General election in prospect this year as TDs set to run for Europe

FF and FG figures see no case for holding by-elections ahead of general election

The chance of a general election by the end of the year have increased because at least four sitting TDs will contest the European elections, despite the shock defeat of Billy Kelleher in a Fianna Fáil selection convention.

As of this weekend, three sitting deputies – Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald and Andrew Doyle, and Brendan Smyth of Fianna Fáil – have been selected as candidates for the elections in May.

There is also speculation that Wexford TD Mick Wallace could also decide to run in South.

The situation means that at least three by-elections would need to be held within six months if the candidates are successful.

Senior figures in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have said they see no case for holding by-elections ahead of a general election, meaning there would likely be a national poll during the 2019 calendar year.

Mr Kelleher was the clear favourite to win the Fianna Fáil nomination for the South constituency on Saturday but was beaten by eight votes in a very tight contest by Wexford councillor Malcolm Byrne.

Despite his loss, the Cork South Central TD is a certainty to be a party candidate, Fianna Fáil sources said. It is expected he will be be added to the ticket by the party’s national constituency commission. Fianna Fáil will need to run two candidates in the five-seat constituency, which spans a large geographical area from Wicklow to Cork.

Low turnout

Fianna Fáil’s South convention was held in Clonmel on Saturday, where only 900 of the 8,400 eligible delegates cast their vote. In the end, Mr Byrne won by eight votes. There was criticism that the location and the day chosen, just before St Patrick’s Day, meant the turnout was particularly low and not representative.

Yesterday, Mr Kelleher would not be drawn into any criticism of the convention. He said he was disappointed by the result and his candidacy will now depend on what is decided by the national constituency commission. “When you go into a contest you hope you can win. It was not the case and I wish all the best to Malcolm Byrne,” he said.

Mr Byrne, a member of Wexford County Council since 2009, said he was “honoured” to be selected. He said with the crisis around Brexit, it was important to have “sensible and responsible Fianna Fáil politics in the European Parliament”.

Following a High Court challenge taken by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty in 2010 over long delays in holding a by-election in Donegal, the laws were changed. By-elections must now take place within six months of a Dáil seat being vacated.

Brexit factor

With MEPs due to take up their seats in the EU parliament in early July, any by-elections must be held by early January 2020 at the latest.

Among senior TDs and officials in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil contacted this weekend, an overwhelming majority were of the view that a general election would take place before the by-elections would be held.

In addition, with the Brexit process either near completion or about to be subject to a long delay, the reasons against holding an election during 2019 have become less potent.

Several sources said it would not be in either party’s interest to have by-elections quickly followed by a general election. Some pointed to the experience of 2010, when Mr Doherty’s landslide victory in the Donegal by-election created huge momentum behind Sinn Féin just ahead of the 2011 general election.

“I just can’t see the Government agreeing to hold three by-elections, none of which Fine Gael would do well in, and then announce a general election several weeks later,” said a senior Fine Gael TD.