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Labour and SF hoping 'two-party state' is set to crumble

IN the early days of June 1994, a Fine Gael spin doctor arrived in Mayo for the by-election caused by the departure of Padraig Flynn to become European Commissioner.

Talking to local party activists about the lay of the land, the press officer asked about the identity and prospects of the Labour Party candidate.

"Ah, we don't pay much attention to the minority parties round here," a grassroots member responded.

At the time, Labour was in government and had 33 TDs nationally, compared to Fine Gael's 45. But the strategist wasn't in Dublin any more.

The Labour gaps on the electoral map were still glaring in parts of the country, particularly in the west of Ireland, where Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were still dominant.

Two decades on and it's still a two-party state. Labour has only one seat in the whole of Connacht-Ulster. That's Michael D Higgins in Galway West -- and he is retiring.

Aside from Mr Higgins, Independent Noel Grealish and Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghin O Caolain, the rest of the TDs elected in the 2007 general election in the eight constituencies in the Connacht-Ulster region are all Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Late last year, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein joined the small numbers of TDs from outside the two Civil War parties.

The prospective decline of Fianna Fail in the forthcoming General Election throws up the possibility of a third party getting a strong foothold in the Dail in Connacht and Ulster.

But that's not guaranteed.

Fianna Fail will fancy its chances of holding two seats in Galway West and Cavan-Monaghan. Doing the same in Donegal North-East will be extremely tough but not impossible, while the sole seat in Roscommon-South Leitrim is defendable.

A seat loss appears to be on the cards in Mayo, Sligo-North Leitrim and Galway East, while retaking Donegal South-West would be a bridge too far.

Mayo TD Enda Kenny's chances of becoming Taoiseach raise Fine Gael's hopes of gains. But the retirements of its three TDs in Galway city and county puts the party's primary focus on retaining a seat.

Winning a fourth seat in Mayo is a real long shot, but there are gains targeted in Cavan-Monaghan and Sligo-North Leitrim, as well as Galway East and Galway West, all at Fianna Fail's expense but others have the same idea. Holding its two seats in Roscommon-South Leitrim will be difficult.

Labour and Sinn Fein are vying to stake a claim to being the third major force. The adoption by Labour of candidates who have little past connection with the party or its policies has generated plenty of raised eyebrows.

In the absence of a strong local organisation, however, the party hierarchy has adopted the view that it's better to have a recognised name on the ballot paper with a local profile who can then capitalise on a national 'Gilmore Gale'.

However, Frank McBrearty's 'contributions' to debates in the Donegal South-West by-election show that this formula is not without its downfalls.

FILLING Michael D Higgins's shoes is a tall order and Derek Nolan is feeling the pressure in Galway West, which is a must-win for the party.

After running since 1997, it's make-or-break time for Colm Keaveney in Galway East. And if the party leadership's favourite, Susan O'Keeffe, doesn't win in Sligo-North Leitrim, there will be lots of flak flying.

Beyond that, any other seats are a bonus, with John Kelly in Roscommon-South Leitrim having the best shot at a win.

By contrast, Sinn Fein has steadily built up an organisation in the border counties and aims to cement its representation.

But the party infrastructure isn't complete right across the West and there is a distinct weakness in Galway.

After the disappointment of its 2007 failure, the party is looking to make up lost ground.

Nonetheless, Caoimhghin O Caolain is looking to bring in a running mate, Kathryn Reilly, in Cavan-Monaghan. The party had hoped to put up a challenge for a second seat in 2007, but Rory O'Hanlon's automatic re-election as the then ceann comhairle scuppered this plan.

Gerry Adams's inadequate grasp of economics in the last campaign put paid to any prospect of a Sinn Fein swing electing Mr Doherty and Padraig MacLochlainn in Donegal North-East, but a seat at both ends of the county looks to be an attainable target this time.

Micheal Colreavy in Sligo-North-Leitrim will also be in the hunt after taking over from long-time candidate, Sean MacManus -- but he is a long shot.

The splitting of Leitrim probably doesn't suit Martin Kenny in Roscommon-South Leitrim, while Gerry Murray in Mayo is also unlikely to make it.

Irish Independent