Pat Leahy: Are we set for an early general election?

Potential June vote looms as Euros gauge public attitude and UK’s future unfolds

The next month will be a hectic but clarifying period for Irish politics. At its conclusion we will know a lot more about where politics and its chief protagonists stand and about the prospects for the medium future than we do now.

Elections are the heartbeat of politics and however much politicians may profess (honestly) to hate them, they live for them too. The local and European campaigns will be vast – in the Euros, there are three huge constituencies with 59 candidates vying for 13 seats, while in the locals, there will be in the region of 1,700 candidates contesting 166 separate elections in the 31 local authorities.

Throw in three plebiscites on the question of directly elected city mayors for Cork, Limerick and Waterford and a referendum on liberalising the divorce provisions in the Constitution and, sorry everyone, but it really is Christmas for the political nerds among us.

Fianna Fáil's ground game is very strong – a huge advantage where all politics is even more local than it usually is

Each contest will throw up its own fascinating questions. In the local elections, both big parties seem set to make gains, underlining the strengthening of the centre that has been one of the most consistent trends since the last election – the Empire Strikes Back.

Part of the reason that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will improve, though, is that they are coming from relatively low bases – both received 24-25 per cent of the vote in 2014. That similarity should not be confused with equivalence – 2014 was a comeback triumph for Fianna Fáil which saw the party become, three years after the general election massacre of 2011, once again the largest party of local government (despite, rather amusingly, one of its front benchers calling for the resignation of the party leader on the morning of the results).

For Fine Gael, however, 2014 was a scarring defeat and a prelude to the loss of Dáil seats in the general election two years later.

Low-hanging fruit

I hear from all over the country from all parties that Fianna Fáil’s ground game is very strong – a huge advantage in a contest where all politics is even more local than it usually is. At the same time, senior Fianna Fáil sources tell me that because of Fine Gael’s poor performance five years ago, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit for the party around the country – a touch of expectation management that suggests Fianna Fáil fears the prospect of Fine Gael overtaking it as the largest party of local government looming in a few weeks.

Even if you think that Fine Gael is currently rather over-confident about its electoral prospects (I do), that would be quite the feather in Leo Varadkar’s cap.

There are significant pointers for the smaller parties, too. Will there be any sign of a pulse for Labour candidates? Any climate bounce for the Greens? Will the Independent tide ebb? (Yes, yes and yes, I think.)

It’s an important staging point for Sinn Féin, too. You have rarely seen the party approach an election in such a state of uncertainty. Sinn Féin has enormous strengths in any election, of course, not least a cadre of dedicated members and volunteers that means it won’t be paying people to put up its posters.

People around Government talk a lot about a September election. Unlikely, I think

But the current rhetorical obsession with promoting a united Ireland seems to me to be a tactic designed to mask the lack of a political strategy. Mary Lou’s fiercely tetchy interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on Thursday is perhaps the best window into Sinn Féin’s current miscontents.

The Euro elections will also demonstrate whether Ireland will continue its curious habit of being an extremely pro-EU country that elects lots of anti-EU MEPs – or at least MEPs that are highly critical of most of the EU’s work and suspicious of its motivations. Some of this, of course, is testament to the appeal of candidates who embody a Well-Feck-Them-All-Anyway attitude.

Among the WFTAA candidates with a real chance is the able Wexford TD Mick Wallace, running in Ireland South and hoping to accompany best pal Clare Daly (running in Dublin) to Brussels. His fortunes will be instructive.

Above all, the election will gauge the political mood of the country towards the Government. Along with developments in the UK over the coming weeks that will, I think, decide whether we have an election before the summer.

Varadkar’s call

I’ve written here many times before that there can be no election until Brexit becomes clearer. But that might happen over the next month. If Westminster passes the withdrawal treaty, that triggers the implementation period and a pause in Brexit for a long period – opening the window for an election. If the agreement fails in parliament again, the Tories tank in the Euros and Theresa May falls or is pushed on her sword, then the process stalls for a Tory leadership campaign – and the window also opens, at least a little bit. That would leave the Taoiseach with the biggest pure political call of his premiership so far.

People around Government talk a lot about a September election. Unlikely, I think, for three reasons: it’s hard to rev up the great political engines after the summer break; there is a budget looming the following month; and unless May passes the agreement in parliament, October will be the crunchiest of crunch times for Brexit.

No, I think the choice for a general election is either June (if the window opens) or next year. And if it is next year, why would Fianna Fáil let it go any later than the early spring – graveyard of the last two governments – with patients packed like sardines in the emergency departments and homeless people on cold streets? In other words, Varadkar’s choice may be June or next February.

One Minister with a reasonable claim to know the Taoiseach’s thinking on these matters – insofar as anyone does – told me this week that he reckons his boss is dying for an election. But will the window open for him, and if it does, will he dare? That will depend, I think, on the events of the coming weeks.