A number of electoral trials ahead in 2014 but the unknown factor is the economy

Opinion: The political challenge for the Government will be to see that the slight increase in optimism is widely shared

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Finland’s Jyrki Katainen at a  European People’s Party (EPP) meeting in Helsinki in 2011. Dublin is to host the EPP’s pre-election conference in March. Photograph: Reuters

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Finland’s Jyrki Katainen at a European People’s Party (EPP) meeting in Helsinki in 2011. Dublin is to host the EPP’s pre-election conference in March. Photograph: Reuters

Sun, Jan 5, 2014, 00:01

It is time to look again at the key events and issues – those of which we are aware – that will dominate Irish politics over the next 12 months.

The single most important known unknown for politics in 2014 is the level of economic recovery. In Irish politics, as elsewhere, it is always “the economy stupid!” and in the aftermath of our exit from the bailout, economics matters more than ever.

Whether the improved economic circumstances continue to give rise to substantial jobs growth and ripple out across the country and the various sectors of the economy will very much determine the political context for the next 12 months and, indeed, for the next election.

It has being striking over the festive season to see such a range of economic commentators seeking to address the question of whether we can believe the positive indicators. The consensus seems to be that we can. The domestic mood is certainly more confident and the international environment is improving.

The political challenge for the Government, however, will be to ensure that sense of optimism is shared.

The key task will be to avoid a sense among some sectors – particularly those hardest hit by the economic crisis – that they are being left behind.

The second political known unknown for 2014 is the local and European elections in May.

The political spring will be dominated by a sequencing of national conferences and ardfhéiseanna as party leaders seek to set out their stall and showcase their candidates.

Fine Gael’s election campaign will get a good lift in the first week of March when it hosts the pre-election congress of the European People’s Party at the Dublin Convention Centre. This will be a political jamboree on a scale never before seen in Ireland, and will involve more than 2,000 leading right-of-centre politicians from across Europe, including Angela Merkel and a dozen other European premiers.

The Opposition’s performance in the European and local elections will actually be more interesting than that of the Government. Governments traditionally lose seats in mid-term second-order elections, and in May this trend is likely to disproportionately affect the Labour Party.

The May elections could determine party leaderships as well as the de facto leadership of the Opposition overall.

Fianna Fáil is currently slightly ahead in most polls and, in theory, has a wider organisational reach. Sinn Féin, however, has been quicker getting its act together for these elections: it has, for example, already selected candidates for each of the European constituencies, whereas Fianna Fáil has not as yet been able to settle on convention dates.

Fianna Fáil’s fortunes
The local and European election results will tell us much about whether there is a real recovery in Fianna Fáil’s fortunes. The party has certainly revitalised and renewed itself sufficiently to sustain itself and recover some of its support. However it has yet failed to reinvent itself and that may explain why once the Government’s popularity improved, as it has in recent months, Fianna Fáil slipped back some of the distance travelled in the polls.

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