Sunday 25 September 2016

Judgment day finally looms for TDs in election's four theatres of war

Published 04/02/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin & Fianna Fail candidate for Dublin Fingal Lorraine Clifford Lee during the launch of Fianna Fail's General Election campaign on Lower Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Collins
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin & Fianna Fail candidate for Dublin Fingal Lorraine Clifford Lee during the launch of Fianna Fail's General Election campaign on Lower Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Collins

So, finally, it's time to ask the audience; the election is on and judgment day is looming for the candidates.

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Campaigning is about making certain that your own support turns out to vote. There's also a motivational element in getting your core, loyal base to endorse you one more time with feeling.

That's why no less than a personal house call and a reminder of your appreciation coming up to polling day will do. These connections do matter. Of course, many voters have already made up their minds as to who they'll support. All kind of factors feed into their choice, based on family tradition or a personal affinity to a local public representative. You will have others who wish to show their appreciation for some help at a time of need. It's all part of the narrative.

Trying to compete with party colleagues is exhausting. It's a never-ending rat race. Things you don't want to hear include that your seat is "safe" - this is usually the kiss of death. If you hear someone may be "in trouble", that means every last vote is vital to avoid electoral flat-lining.

One in five voters are identified as 'floaters' with no fixed allegiance. Ultimately, they may come down on a pro or anti-government basis. But in truth the analysis is usually a bit more complex. Households may be happy to return this administration, yet vary between Fine Gael and Labour. Cohorts of voters shift positions from election to election only within a limited spectrum. Fine Gael supporters don't have dramatic Pauline conversions to socialism. Left-leaning citizens have a starting point of opposition to capitalism and free markets. Meanwhile, the entire focus of others is simply selecting their local TD, from a personality basis.

It's my belief that Election 2016 will be won and lost on four key battlegrounds.

There are self-contained sub-plots at play within each of the 40 constituencies.

First is the old tribal terrain of Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael. In rural Ireland, especially amongst farmers, there's a binary choice between the Civil War parties.

In many such areas, Sinn Féin has neither a councillor base nor sufficient organisational infrastructure to mount effective challenges. If you look at Roscommon/Galway, Limerick County, Cork North-West, Clare and Galway East, these all tend to be a straight shoot-out between the old warhorses. Yet other constituencies with big urban centres like Waterford City, or Naas in Kildare North, it boils down respectively to 'winner takes all' contests between Paudie Coffey (FG) and Mary Butler (FF), and Anthony Lawlor (FG) and James Lawless (FF).

Central to this Fianna Fáil v Fine Gael contest will be the ultimate destination of those crucial 500,000 voters who in 2011 acceded to Phil Hogan's request to "loan their vote on this occasion to FG".

In other times, they would have readily pronounced themselves as Fianna Fáil loyalists.

Their desertion cost Fianna Fáil 40 seats and a 20pc decline in support. It was probably a one-off deal, in extremis. Many returned to the fold in the local elections of 2014. Has their pain been sufficiently assuaged having banished Fianna Fáil to the wilderness of opposition for five years? This block of the electorate will have a decisive say in determining 20 seats.

The fate of candidates such as Mary Hanafin (Dún Laoghaire), Seán Haughey (Dublin Bay North), Senator Marc MacSharry (Sligo Leitrim), Senator Darragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal), Bobby Aylward (Carlow/Kilkenny) and Kevin O'Keeffe (Cork East) depends on this forgiveness factor. Each was defeated in 2011 and is earnestly seeking redemption now.

The Fine Gael strategists are in little doubt that their greatest political foe remains Fianna Fáil. As to the disaffected Fine Gael voters? Their most immediate option amongst the middle classes and self-employed is to try Fianna Fáil. So the Government campaign will be to reinforce memories of the crash under Fianna Fáil. Another arena of engagement I must highlight is the struggle for survival between Fine Gael and its Coalition partner, Labour.

