FF grabs at change in public sentiment with both hands
Those gathering in Wexford are eager to believe voters are ready for a change
From left, Stephen Donnelly; Micheál Martin; Thomas Byrne (Meath East); Timmy Dooley (Clare); with Lisa Chambers and Pat McPartland, Fianna Fáil Communications. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
“They’re all in good form,” purred a Fianna Fáil frontbencher as he left a policy session at the party’s think-in in Gorey on Monday. “They’ve been on the ground.”
Being “on the ground” – canvassing and campaigning at constituency level – is an article of faith in Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil, and most TDs and senators who gathered at the Ashdown Park Hotel for the pre-Dáil term get-together claimed there was a changing public sentiment towards both Fine Gael and themselves.
They maintain that the popularity of Leo Varadkar and the Government has dipped substantially and that voters are ready for a change. That’s not to say Fianna Fáilers believe the electorate is rushing into the embrace of their party.
It is just over eight years since Fianna Fáil last held office, a third consecutive term in Government Buildings brought to an ignominious end by the economic crisis and troika bailout.
Rather, some Fianna Fáil sources say a changing public sentiment is evidenced in subtle ways, with the party increasingly being talked about as potential leaders of the next government.
One frontbencher said party TDs were now being asked to launches and events by lobby groups and other organisations which would usually look no further than a Government Minister. It may be a straw in the wind but Fianna Fáilers are grabbing it optimistically.
Both Varadkar and Martin have publicly said their preference is to hold the general election in the first half of next year.
There was some chatter among Fianna Fáilers that Varadkar could opt for a pre-Christmas poll if a Brexit deal was struck and passed by the House of Commons in the coming weeks. A British general election could also provide space for an election this side of the Irish Sea.
However, a spring election is seen as the likeliest timeframe, with four byelections expected to be held in late November or early December.
Vacant seats in Wexford, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid West and Cork North Central need to be filled following the election of Mick Wallace, Clare Daly, Frances Fitzgerald and Billy Kelleher to the European Parliament.
Fianna Fáil’s two-day think-in is being held in Gorey to help party councillor Malcolm Byrne, who performed strongly in Ireland South in the European Parliament elections, take Wallace’s old seat.
Lorraine Clifford Lee in Dublin Fingal is also seen as a strong prospect for Fianna Fáil, which hopes that a number of successful byelections will spur momentum towards next year’s general election.
Senior Fine Gael figures believe they have a chance of winning one of the four byelections, and Varadkar’s TDs – while privately acknowledging that Fianna Fáil has gained ground in recent months – insist the election is still theirs to lose.
Those gathering in Wexford, and the Fine Gaelers attending their own think-in in east Cork later this week, all know the contest between Martin and Varadkar will be a close one.