Naughten plays numbers game as prodigal son outflanks Martin and Ross
Denis Naughten was a natural born political wheeler-dealer. He learned the tricks of the trade at branch meetings and selection conventions.
Almost 20 years ago, he was in the bar of the Tower Hotel in Waterford swapping promised votes to get candidates elected to the Fine Gael youth wing. His grasp of election arithmetic was so precise his direction to a group of his counterparts to give a rival candidate nothing more than their final preference contributed to that runner finishing last.
The following day in November 1996, his life changed forever. His father, Liam, was tragically killed in a traffic accident. The 52-year-old father-of-eight was the then Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.
The eldest son in the family, Naughten had to leave his carefree student lifestyle and was elected to Seanad two months later to replace his father. Within six months, he became a TD in the 1997 General Election, as Fine Gael left power behind for nearly 15 years in the wilderness.
After the party's 2002 General Election wipeout, he even had party figures approaching him to become a next generation leader.
Despite developing into a prominent member of the Fine Gael frontbench, when the party got back into power in 2011, there was no ministerial post for Naughten. The numbers didn't stack up for him in the leadership heave against Enda Kenny. When half the Fine Gael frontbench came out to express no confidence in Kenny, Naughten was at the front. It was noted by Kenny supporters he was the only dissident member from the West of Ireland. He faced a lengthy period in the cold.
Events intervened, however, when the new government moved to downgrade Roscommon Hospital. Naughten's father lost his Dáil seat to his running mate John Connor in 1989, in part due to Independent hospital candidate Tom Foxe's arrival on the scene, so he was well aware of the local sensitivities around the health services. Voting against the Government, he lost the Fine Gael party whip.
Although it was a difficult decision, Naughten would likely have suffered the same fate as former party colleague Frank Feighan, who resigned at the General Election and has spoken of the personal toll the abuse he received over the Roscommon hospital issue has taken.
Naughten, meanwhile, topped the poll in Roscommon-East Galway and was elected on the first count with a significant surplus.
In the wake of the détente following the General Election, Naughten is one of five Independent TDs now positioned as kingmakers.
While everyone else has been busy talking about who they are not talking to, the so-called Rural Five have made it clear they do want to do business.
The group came about when new Clare TD Dr Michael Harty contacted a neighbour of Naughten's who he knew. Harty felt he and Naughten shared similar views on the areas of rural health service and development. Naughten was already keeping in touch with Galway West TD Noel Grealish and Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath. Newly-elected Cork South-West TD Michael Collins made contact with McGrath, which brought him into the circle.
The Healy-Rae brothers, Michael and Danny, are not part of the group, but are kept posted of developments and are likely to strike their own similar arrangement.
However, a group that didn't exist before the election is now playing a crucial role in the formation of the next government.
The Rural Five have now outflanked Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil and Shane Ross' Independent Alliance.
The group's signal it will "intensify discussions with Fine Gael" caused consternation in Fianna Fáil, shifting the balance of the government formation talks.
Within Fine Gael, the Rural Five is a more attractive option than the unpredictability of Ross' Independent Alliance group.
Tying down the votes of Independents is vital for Kenny. The numbers game mean he would have enough votes to lead a minority government, unless Fianna Fáil continually votes against it to cause another election.
Depicted as the leader of the group, Naughten has been dealing mainly with Simon Coveney. Similar to Naughten, Coveney was thrust into politics to replace his late father who died tragically. The pair were Fine Gael young bucks and Dáil bar drinking pals in the late 1990s and 2000s.
The Rural Five's appetite for negotiations has served to flush out Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on their true intentions. Worst case scenario for the Rural Five is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil come together, in which case the Independents are seen to have influenced the outcome.
Ironically, Naughten found himself sitting across the table from Kenny in Government Buildings yesterday. Putting the baton in the Taoiseach's hand to run with it, Kenny is reliant on the party's prodigal son to return to office.
And if the Rural Five get ministerial posts, Naughten will be favourite to be a permanent fixture around the Cabinet table.