If you buy into the Government's narrative of it having saved the country economically, maintaining the status quo, and not risking continued recovery, and are suitably content, you then ask whose seat will you save?

You can't save them all. In 28 constituencies combined, Fine Gael /Labour support dwindled from 54pc in 2011 to circa 40pc now.

Again, it's a binary choice. Joe Costello or Paschal Donohoe (Dublin Central); Andrew Doyle or Anne Ferris (Wicklow); Alan Shatter or Alex White (Dublin Rathdown); Catherine Byrne or Eric Byrne (Dublin South Central); Alan Kelly or Noel Coonan (Tipperary); Sean Sherlock or Tom Barry (Cork East); Ged Nash or Peter Fitzpatrick (Louth)? The loss of one in four previous supporters means it's Russian roulette.

Fine Gael has blatantly stolen Labour's clothes in claiming credit for Government action in areas like the minimum wage, childcare provision subsidies, extra health spending and tax cuts for lower-paid workers.

Salvaging seats means more daily public spats, beyond the most recent controversies about polling day,

Flashpoint issues like Michael Lowry, the televised leaders' debates and repeal of the Eighth Amendment will have to be negotiated with maximum delicacy. How Joan Burton, who is under huge pressure, will handle things is impossible to gauge. But one or all of these issues has the potential to sour Coalition tensions irreparably.

Then there is 'AK-47' Alan Kelly, who often seems oblivious to Fine Gael sensitivities.

Any transfer pact only benefits candidates who are not eliminated. Michael McNamara (Clare), Ciara Conway (Waterford), along with several constituencies where Labour has no incumbent TD, seem set to provide Fine Gael with ballast to hold up struggling TDs. For Fine Gael, there are risks associated with cannibalisation of Labour. The smaller party might be left with eight TDs. The fallout could then involve Labour opting out of a potential government, preferring a time-out period on the opposition benches.

The other theatre of war will involve a battle to determine who dominates the left.

This has all the ingredients of a proper knock-down slug-fest. Labour must fight for every inch to protect its patch,

Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit and a gaggle of Independent socialists are all about to take their gloves off.

It's a major sub-plot of the campaign. In 2011, Labour got 19pc, with Sinn Féin on 10pc. There has been a complete role reversal now.

Sinn Féin finds itself on 19pc and Labour on 10pc, which amounts to a straight swing of 190,000 votes, or a dozen seats. The geography of this is blue-collar, working-class constituencies with high levels of unemployment and long lists for social housing.

In Cork North-Central, it's Kathleen Lynch (Lab) versus Mick Barry (AAA); Dublin South Central, Bríd Smith (PBP) and Eric Byrne; Dublin Bay North, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Lab) against Micheál Mac Donncha (SF); Dublin South-West, Pamela Kearns (Lab) and Sarah Holland (SF); Dublin Mid-West, Eoin O'Broin (SF) against Joanna Tuffy (Lab). The cumulative tally of socialist seats, including Social Democrats, is likely to be around 50 TDs. The mother of all turf wars beckons.

The last showdown centres on the traditional tension of localism versus the establishment.

You will hear the withering charge that: "Yez are all the same." It is the doom-laden doorstep refrain that denotes disillusionment with all the established parties.

Voting in an Independent deputy amounts to a firm rejection of the party whip system. It empowers your TD to act exclusively in the best interests of your constituency, irrespective of national issues.

It puts pork barrel, parish pump priorities above all else.

The possibility that Independents could hold the balance of power will only add to their lustre. It's the ultimate reflection of the citizen railing against town hall/centralised government.

Potentially, every four- and five-seat constituency could contain at least one Independent, based on their 20-25pc showing in the polls.

Channelling cynicism into community-based localism could derail the plans of the four biggest parties, fragmenting the traditional Dáil construct even further.

The permutations from these four entirely separate scenarios will determine the identity of the final marginal seats.

They're the fulcrum around which the fate of the 32nd Dáil will rotate.

Irish Independent

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