PREDICTION: Who will win a seat in Offaly in the general election?
The Laois-Offaly constituency has returned to existence after a short hiatus in 2016 and will be among the most interesting in the country when counting begins after the election on February 8.
Offaly and Laois as separate constituencies elected three TDs each in 2016 but the newly redrawn Laois-Offaly constituency is a five-seater. All six elected four years ago are on the campaign trail but at least one will lose out. The constituency is different from 2011 in that Portarlington has been siphoned off to South Kildare, taking a population of 11,000 with it.
According to the bookies and commentators, the Laois side of the constituency fairly predictable and is likely to yield three seats for itself with Sean Fleming, Charlie Flanagan and Brian Stanley odds-on to return to Leinster House. There had been fears for Sinn Féin after their local election collapse last year but their recent opinion poll surge and the personal popularity of Stanley is almost certain to see him safe.
The Offaly side is far more interesting with seven candidates effectively vying for just two seats. Those seven include three sitting TDs, a Senator and three sitting councillors. With Fianna Fail riding high in the polls, Barry Cowen could well top the poll. He received more than 12,000 first preference votes in 2016 and is likely to increase that support base this time given his national prominence with the party during this Dáil term. He is also likely to pick up some votes in Edenderry with no local candidate standing there.
John Foley was the big voter-getter there in recent years but announced his intention not to stand early on in this campaign. The town is essentially hamstrung with around 5,000 votes going spare likely to splinter between four or five candidates. Pippa Hackett was elected a councillor in the Edenderry Municipal District last year before her Seanad elevation, so she will get a percentage but is too far out (Geashill) to monopolise the area. Brian Stanley has family ties and could gather the existing Sinn Féin vote in Offaly in the absence of a candidate on that side of the constituency.
Ken Smollen is a prominent poverty campaigner across the entire county and Midlands region, including Edenderry, and will pick up some votes there. It's hard to see John Leahy, Peter Ormond or Marcella Corcoran Kennedy picking up huge votes in the North of the county, but Carol Nolan may pick up a small personal vote there.
With Tullamore and Clara dominated by Barry Cowen and Ken Smollen, two locals, the focus switches rightly to the south and west of the county where the second Offaly seat will go to one of Carol Nolan, Peter Ormond, John Leahy or Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.
Nolan looks the most vulnerable here having left Sinn Féin during the term of the current Dáil over her pro-life abortion stance. She won the final seat in Offaly in 2016 by a couple of hundred votes and while she'll retain her personal vote, she's likely to lose out somewhat to all comers this time, namely Leahy who left Renua last year, and Peter Ormond who stands for the first time in a national poll.
In the local elections last year, both Leahy and Ormond were elected on the first count in Birr, picking up 2,277 and 1,729 first preference votes between them. Add to that the collapse of Sinn Fein's vote in the county in that election where they lost all of their seats, including that of Sean Maher in Birr who received just 539 first preference votes. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail had a sizeable vote in Birr and that too will have to be distributed.
That's where Marcella Corcoran Kennedy comes in. Fine Gael has long held a seat in South Offaly and she received 15.5% of first preference votes in the 2016 election. That was on the back of Fine Gael winning that election and getting back into government, but the polls show change is afoot this time around. Marcella also lost the junior ministry she held under Enda Kenny when Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach in 2017. She had supported Simon Coveney for the leadership of the party at that time.
She may well lose votes directly to Ormond, the Offaly County Council Cathaoirleach from Shinrone. He is in a prime part of the county to pick up votes south of Birr and in parts of West Offaly. That is the battleground that will decide this election for Leahy, Corcoran Kennedy and Ormond but the latter has the benefit of being part of the Fianna Fail machine. In Barry Cowen, he has a strong running mate who will take a seat and transfer to him quickly during the count.
Fianna Fail enjoyed 36% of first preference votes in Offaly in 2016 and are likely to break 40% this time on this side of the constituency. It will be a bit of a disaster if they can't translate that into two seats. The bookies have flip-flopped on this seat in the last few days but Peter Ormond has moved ahead of Marcella in that regard. Fianna Fail are polling highly and often outperform the polls; that bodes well for Ormond. The order of elimination is also important and an earlier exit for John Leahy could boost Ormond's chances on the transfer front.
This seat will come down to very fine margins. The final seat in Laois-Offaly has been decided by a matter of a couple of hundred votes or so in the last three elections. Marcella rode the winds of change in 2011 and 2016 but they could be in blowing in Ormond's favour this time. Leahy has the potential of getting involved if he can poach some of Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Carol Nolan's votes.
If you're going on balance, Ormond will make it by the skin of his teeth.
PREDICTION FOR LAOIS-OFFALY: Barry Cowen (FF), Sean Fleming (FF), Brian Stanley (SF), Charlie Flanagan (FG) and Peter Ormond (FF).