ALL eyes will be on Pat Buckley’s numbers as the ballot boxes are opened on count day in Cork East.
Of the four sitting TDs, you could put a fair amount of money on Fine Gael’s David Stanton, Labour’s Seán Sherlock, and Fianna Fáil’s Kevin O’Keeffe all winning re-election.
But Sinn Féin’s grip on the fourth seat is a lot looser.
On the back of anger against the government and a long-brewing local rise in support for Sinn Féin, Sandra McLellan won an upset victory for the party here in 2011.
By 2016, however, the local branch of the party had imploded, with accusations of bullying seeing several prominent members ejected or disciplined.
That culminated with Ms McLellan stepping back, calling efforts within the party to undermine her “vicious.” In order to steady the ship, the party called on Pat Buckley.
As a sitting councillor in the right area for the party – and, importantly, one who hadn’t been implicated in the issues tearing the local party apart – he wasn’t seen as a safe bet to take the seat, but was certainly seen as the best bet; someone who could both keep the seat and wipe the slate clean.
The effort paid off, and Mr Buckley won the fourth seat by a comfortable margin.
Since then, he’s built up a profile for himself, for good and for bad.
He’s been vocal on local issues and mental health as a party spokesperson during a time of crisis in health services, but then an intoxicated clash with Gardaí saw him plead guilty to charges of threatening and abusive behaviour in court, though he avoided a conviction.
Since the party breakdown a few years ago, other politicians in the constituency have smelled blood and come looking for the Sinn Féin seat.
Picture: David Keane.
That’s something that Sinn Féin should be wary of all over the country in light of the party’s dive in the polls and crash in the local and European elections.
But things have been a little different on Mr Buckley’s turf.
The party retained just two of its Cork County Council seats last summer, but one of them is held by Danielle Twomey, who was co-opted to replace Mr Buckley back in 2016.
That tells us two things that will be crucial to him if he is to retain his seat: the split in the local party has been somewhat repaired, and people in his area are still willing to back Sinn Féin.
And where there are threats in circumstance, the threats from other candidates are far less certain.
There’s a simple rule that has governed the outcome of elections in Cork East for a long time: two seats go to the north of the constituency and two to the south.
In the current line up you have Mr Sherlock and Mr O’Keeffe from north Cork, and Mr Buckley and Mr Stanton from the harbour end.
That poses a problem for Fine Gael, which has designs on winning a second seat in every constituency – there are no vacancies in the north.
While Mr Stanton is a shoe-in to take a seat, having held his place since 1997 and being promoted to Minister of State in 2016, his running mate Pa O’Driscoll will have a much harder battle to make a breakthrough.
Mr O’Driscoll, a former county councillor for Fermoy, made a return to politics to seek a Dáil seat after standing down at the 2014 local election.
Though he makes a good counterweight to Mr Stanton, two heavy hitters already occupy the two northern seats, meaning he would need to break a decades status quo of the constituency to break through, stealing a seat away from the south.
Picture: David Keane.
The two roadblocks in his and anyone else north of Rathcormac are Mr Sherlock and Mr O’Keeffe.
The Sherlock name has been synonymous with north Cork politics for decade, with Joe Sherlock holding a seat on and off for The Workers’ Party and Labour, before handing it off to his son Seán in 2007.
The younger Sherlock delivered to big coups in a row, topping the poll in 2011 and holding on to the first seat in 2016, bucking the trend for his party as it was demolished across the country.
Having held the seat in good elections and bad, it would be foolish to bet against Mr Sherlock for another term in the Dáil.
The same can be said for his colleague Mr O’Keeffe.
By rights, he should have won a seat in 2011. Fianna Fáil had the votes, and he was stepping into the shoes of his father, longtime TD Ned O’Keeffe. But a two candidate strategy split the vote and left him empty-handed, despite a decent first preference total.
He made up for that mistake in 2016, and won back his father’s seat with the help of a swing towards his party.
Now he’s seen as a sure thing, and his party is more focused on expanding and taking an extra seat in the southern end of the constituency.
Where geography is a problem for Fine Gael, it’s a boon to Fianna Fáil, with a secure seat in the north allowing a new candidate to challenge for a seat in the south.
Since 2016, the party has had its eyes firmly on Mr Buckley, and his seat was seen as one of Fianna Fáil’s big targets for a time.
But while the opportunity might be there, getting the right candidate has been a more complicated affair.
For the first time in decades, the party looked away from the Ahern family in seeing someone to run, opting for Little Island-based county councillor Padraig O’Sullivan instead.
He was seen as a big threat in the constituency, but has already found another way to the Dáil. When Billy Kelleher was elected to the European Parliament, Mr O’Sullivan crossed the boundary and successfully contested the by-election in Cork North-Central, leaving Fianna Fáil without a southern Cork East candidate.
With few established councillors in the area, the party went for new councillor James O’Connor, who was only elected for the first time last summer.
While he may prove to be a good future prospect for the party, the newcomer will have to build up support at lightspeed to make it to the Dáil this early in his career, though you can never say never with the Fianna Fáil machine.
A greater threat to Mr Buckley’s seat may be independent Mary Linehan Foley, from Youghal.
Pic: Brian Lougheed
As a former Fianna Fáil representative who split away during the economic crash, she stands a good chance of forming a strong coalition of independent and Fianna Fáil voters and challenging for a seat.
Though she failed to win a seat at the 2016 election, she improved her vote dramatically in the 2019 local elections, topping the poll with 17.8% of first preference votes across the large Midleton LEA that stretches across the area she’ll be looking for votes from if she contests the next election as expected.
Where other constituencies are easier to predict, the complicated battleground of Cork East will make this one to watch very closely in 2020.