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Opting for a spring election would be an act of political insanity by Simon Harris and Micheál Martin

Coalition’s standing will hardly have improved after the usual winter hospital crisis and a further influx of asylum seekers

Coalition leaders: Taoiseach Simon Harris, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

As they digest the implications of their unexpected and comprehensive rout of Sinn Féin in last weekend’s elections the Taoiseach and Tánaiste need to ponder a chilling thought: exactly the same thing happened five years ago only for Sinn Féin to roar back and win more votes than anybody else in a general election just eight months later.

If the stated positions of the Coalition party leaders are taken at face value, they intend to give Sinn Féin strategists the opportunity for a leisurely inquest into their party’s disastrous slump and allow them to regroup and launch another determined bid for power in nine months’ time.

This would be sheer political insanity on the part of the Coalition. There is no knowing what the public mood will be like in the cold, dark days of February and March but the standing of the Government will hardly have improved after the usual winter hospital crisis and a further influx of asylum seekers, to name but two predictable problems.

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Of course pronouncements about a March election have to be taken with a dose of salt. Government leaders always feel obliged to say they intend to run the full term, as to concede anything else could generate an unstoppable momentum for an early contest.


The feeling in the political world, though, is that up to last weekend’s elections at least, Tánaiste Micheál Martin was genuinely wedded to the idea of the Government running its full term. The question is whether his party’s robust performance has made him think again.

In one of his exuberant count centre interviews, Martin conceded that early summer was the optimal time for an election in Ireland. “You’ve long nights. You can stay out canvassing longer,” he said before pointing out the obvious. “But I’m afraid May/June, effectively, has passed so the possibility of holding an election in May/June is not on.”

Still, on the basis of that logic an election in the autumn, before the clocks go back and dark, drizzly November sours the public mood, makes far more sense that one in March. Newly elected MEP Barry Andrews spoke openly in favour of an autumn contest as did Fianna Fáil Minister Jack Chambers, and many others in their party now feel the same.

Another practical reason for an autumn election is the requirement to hold a number of byelections, arising from the elevation of TDs to the European Parliament, before the end of the year. Governments rarely win byelections and a thumping in clutch of them in early winter could herald an irreversible shift in momentum.

The way in which Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil transferred to each other in the local and European elections represented a sea change in Irish politics and delivered extra seats for both

Those with long political memories will recall that the Donegal byelection of December 2010, which saw the election of Pearse Doherty, sparked a surge in Sinn Féin support, which led to the party’s first big Dáil breakthrough. Then five years ago, four byelection losses by the Fine Gael Government in December, 2019, paved the way for the seismic shift in Irish politics that saw Sinn Féin win more votes than any other party.

What made it all the more galling for Fine Gael was that as late as October 2019, the party was riding high in the polls after Leo Varadkar, against all the odds, delivered a Brexit deal that delivered the Irish national aims. Ministerial colleagues urged him to go to the country, as Boris Johnson did in the UK, but caution prevailed and the voters promptly forgot his achievements.

Back in 2015 Enda Kenny was all geared up to go to the country in October but his Coalition partner and Tánaiste, Joan Burton of Labour, objected strenuously and Kenny backed down. In the election the following February, Fine Gael was mauled and Labour almost wiped out.

Sinn Féin collapse does not mean voters want the current Government to get another runOpens in new window ]

Simon Harris will face the same dilemma as Kenny if Martin really wants to hold out until March. While it is the Taoiseach’s prerogative to call the election, the outcome will hinge on the two parties presenting a united front. The way in which they transferred to each other in the local and European elections represented a sea change in Irish politics and delivered extra seats for both. A similar transfer pattern will make all the difference in the general election.

Whenever it happens, it is a safe bet that Sinn Féin will recover at least some ground. The only question is how much. Eoin Ó Broin pointed out correctly that the turnout in working-class areas last weekend was poor and that had a huge impact on the results. If those voters are galvanised, as they were in February 2020, a very different outcome is possible.

Sinn Féin’s problem, though, is that anti-establishment voters now have a range of options who are expressing their frustrations with more vehemence than Sinn Féin. The so-called hard right is fractured and incoherent but it took votes from the Sinn Féin base last weekend and is likely to do so again.

It’s another reason why the Coalition parties need to catch the tide of public opinion soon, before it inevitably ebbs.