European elections loom in much-changed landscape

Europe Letter: Fianna Fáil likely to be big winners in European poll in May

A combination of a couple of extra seats up for grabs, a clatter of retirements, including those of two strong vote-getters, and a glut of ex-ministers on the dole or in alternative employment are all contributing to making the looming European elections in May a heavily contested and mighty interesting field.

Not to mention a changing political landscape since the last vote back in 2014, in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe.

Brexit is seeing the seat allocation to Ireland rise from 11 to 13, with some boundary movements – there is one extra seat up for grabs in both the constituencies of Dublin – from three to four and South – from four to five.

Should the UK not have left the EU by the time of the elections, and hence be required to participate, those elected to the last two of the 13 seats will have their membership of the European Parliament put on temporary hold.

And while the runners and riders are not yet all clear, and final seats in European elections are notoriously difficult to predict, a cross-European poll published this week by the European Parliament gives a good sense of the likely change of political complexion of the next Irish contingent in Strasbourg.

Most dramatic will be Fianna Fáil’s likely successes. The party took only one seat in 2014, Brian Crowley’s in South. When he resigned the party whip, it was left bereft of any European Parliament representation, but it can expect to pick up one in each of the three constituencies, the poll predicts.

And that's on the basis of the poll putting the Fianna Fáil vote at 22 per cent, three percentage points lower than the last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in October.

Potential candidates

Crowley will not be running again for health reasons – he has not been able to attend a single session of the current parliament – but Fianna Fáil should be confident it can hold a large part of his huge vote. And not surprisingly, a host of potential candidates including Cork North Central TD Billy Kelleher, former mayor of Cork Seamus McGrath and former chairman of the Dáil public accounts committee John McGuinness have all been mentioned as potential candidates.

Fine Gael, polling for the European Parliament at 32 per cent, one point lower than in the Ipsos/MRBI survey, is expected to retain four seats of the expanded 13.

The challenge will be to retain the seat Deirdre Clune unexpectedly won in South in 2014, while the retirement of Brian Hayes from Dublin will require a major effort from the party to brand a new face there. The expansion of the constituency by one, however, should make that doable.

In Dublin we will also be seeing former ministers aplenty in the running. Barry Andrews will lead the charge for Fianna Fáil, and Frances Fitzgerald is likely to beat off her former cabinet colleague James Reilly for the Fine Gael nomination.

With Nessa Childers retiring, Alex White is out on the streets for Labour and, the European Parliament poll suggests, on course to win. But he faces an uphill battle. Childers's vote was only partially a traditional Labour one and there is certain to be a strong challenge from the left and/or Independents in the city.

Traditional allegiances

In the past, Dublin has been represented by Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party and Patricia McKenna of the Greens, and voters have been known to regard the European elections as an opportunity to stray from traditional allegiances.

Sinn Féin's Lynn Boylan is the only incumbent Dublin MEP contesting the constituency and can be expected to sail home. The parliament poll predicts her party will take only two seats nationally, on a 13 per cent share of vote, but that is well down on the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI prediction of a 24-point share, a bizarre anomaly that casts some doubt on the European Parliament poll.

In truth, both Matt Carthy and Liadh Ní Riada should have no great difficulty in securing seats in both Midlands and North West, and South.

Fine Gael's Mairéad McGuinness, who has made a name for herself in Strasbourg and inside the European People's Party (EPP) as a vice president of the parliament, will contest Midlands North West without too much trouble. There she is also likely to face another former Fianna Fáil minister in the form of Cavan-Monaghan TD Brendan Smith.

The parliament poll also predicts the return of both the constituency's independents, Luke Ming Flanagan and Marian Harkin, although the latter has yet to declare. And it foresees another Independent seat, with Independents in total on 19 per cent, although where that might arise is not clear.

On a European level, the poll shows that the rise of populism means that the traditional mainstream parties, the Socialists and the EPP, will almost certainly not achieve the 353 seats combined required for a majority in the parliament.

They are likely to fall short at just 317, making for considerable legislative challenges and the necessity of creative coalition building.