Fine Gael hoping the ‘Varadkar factor’ won’t fade by election time
‘The Irish Times’ visited four key constituencies to gauge party's ahead of its Ardfheis
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at Government Buildings, Dublin this week. Photograph: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Is Fine Gael enjoying a temporary high, or are we seeing a permanent reordering of Irish politics?
The long-term goal for Fine Gael electorally is hegemony over Fianna Fáil – to do in politics what Manchester City has done to Manchester United in English soccer.
The polls have been encouraging, with Fine Gael opening up an 11-point gap on Fianna Fáil last December (36 per cent to 25 per cent). But this lead has since reduced, with Fine Gael standing at 33 per cent, 8 points ahead of their traditional rivals in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll last month.
“There were two big gearshifts,” says Noel Rock, the 31-year old TD for Dublin North West, reflecting on his party’s recent fortunes.
“The first was Leo Varadkar being elected as leader. The second was when Fine Gael shot up in the polls last December. We are not too sure why it happened.
“Frances Fitzgerald resigned,” which was something that looked bad for the party, “but there was also the first Brexit breakthrough. The party has not looked back since.”
Varadkar’s leadership has undoubtedly given a jolt to the party, with his efforts to recast it as modern, youthful and liberal.
An improving economy, a successful abortion referendum, and a consistent approach to the Brexit crisis have all contributed to stronger poll ratings.
But satisfaction with the Government and the Taoiseach slipped in the latest poll amid public concerns over housing, homelessness, health and rural broadband.
Four key constituenciesThe Irish Times
The “facts on the ground”, as related by activists, suggest the party’s stock is on the rise.
However, there will be small gaps between success and failure for final seats.
Take Tipperary, Varadkar’s number one target in the next election. The party can take a seat here, but not without a struggle.
The old north-south county divide might have gone on paper but it was painfully evident for Fine Gael in the 2016 election, when both sitting TDs, Tom Hayes and Noel Coonan lost their seats in the new five-seater, unified constituency.
“We got an awful shock, when we realised we would have no Oireachtas representatives,” says John Fitzgerald, an auctioneer in Clonmel.
“We ran a bad campaign. There was not a proper transfer of votes between north and south. The strategy of running three candidates did not work.”
The “recovery” slogan did not work either in 2016.
One of its two selected candidates in Tipperary, Garret Ahearn, says the slogan was at least a year too early in Tipperary, arguing that the county is seeing that recovery now.
Jobs and broadband
It depends hugely on agriculture and the bloodstock industry.
There is an industrial base, particularly around Clonmel (where, traditionally, Labour has had a strong presence). Broadband is a big issue, as are jobs and tourism.
Driving through the county on a grey winter’s day, some of the towns seem a little frayed and taciturn.
We pass close to Cabragh Bridge, scene of the recent stand-off between presidential candidate Peter Casey and several Traveller families over unoccupied new houses.
Some 36 per cent of people here voted for Casey. That reality is being factored in by all parties.
Fine Gael’s electoral strategy in Tipperary has Varadkar’s stamp on it.
The party held hustings all over the county. Ahearn, whose late mother, Theresa Ahearn, was a well-regarded TD, emerged as the victor.
Mary Newman Julian, who finished second, was added to the ticket but not without rancour.
One Ahearn supporter is Fintan Morrissey, an agricultural contractor. “Garret was selected. The understanding at that time was there would be a second candidate from the north of the county.
“But the second candidate is living only over the road from Garret [both live close to Caher in the south]. There is disquiet in north Tipperary they feel that are not represented and I am inclined to agree.”
Some also believe the party establishment prefer Newman Julian whose sister is Dublin Bay South TD, Kate O’Connell.
While both candidates speak politely of each other, it has created a dynamic not unlike that between “colleagues” Mairéad McGuinness and Avril Doyle in the European Parliament elections in 2004. The internecine rivalry might even boost the party’s prospects.
Unusually, there are three Independent TDs here. But two of them, Michael Lowry and Mattie McGrath, are from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil gene pool respectively.
