Adrian Kavanagh, 19th May 2014
When it comes to elections, Geography matters! But geography especially tends to have a bearing in the case of two-county general election constituencies such as the old Laois-Offaly constituency and the Longford-Westmeath constituency. With this in mind, this post will offer a geographical perspective on the Longford-Westmeath constituency, ahead of this week’s by-election in that constituency.
A by-election is scheduled to take place in the Longford-Westmeath constituency on May 23rd 2014. The counties of Longford and Westmeath have been joined together in the one Dail constituency for most of the period since the foundation of the state and mainly as a four-seat constituency (although the 1923 and 1947 boundary revisions both assigned five seats to the Longford-Westmeath constituency). This constituency, however, has not always contained the entirety of these counties, as has been the case since the constituency was re-established by the 2004 Consitutency Commission report, as the Coole area in north-eastern Westmeath has found itself part of the neighbouring Meath West three-seat constituency. The eastern part of Westmeath found itself joined with Meath in a five-seat Meath-Westmeath between the 1935 and 1947 boundary revisions, with the western part remaining joined with Longford in a three-seat Athlone-Longford constituency. Longford and Westmeath were however separated by the 1990 revisions, which saw Longford forming part of the four-seat Longford-Roscommon constituency and Westmeath forming a stand-alone three seat constituency. The two counties remained apart for the general elections of 1992, 1997 and 2002, until they were reunited (with the notable exception of the Delvin/Coole area, which became part of the Meath West constituency) by the 2004 Constituency Commission report.
The friends and neighbours effect suggests that a candidate will tend to poll best in her/his home area and that their share of the vote will decline as one moves away from this home base/bailiwick, as tantamount to a distance-decay effect.
Such trends tend to be even more enhanced in constituencies that take in two, or more, counties, or parts of these. As with all two-county constituencies, voters tend to vote along county lines within the constituency – with most Longford votes going to Longford candidates and with a similar patterns existing with Westmeath votes/candidates – while there are significant variations in support patterns also between the western/Athlone and north-eastern/Mullingar regions within Westmeath. This is readily evident, as will be shown below, in relation to support levels for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael candidates at a general election, but strong geographical influences can also be evident in the support patterns of other candidates, including those from the independents ranks. As Figure 1 shows, for instance, support for Kevin “Boxer” Moran was especially high in, and around, his Athlone home base – indeed he won the highest number of votes of any candidate in Athlone Town itself – at the 2011 election, but his share of the vote was notably lower in the more eastern parts of Westmeath and in Co. Longford.
These geographical trends are also readily evident in studies of support patterns for those political parties that have run two, or more, election candidates in this constituency. Labour ran two candidates in Longford-Westmeath and there was a notable geographical divide in terms of the support patterns for their two candidates in that election, with the bulk of the votes won by Mae Sexton coming from her home county of Longford, with Willie Penrose polling decidedly stronger in Westmeath and especially in the Mullingar area and the more north-eastern parts of the county, mainly focusing on his home base within that constituency. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail ran three candidates in Longford-Westmeath in both the 2007 and 2007 elections, with both parties running one candidate from Longford, one candidate from the Athlone/south-western Westmeath area and one candidate from the Mullingar/north-eastern Westmeath area. These candidates – even in good and bad contests for their parties – tended to win the bulk of their votes in, and around, their homes areas, as shown by Figures 2, 3 and 4.
Indeed, the candidate lists for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were virtually the same in both 2007 and 2011 with one notable exception – Robert Troy replacing Donie Cassidy on the Fianna Fail ticket at the 2011 election. Cassidy’s electoral prospects in 2007 were not helped by the loss of a significant chunk of his main support base – including his own home town of Castlepollard – with the transfer of the Delvin/Coole area into the new Meath West constituency, but Troy did not suffer from the same geographical disadvantage. As Figure 2 shows, he polled especially well in the Mullingar area and in the more eastern parts of Westmeath, but he did especially well in and around his home base in the northern part of the county. By contrast, Mary O’Rourke (Figure 3) polled strongest in the Athlone area and the south western part of the county.
Peter Kelly, as Figure 4 shows, polled strongest in Longford, but especially in the northern parts of the county – the areas closest to his home base but also furthest away from the southern Longford home base of James Bannon – his main rival in the Longford end of the constituency. As with Mary O’Rourke, Peter Kelly’s vote was significantly down on his 2007 support level, but his geography of support – the strong focus on Longford and the limited level of support across the county border – remained largely the same.
Paul Hogan of Sinn Fein was probably the only candidate in this election who was able to win a significant number of votes outside his home county, winning the most votes in Longford of any of the Westmeath-based candidates.