constituency. It will be interesting to see whether their strategy to accomplish this focuses on the identification of a strong Co Cavan candidate, or the selection of a running mate for sitting Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin from the south of Co Monaghan in a direct challenge for Dr O’Hanlon’s seat.

It is difficult to reconcile the media analysis that the Labour Party is not giving the Cavan/Monaghan constituency much priority as a potential seat gain with either the party’s aspiration to be one of the leading post-election political forces in the country, or the state of flux into which the constituency has been plunged by the retirement of two of its sitting Deputies. It would be surprising if the party did not engage in at least tentative overtures to some prominent public figures in Co Monaghan, whether from the political or business sphere, to acquire a candidate with an established and competitive profile.

The ground is also fertile for Independent candidature, and we can surely expect both known and new figures of non-party status to bid to exploit the widespread disaffection with the political establishment.

The landscape of the constituency is in upheaval, and it is much too early to determine the exact outline it will have taken on come election time. One seat at least is certainly up for grabs, and if FF opts not to contend for it then FG, SF and at least one significant other surely will. Whether an imploding Budget chases us to the polls before Christmas, or the current Government is reprieved until the spring, there are fascinating times ahead for observers of the local political scene.

There is, however, one fact about the coming election that is indisputably clear: whoever is on the ballot paper will be campaigning in an atmosphere of unprecedented hostility and disenchantment towards politicians. While it would demand saint-like reserves of patience not to harbour anger about the recent mismanagement of the economy, and while many politicians have been complicit in the tarnishing of their general image, there has probably never been an election in the history of this country before where a cool and discriminating attitude was so much required of the electorate.

Addressing the Monaghan Co Development Board’s tenth anniversary conference on Friday last, the well-known entrepreneur Sean Gallagher, a Monaghan man himself, expressed alarm about the prevailing trend in media and public commentary to encourage cynicism about the behaviour of politicians and the institutions of the State. Mr Gallagher pointed to the very real danger of such an environment driving away from politics the very people who are needed to help restore the finances and confidence of the country to good order. He stated: “My fear is that we are going to create a society alienated from Government and its institutions. That would be a greater concern to me than the IMF.”

Mr Gallagher’s fears should be heeded. While some politicians deserve a lot of what they have recently got from the media and the public, not all of them do. The very important job the electorate in this country will shortly be faced with is to winnow out the good from the mediocre and the inept, and in this regard the broad strokes of some of the more intemperate criticism that has been given vent to in recent times is unhelpful.

In passing judgment on whoever is brave enough to stand before them at the next General Election, the electorate of Cavan/Monaghan should perhaps exercise the same approach to extremes of media condemnation as it will undoubtedly apply to the current premature speculation about who those candidates will be – in other words, take it all with a pinch of salt!

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