When it comes to the European Parliament elections at the end of May, it is Dublin that will test whether Fianna Fáil’s recovery has progressed enough to repair its standing in the capital ahead of the next general election.
Dublin last elected a Fianna Fáil MEP in 2004, and a 20-year stretch without a European Parliament representative would sting.
Fianna Fáil will be hoping the European elections will mark another landmark in its recovery from its post-bailout meltdown at the 2011 general election.
It has aspirations to win a seat in each of Ireland’s three constituencies, and potentially two in one constituency. If Brexit has taken effect by polling day Dublin and Ireland South will each gain a seat – going from three to four and four to five respectively – while Midlands North West will remain a four-seater.
Four candidates – former ministers Mary Hanafin, Barry Andrews and Conor Lenihan, and Tiernan Brady, the marriage equality campaigner – will contest the Fianna Fáil convention on Sunday.
It is said to be a two-way battle between Andrews and Brady. Brady’s pitch is that voters are ready to listen to Fianna Fáil once more, but need to hear something different from the party in order to actually vote for it.
“I think it would be a wonderful signal for the party to pick a new generation,” says Brady (44), a friend of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
He says the European election will be the “biggest moment the party has to talk about the direction it wants to take”, and “one of the rare moments where the members actually have power”.
Brady counts deputy leader Dara Calleary and frontbench TDs Jim O’Callaghan and John Lahart among his supporters.
About 1,500 members are entitled to cast their ballots under the one member, one vote system, and it is anticipated around 900 will do so.
Sources across the party say the momentum has recently swung towards Andrews, and one TD said the challenge of Brady’s message was that it was “speaking to an older electorate” and “may not be received well among this particular audience”.
After losing his Dáil seat in 2011, Andrews worked as head of Goal, but resigned in the wake of a US investigation into the charity’s multimillion-euro Syria operation. He subsequently took up the position of director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs.
It is this experience, argues Andrews, which makes him an attractive candidate.
Some TDs say there is anxiety among members that three figures from political dynasties – Andrews, Hanafin and Lenihan – are once again to the fore. However, all three argue that name recognition is important in a constituency the size of Dublin.
Andrews adds: “I didn’t come back in the same packaging as I left.” His supporters include TDs Darragh O’Brien, John Curran and Sean Haughey, and Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee.
Dublin West’s Jack Chambers is supporting Lenihan.
“If you’re going to play for Dublin you don’t turn up in Croke Park on All Ireland final day with 80,000 people. You don’t do that coming from nowhere or from sitting on the sidelines for eight years,” says Hanafin, in a pointed jibe at her three rivals.
“Tiernan in Bundoran got 165 votes, but it is a big leap to 80,000,” she says of Brady’s 10-year stint as a town councillor in his native Donegal, adding she was known from “Balbriggan to Ballybrack”.
“The other day I was going into Leinster House and there was a big class from Loreto Balbriggan, and the teacher turns to me and says ‘oh hello, minister’.”
In contrast to Andrews and Lenihan, who, like her, lost Dáil seats in 2011, she claims she has been “loyal” to Fianna Fáil by winning a council seat in 2014 and standing in the last general election in 2016.
Yet Hanafin and Lenihan are seen as outside bets.
Brady’s pitch that Fianna Fáil would be sending a message about itself by selecting him – a liberal candidate who played a key role in introducing same-sex marriage in both Ireland and Australia – would, says one senior figure, be “refreshing”. However, the same source adds it would be equally refreshing for the party to be competitive in Dublin.
“The party doesn’t really care between Tiernan and Barry,” said another source.