Two extra Irish MEPs to be on ice after May elections if Brexit is delayed
Cabinet decided to reconfigure three constituencies to accommodate 13 MEPs
The Government has sought Attorney General Séamus Woulfe’s view on the possibility that two MEPs will have to go on furlough if Brexit is delayed. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Furlough. The term is familiar in US politics but not so much over here. If there is a delay in Brexit it will become all too familiar to two of the 13 MEPs who will be elected in the European elections in May.
Last year, some of the seats formerly held by Britain were redistributed to other member states of the European Union. Ireland’s total rose from 11 to 13. There was a fly in the ointment, however. The EU legislation included a clause that if Britain delayed its exit the “extra” MEPs would not be allowed take up their seats until Britain officially left.
At its meeting last Tuesday, the Cabinet decided to go ahead and reconfigure the three massive constituencies to accommodate 13 MEPs. South now has five seats; Dublin has four seats and Midland North West (MNW) remains at four seats. The only geographical change is that Laois and Offaly move into the South.
So as of last Tuesday the election is for 13 MEPs. But if Brexit is delayed – a real possibility – two of the MEPs will have to go on furlough. That is essentially a temporary suspension – in other words, two parliamentarians will be put into cold storage until such time as Britain leaves.
The Government has sought Attorney General Séamus Woulfe’s view on this and will decide its strategy next Tuesday – including insulating itself from the inevitable legal challenges. And who will be the losers among the winners? Most likely the last to get elected in Dublin and South will be unable to take up their seats in parliament – at least initially.
Most parties have begun cranking up the machinery for the May polls, on a 13-seat scenario. Being a second-tier election, the European elections have been happy hunting grounds in the past for smaller parties and for Independents including the Greens; the Socialist Party; Kathy Sinnott; Rosemary ‘Dana’ Scallon; Marian Harkin; Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan; and Nessa Childers. The big winners in 2014 were Fine Gael (with four seats); Independents; and Sinn Féin, which won seats in all three constituencies. Conversely, Fianna Fáil and Labour were the losers, although Brian Crowley pulled in an astounding 180,000 votes (almost a quota and a half) in South.
One Independent, Childers in Dublin, is stepping down and there is a likelihood that Harkin in MNW might not contest. Fine Gael is seeking to retain its four seats while Fianna Fáil has also ambitions to win four. Sinn Féin should retain its three seats but not as comfortably as five years ago, when Liadh Ní Riada, then an unknown, coasted home on the strength of the brand. Matt Carthy will stand for the Dáil next year but will be nominated at his party convention for MNW on Sunday. That should guarantee the party the retention of its seat there.
In MNW, Flanagan might struggle to recapture the momentum of 2014, but if Harkin retires he should retain his seat. Mairéad McGuinness of Fine Gael will be comfortable and the final seat looks destined for Fianna Fáil, even if Harkin stands again. Its former Donegal TD Niall Blaney has been in campaign mode since last December and is the front-runner. But Cavan-Monaghan TD Brendan Smyth has also declared an interest and Galway East TD Anne Rabbitte has not ruled herself out either for a two-candidate ticket.
Others who have been mentioned are former ICMSA president John Comer from Co Mayo, and another Co Mayo politician, Aidan Devitt. Labour’s candidate is Dominic Hannigan, who defeated Iverna McGowan in a closely-fought convention in Mullingar last weekend.
A four-seater Dublin will see three new MEPs being elected alongside incumbent Lynn Boylan (it would be a shock if she was defeated). With Brian Hayes’s retirement, a number of senior Fine Gael candidates have come to the fore. Not least is former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Former minister for health James Reilly has also expressed an interest in running. Noelle O’Connell of the European Movement has also been mentioned as a candidate on a two-person ticket. Former TD and Renua founder Lucinda Creighton was approached by the leadership but she decided not to rejoin the party she once represented.
Equally there is a titanic struggle in Fianna Fáil, which is holding its convention later this month, with 1,500 delegates eligible to vote.Three former TDs – Barry Andrews, Mary Hanafin and Conor Lenihan– are expected to contest, along with Tiernan Brady, the prominent gay rights campaigner. Andrews is said to be the favourite but Hanafin also has a strong cachet.
Alex White is the Labour candidate and represents his party’s best chance of a seat. The Greens were just pipped for the final seat in 2014, when Eamon Ryan lost out to Brian Hayes, and Ciarán Cuffe could secure the final seat. No Independent has declared as yet. The likes of Gary Gannon or Anne-Marie McNally from the Social Democrats could bring youthful energy to their campaigns.
The five-seater South has also attracted strong candidates and will be more open following the retirement of Brian Crowley.
In addition to the two sitting Fine Gael MEPs Sean Kelly and Deirdre Clune, two other prominent FG TDs have also expressed interest in running. They are Paul Kehoe (Wexford) and John Deasy (Waterford). The biggest new name to declare so far is prominent Fianna Fáil TD Billy Kelleher, despite the antipathy of party leader Micheál Martin to his move away from Dáil politics.
He’s one of about half a dozen Fianna Fáil hopefuls to emerge for a party targeting two seats. The other national figure is Offaly TD Barry Cowen. Cllr Séamus McGrath, a brother of finance spokesman Michael McGrath, is another possible candidate, as are Malcolm Byrne from Wexford; Jason Fitzgerald from Cork North West; Fergus Hartley from Waterford; and Senator Ned O’Sullivan.
The two declared candidates to go before the Labour convention are former Clare TD Michael McNamara and former INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan. Senator Grace O’Sullivan from Waterford is the Green candidate and Adrienne Wallace is the People Before Profit candidate.
The only imponderable is that there is always the possibility that a strong Independent will emerge, either from the Dáil or elsewhere. The other upshot is that there might be four or five Dáil byelections, given there are so many TDs throwing their hats into the ring.
Unlike so many other European Union countries where the rise of populism and anti-immigrant parties (in Sweden, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Italy and the UK) has the potential to change radically the composition of parliament, no candidate or party representing that view has emerged in Ireland.