“Fine Gael people vote for Lowry. I hate to admit it but it’s true,” says Newman Julian.
The other Independent is Séamus Healy, a left-wing TD based in the far south. Fianna Fáil has regained a seat here through Jackie Cahill, while Labour’s Alan Kelly held on in 2016 and should safely be re-elected next time.
One of Newman Julian’s supporters, Margaret Hogan from Horse and Jockey, says the party has attracted a new group of supporters and the old divides no longer apply.
“Mary reflects that. She is a new candidate in her early 40s with great energy, and there is tremendous interest in her.”
Community initiatives A former head veterinary surgeon with an agri multinational, Newman Julian has become involved with a myriad of community initiatives and projects,
just like Ahearn.
Both focus their messages on a Fine Gael staple: job creation, which would allow people settle and work locally.
Work is a big theme too in Dublin North West, where Rock bridged a gap of 24 years when winning a seat for the party in 2011.
In his constituency, Rock casts himself as a centrist.
“Some of my Fine Gael colleagues see me as a leftie,” he happily pronounces.
As he canvasses along The Rise, off Griffith Avenue, a few issues emerge, mainly health and housing.
Public transport is another major issue, says Rock.
“The party is changing. A decade ago, socially, we would not have foreseen a Fine Gael leader leading the charge on marriage equality or on abortion.
“The 2013 Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was a painful moment for the party but liberated us to be more bolder on the liberal agenda.”
He has a long chat with Jim Evers who played for Dublin in the 1960s and is impressed with Varadkar, though of Fianna Fáil stock.
There are two certainties in this three-seat constituency: Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats and Dessie Ellis of Sinn Féin.
Rock’s main challenger will be Paul McAuliffe, a Fianna Fáil councillor from Finglas.
Both are doughty campaigners and you sense the outcome here will be very close, and will hinge on local presence rather than national profile.
Across the river in Dublin Rathdown, the national trumps the local. Senator Neale Richmond and a group of volunteers congregate at the shopping centre in Ballinteer.
Richmond is a rising star in the party, an authority on Brexit, and the party hopes he can take a second seat here alongside Josepha Madigan.
“Since Leo Varadkar took over we have had a 15 per cent increase in membership,” he says.
“Here it’s national issues mainly but with a local nuance: transport, school provision and housing.”
Fine Gael polled 30 per cent here in 2016 but it was not transfer-friendly.
To win a second it will have to take out Independent Shane Ross (who is something of a proxy Fine Gael TD) or Green Party TD Catherine Martin. There could also be a challenge from Fianna Fáil.
“We are going to have to win two seats here if we have any ambition for Leo Varadkar’s leadership,” says Richmond.
Activist Kevin Smyth from Ticknock (22) says the Taoiseach “has reinvigorated the party for young people”.
Businessman Simon Kelehan from Stillorgan also speaks highly of Varadkar, saying: “Fine Gael is the only pro-business party and pro-development party in Irish politics. That That is why I am a supporter.”
There is also another proxy Fine Gael TD in Denis Naughten.
“He can fly both flags, Galway and Roscommon, can’t he?” says Aidan Donohoe, a councillor from New Inn. He acknowledges for Fine Gael to get a seat will be a challenge.
“There’s a certain Fine Gael vote there that’s going to Denis Naughten.”
Naughten’s brother, John, is uniquely placed to comment, as he is a sitting Fine Gael councillor.
“There would be more positivity towards Fine Gael than at the last elections,” he says, but “it will be a big ask” to regain a seat.
“In comparison to Dublin there is not the same pick-up in the economy”, he adds.
Senator Maura Hopkins stood in the last election and is seriously considering putting her name forward at the Fine Gael selection convention.
She points to the need for more jobs, citing Harmac in Castlerea as an example of what can be done.
“There has been an improvement. Leo has made a difference,” she argues.
Former Galway East TD Paul Connaughton has been mentioned as another possible candidate but has yet to show his hand.
The reality for Fine Gael is that, if it is to consolidate its status, these are the kind of constituencies where it must make gains.