independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

When one departure can upset the house of cards

The mid-term elections reveal how delicate the Coalition's lead truly is

Former IFA president John Bryan
Former IFA president John Bryan

Within the space of a few days, John Bryan went from being viewed as a misguided choice from a bygone era to a lost saviour. As soon as he had announced he wasn't running for Fine Gael in the European elections, party TDs previously critical of the former IFA president's candidacy were up in arms. Up to then, he was too rural and lacking charisma with no appeal to urban voters in a sprawling constituency.

Following five months of coaxing him into position, Bryan's departure from the field was blamed on party strategists' insistence on a three-candidate strategy frightening him off. Regardless of the view of his chances, his decision to stand down has exposed the fine line between success and failure for the coalition parties in the forthcoming European elections.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's hopes of holding four seats are in jeopardy. After the high of the 2009 campaign where the Labour Party won three seats and Fine Gael dropped one to a still credible four MEPs, the parties are facing the potential of a drop from a combined win of seven MEPs last time round to just three seats.

Mid-term elections are a notorious opportunity for the voters to give the Government a kicking. Even the worst-case scenario sees Fine Gael still taking a seat in each of the three constituencies. For Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, there's a nightmare possibility of returning with no seats at all. The party's slide in the opinion polls has resulted in concerns of a massive backlash.

To make matters worse, Sinn Fein is threatening to make a clean sweep of three seats with a triumvirate of relative unknowns. Pull it off and it'll be proof positive of Sinn Fein fulfilling the potential shown in the polls.

Labour's ticket is entirely untested at this level – two MEPs who took over seats as substitutes halfway through the term, Emer Costello and Phil Prendergast, and a senator, Lorraine Higgins.

Although there are seats up for grabs in all three constituencies, Costello appears to have the best shot of success, but she's in a dogfight in Dublin. Brian Hayes is the only sure bet in the capital.

Before the new European electoral map had even been finalised, Fine Gael had decided it needed a heavy hitter. Way back in last July, Hayes got the call. His decision to run for Europe writes him out of contention for a place in the Cabinet. Clearly if the Taoiseach had him in mind for a senior ministerial post, the party would have found another name.

Beyond Hayes, a gaggle of candidates are chasing the two remaining seats: Costello, Fianna Fail's Mary Fitzpatrick, Sinn Fein's Lynn Boylan, the Green Party's Eamon Ryan, Independent Nessa Childers and Socialist MEP Paul Murphy. The pattern of seats being in play is similar elsewhere. In Ireland Midlands-North-West, covering Connacht, Ulster and north Leinster, Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness is the standout candidate.

The party is pinning its hopes on her matching her previous two performances by taking a quarter of all the votes and having a sufficient surplus to drag her struggling running mate Jim Higgins across the line. It's a big ask in a 15-county constituency.

Jim Higgins is a hardy old-school campaigner but is looking vulnerable. Fine Gael's failed attempts to get him to retire were proof of the lack of confidence in his chances.

Fianna Fail's Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher is viewed as solid and Sinn Fein's Matt Carthy really just needs to harness the party's existing support across the constituency to get in. Independent MEP Marian Harkin is the real Fine Gael target in the fight for the last seat. The strategy is to allow McGuinness's broad appeal to eat away at her support.

Labour's Lorraine Higgins is an outside bet if she can keep Jim Higgins in her sights on the first count.

Independent Ronan Mullen will need a carefully measured pitch to get in contention. However, in Ireland South, stretching across Munster and south Leinster, there's now a gaping hole in the market for an Independent.

Bryan's departure has left Fine Gael scrambling to find a replacement. The party is polling a crop of TDs and senators, including Andrew Doyle, Simon Harris and Michael D'Arcy to identify a replacement. John Deasy, John-Paul Phelan and Liam Twomey have ruled themselves out of contention.

Sitting MEP Sean Kelly is the flag-bearer on the ticket and will be joined today by Senator Deirdre Clune. Cork's merchant princes have long yearned for an MEP of their own and the Clune campaign is expected to be well financed.

Fine Gael's mishandling of the Bryan scenario has left their opponents sniffing blood.

Fianna Fail MEP Brian Crowley will again romp home, but the party is now daring to dream about a second seat.

Sinn Fein's Liadh Ni Riada is again polling extremely well, but has to match that on the day. Labour ought to be in the frame for a seat but there are legitimate worries about Prendergast's failure to gain traction in her two years since taking over the European Parliament seat from Alan Kelly.

Amid wrangling over a one- or two-candidate strategy, Senator John Gilroy dropped out of seeking a nomination.

The party is now thought to be looking at another Cork-based prospect.

With seats up for grabs in all three constituencies, the coalition parties will only have themselves to blame if they fail to take the initiative.

Sunday Independent

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