European and local elections will present opportunity to test Fianna Fáil recovery
Opinion: Results could also impact on the fortunes of some of the party leaders
At their parliamentary party “think-ins” over the next two weeks, TDs and Senators are likely to get briefings from party strategist about preparations for local and European elections in May 2014.
Next May’s elections will present the first opportunity to test at the ballot box the true level of satisfaction with the Government parties and to clarify whether Fianna Fáil is actually in recovery.
These elections may also impact on the fortunes of the various party leaders.
Enda Kenny will lead Fine Gael into the next general election irrespective of how the party does. However, Eamon Gilmore and, to a lesser extent, Mícheál Martin, and possibly even Gerry Adams, may see their positions threatened if things do not go well for their parties.
Attempting to analyse the county and city council elections is too massive a challenge. It will be months before the county-by-county candidate line-up becomes clearer.
Assessing the prospects for the parties on this occasion is further complicated by the comprehensive redrawing of local electoral areas which has taken place since 2009, the dramatic reallocation of seat numbers as between counties, and the merger of authorities in Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford.
The starting position for the European election is, however, becoming a little clearer.
We now know that while Ireland has 12 seats in the current European Parliament, it will have only 11 in the next.
The country is currently divided into four three-seat constituencies, namely Dublin, Ireland South, which is largely made up of Munster, Ireland East, which is the rest of Leinster, and Ireland North and West, which is composed of Connacht with Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan.
The loss of a seat necessitates a large redrawing of our European constituencies. A constituency boundary commission is sitting and is expected to report within weeks.
Its first task will be to decide whether to leave Dublin as a three-seater or expand it to a four-seater by including several counties around it. Whatever happens it seems likely that the current Ireland East constituency is going to disappear.
If Dublin is left as a three-seater then Munster and the bottom half of Leinster is likely to be a new Ireland South and East three-seater, while Connacht, the three Ulster counties and several counties in north Leinster would make up a new Ireland North constituency.
Where Clare goes and how many north Leinster counties need to go in with Connacht to make up the numbers for the appropriate ratios of seats-to-population remains to be seen.
These will be very large diverse constituencies and it will require candidates who are nationally-known names to get electoral traction across such territory.
Once the final shape of the constituencies is known, attention will turn to the identity of candidates. It seems clear already, however, that of the 12 MEPs elected in 2009, perhaps half of them will not be contesting in May 2014.
Their replacements, Paul Murphy, Phil Prendergast and Emer Costello respectively, are relatively unknown, promoted to the European Parliament from the subs list put before the electorate at the last election. Each has worked diligently to raise their profile but none has the vote-pulling power of their predecessor.
Labour’s difficulties are further compounded by the fact that Nessa Childers, elected for it in Leinster in 2009, will contest next year’s election as an Independent if she runs at all.
Long-time Fine Gael incumbent in Dublin Gay Mitchell has announced he will retire in May, and the intentions of Fianna Fáil’s Pat “The Cope” Gallagher and Liam Aylward, whatever they say publicly, are still unclear. In recent weeks both Fianna Fáil’s Brian Crowley, who was hospitalised for much of the current term, and Fine Gael’s Jim Higgins, whom some party insiders were suggesting might retire, have reiterated that they intend to run again in t May.
Absent Mitchell, De Rossa and Higgins, Dublin is wide open. Fine Gael apparently is still undecided on whether to run Eamonn Coghlan or whether they need to recruit another lightly Fine Gael branded name. Labour will stick with Costello who will struggle, as will Paul Murphy. Sinn Féin may prove stronger than both.
Fianna Fáil has no obvious solution to its Dublin candidate problem. Some are beginning to talk about “concentrating on the locals in Dublin”.
In the expanded Ireland South constituency, assuming Crowley recontests he will be safe, as will Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly. The third seat is likely to go to a south Leinster candidate from Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
The expanded Ireland North and West constituency will see one comfortable Fine Gael seat, probably for Jim Higgins. There will also be a seat for Marian Harkin, and if Gallagher doesn’t run then a cluttered battle between his Fianna Fáil replacement, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael’s north Leinster candidate, the now Independent Colm Keaveney and one if not two high-profile Independents.
Next June will see some well known Irish faces make their first appearance in the next European Parliament.