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Fine Gael losses, Sinn Féin gains? Predicting the unpredictable European elections

High-profile candidates are contesting seats for the bigger parties, but differing attitudes to second-tier elections can throw up unexpected results

European elections are like the bumper races that they run at the end of race meetings: chaotic, full of unknown quantities and hard to predict.

“They are second-order elections and people don’t think about them in the same way as general elections,” says Maynooth University psephologist and lecturer in geography, Adrian Kavanagh.

Referring to the fact that European elections and local elections are held on the same day, every five years, he says: “If I were to be honest, I’d say when it comes to rural Ireland, 80 per cent of the people go to polling centres to vote for the local elections. European elections are the second thought.

“They are the sort of elections where you can kind of take a break from your party, or send your political party a message because you are unhappy with it for some reason. Or because you don’t have any strong opinion about who would make the best MEP.”


Kavanagh cites as an example Independent candidate Peter Casey, who performed well in the presidential election in 2018, with 23 per cent of the national vote, and the 2019 European elections, where he was not far from winning a seat with 9 per cent of first-preference votes.

“When he ran in the general election in 2020, it went in a totally different direction. He just tanked in that election,” he said.

There are some rules of thumb, however. Name recognition is key, and known personalities have tended to do well over the years: Brian Crowley, Mairead McGuinness, Maria Walsh, Seán Kelly.

“If you don’t have name recognition, you will struggle,” says Kavanagh.

He also points to the fact that smaller parties and Independents have got more change out of these elections than from general elections.

The increase in population recorded in the last census resulted in Ireland getting an extra seat, bringing the total to 14. The extra seat has gone to the sprawling Midlands North West (MNW) constituency which will now have five MEPS. It has also gained two counties, Laois and Offaly, bringing the total to 15. Dublin has four seats and the South, encompassing Munster and four Leinster counties, has five.

If you were looking for big trends, Fine Gael was the big winner in 2019, taking five seats out of 13. Sinn Féin seemed on a slide, losing two of its three seats. Fianna Fáil took two seats (a gain of one), while the Greens won two seats, with Ciarán Cuffe topping the poll in Dublin. The remaining three seats went to Independent candidates: Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Luke “Ming” Flanagan. It was strange that few of those voting patterns were replicated in the general election only eight months later.

So what is likely to happen this time around? Speaking to Kavanagh, to former Independent MEP Marian Harkin, and to former candidate Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil, there was general consensus that some general trends will be evident.

For one, none think that Fine Gael will be able to hold on to five seats, and all are of the view that Sinn Féin will recover and win three seats, and possibly more. Fianna Fáil could end up being the beneficiary of the extra seat in MNW where it has not had an MEP since 2014. The selection of a big hitter such as Barry Cowen will certainly aid its chances.

It’s much harder to predict the fate of the Greens or the Independents. Wallace in the South constituency and Daly in Dublin have faced criticism for their views on Russia and China and their courting of autocratic regimes. It is sure to have an impact on their vote share.

Kavanagh says that in 2019, the two picked up what had been Sinn Féin seats. “This time around, it might be a case of the seats just naturally gravitating back to Sinn Féin.”

Both Harkin and Byrne point to the possibility of a new candidate emerging in the two rural constituencies: namely, an Independent who has a strong rural profile and whose message chimes with the negative-trending sentiment in local communities towards housing asylum seekers and refugees in towns and villages.

“There is definitely scope there for a right-wing populist Independent,” Byrne says. There is an outside possibility of a right-wing candidate doing relatively well in the capital as well.

For him and Harkin, the debate about migrants and asylum will be one of the big themes.

All of the three big parties have opted for candidates with a national profile. That has meant no bar on Dáil deputies. Two Fine Gael MEPs, Frances Fitzgerald and Deirdre Clune, are retiring. The party needs big hitters to replace them.

Was Josepha Madigan – a Minister and a sitting TD – Fine Gael’s leadership choice in the capital? That has been contested by some people in the party who privately told The Irish Times that the very fact that a convention was held at all took control of the decision completely out of their hands. As it happened, Madigan came in third, trailing behind Senator Regina Doherty and Senator Barry Ward at a convention attended by 700. Leo Varadkar was sufficiently riled at a press conference on Tuesday to excoriate a claim made by a media outlet that it was an embarrassing setback for the party.

Something similar happened in the other big contested convention earlier this month, the Fianna Fáil one for MNW where 2,200 members voted. Offaly TD Barry Cowen won and the person who some considered as the leadership preference, Lisa Chambers, finished third, with Niall Blaney in second place.

The outcomes will leave them with headaches, but if hard-headed calculation prevails, Chambers and Madigan will be added to the ticket, as both parties need two candidates in those constituencies.

What of Sinn Féin? For three years after the election, the party brand seemed strong enough to guarantee success. But that has changed. A signal of this is that the party has chosen three high-profile candidates to spearhead the campaigns: Fermanagh MLA Michelle Gildernew (MNW); Kilkenny deputy Kathleen Funchion (South); and former MEP Lynn Boylan (Dublin). The party has probably its best chance of winning two seats in MNW where it has its sole sitting MEP, Chris McManus.

MNW is the most interesting. All the commentators agree one seat each should go to the three big parties, with Flanagan also retaining. Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (less likely) will be in the mix for the fifth seat. But then it could go to a high-profile rural Independent, if one emerges between now and June 6th. Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, who has announced he will stand, could fit that bill. So too could Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who has told The Irish Times he has “not ruled himself out”.

In Dublin, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are the front-runners, with Barry Andrews (Fianna Fáil), Cuffe (Greens) and Daly vying for the final two seats. There are a few interesting candidates who could muddy the waters – not least former Independent TD Finian McGrath, high-profile Labour deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Sinéad Gibney, who is resigning her position in the Irish Human Rights Commission to stand for the Social Democrats. Daithí Doolan of Sinn Féin has an outside chance of a second seat.

In South, Funchion should comfortably take a seat based on her own profile and the party’s polling figures, though her running mate Senator Paul Gavan does not seem to have a high enough profile to take a second seat. Fine Gael’s Kelly and Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher are also expected to retain their seats. Fianna Fáil’s second candidate is expected to be a councillor from Carlow, Kilkenny or Tipperary. The Cork-based energy entrepreneur John Mullins has said he will bid for a slot on the Fine Gael ticket. He will be an interesting candidate. The big question for Wallace is if the anti-establishment vote remains with him or goes elsewhere. Green’s Grace O’Sullivan’s efforts will be made harder by her party being in the Coalition, and she looks more vulnerable than Cuffe.

All of those predictions could be sundered by some as yet unknown candidate. And the fragmented nature of politics at the moment, which is more evident in second-tier contests, makes everything a bit of a lottery.

“Elections are strange at the moment. The normal rules of the game have been thrown aside. You only have to look in United States. You have to rewrite the rules every time,” Kavanagh says.

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