Local elections seen as key to Dail advance

 

The link between success in local government elections and subsequent Dail advances has been formally recognised only in recent years. The Oireachtas breakthroughs by Fine Gael under Garret FitzGerald in 1981 and by the Labour Party under Dick Spring in 1992 were based on local election victories. And now Bertie Ahern wants some of the action for Fianna Fail.

Martin Macken, the party's general secretary, doesn't put a tooth in it: "We are putting an awful lot of work into preparing for next year's local elections. We are planning a balanced ticket in all areas, with a good gender and youth balance, and we are awaiting the outcome of Noel Dempsey's gratuity proposals for long-serving councillors."

Buying out the old guard and replacing it with a mixture of youth and talent is designed to produce the shock-troops that will return Fianna Fail to government in the next general election. A youthful, gender-balanced team of councillors could produce enough Dail material to generate an overall majority for Fianna Fail.

It may seem a fanciful dream for the party which secured its worst election results in decades (less than 40 per cent of the vote) in the last two Dail contests. But Mr Ahern is nothing if not ambitious. And he sees the local elections as the key to government.

He isn't alone in that. The leader of Fine Gael, John Bruton, and the leader of the Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn, are equally determined to produce a new crop of politicians at local level. The Green Party is also making plans. And Sinn Fein is preparing for the long haul.

The performance of the Progressive Democrats will decide whether the party has a long-term future. In spite of internal party difficulties in recent months, Mary Harney has insisted there is no question of a merger with Fianna Fail. And, with the whiff of political scandal in the air, she warned that the party would leave government if the public interest required it.

It was not to be taken for granted. The party's determination to survive and to moderate its image have, indeed, been reflected in Ms Harney's recent embrace of tax policies under which cuts and allowances will be aimed at the lowest-paid.

The future of Democratic Left may have been decided by the time the local elections come round. Negotiations between it and the Labour Party are expected to come to fruition in November. The emergence of a unified party, to be known as the Labour Party, is the favoured option of Mr Quinn and his supporters. But there is still considerable resistance to such a development by Proinsias De Rossa, who sees co-operation, rather than absorption, as the way forward.

The tendency towards political realignments at this time has been driven by social and economic changes spawned by the Celtic Tiger and by the nascent transformation of Northern politics through the Belfast Agreement.

A merger of Democratic Left and the Labour Party could free up space on the left within urban constituencies, to the possible benefit of Sinn Fein. But that party is still looking at the larger picture and at the potential of the "republican" vote in the South, which is at present garnered by Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein's director of publicity, Rita O'Hare, recognises that the party has a great distance to travel before it can hope to emulate its Northern Ireland showing of 16 per cent of the popular vote.

She observes that Caoimhghin O Caolain's success in Cavan-Monaghan was based on hard work and a public recognition that the peace process wasn't just about Northern Ireland. Since then, the Belfast Agreement had raised the profile of the party and she now regarded it as a mainstream party in the South.

Sinn Fein's main difficulty in the past was that it failed to attract transfers from other parties. But Ms O'Hare expects this to change.

A similar problem is being addressed by Fianna Fail. Traditionally, the party adopted an isolationist, anti-power-sharing posture. Voters were requested to vote only for the party and then stop. As a consequence, supporters of other parties did not give later-preference votes to Fianna Fail.

When the party abandoned its "core value" of refusing to share power in government in 1989, it also went looking for transfers. The success of the strategy in two by-elections in 1996 caused it to be used extensively in the 1997 general election.

On that occasion, although the party's first-preference vote increased by only 0.2 per cent, to 39.33 per cent, it won an extra nine seats and brought its strength to 77 on the basis of transfers and good vote management. Fine Gael is hoping to retain the traditional vote-sharing pattern it built up with the Labour Party over many years.

Such a development offers the only hope of a return to power, in the short term, short of coalition with Fianna Fail.

In that regard, last May's opinion poll figures were nightmarish. The signing of the Belfast Agreement brought support for Fianna Fail to a record level of 63 per cent. At the same time, Fine Gael's support drifted back to 18 per cent, while the Labour Party got 9 per cent. Sinn Fein led the rest of the parties at 3 per cent; the Green Party came in at 2 per cent; and the Progressive Democrats, Democratic Left and the Workers' Party each had 1 per cent.

Fine Gael's attempt to carve a niche for itself as a pro-European party in favour of common defence and common security had faded in the face of the "national question". But the party regards it as a temporary setback. And it is preparing a fight-back based on winning the Cork South Central by-election.

That contest was caused by the death of Hugh Coveney, and his son, Simon, is expected to announce his decision to run as a Fine Gael candidate today. The by-election writ will be moved as soon as the Dail resumes in late September, and the election will take place in November. Fine Gael would regard a win as a stepping stone to a strong performance in the European and local elections in June.

The Labour Party also has hopes for the Cork South Central seat, in the person of former junior minister Toddy O'Sullivan. Ruairi Quinn, as the new leader of the party, would love to win three by-elections in a row. It would provide a dream start to a local election campaign, while providing the cement required to bind Democratic Left and Labour together.

In spite of its record 63 per cent showing in the opinion polls, Fianna Fail will find this by-election very hard to win. No matter what the outcome, however, the Taoiseach's eye is firmly set on the local elections, with their implications for the general election to follow. As a medium-term strategy, it will take some beating.