Opinion John Downing

Monday 29 August 2016

Labour has a lot more to lose in European poll than resurgent FF

Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30

Will Joan Burton be the next Labour leader?
Will Joan Burton be the next Labour leader?

Micheal Martin had better be very nice to Mary Fitzpatrick. His chances of continuing as Fianna Fail leader into the summer rest with her hopes of winning back a European Parliament seat in a little over six weeks' time on May 23.

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We could very well say the same about Eamon Gilmore's prospects of continuing as Labour leader and Emer Costello's chances of holding on to the Euro seat she was co-opted into in February 2012. Things are pretty febrile inside both parties right now.

The curious thing is that within Fianna Fail there is no real apparent alternative to Micheal Martin as leader. Yet in the middle of last week there were minor rumours that some within the parliamentary party were talking broadly about the need for leadership change.

The party seemed mired with a score in the early 20s in the opinion polls. For various reasons they got no bounce from their ard fheis in Killarney and more inexplicably no real dividend for 'sticking a few' on the Government over 'Shattergate'.

Then just after 9pm last Thursday, angels sang softly but sweetly for Martin. The RTE news brought results of the Ipsos MRBI survey which saw Fianna Fail up three points to 25pc.

That 25pc rating would only bring FF back to the 2009 local and European elections which at the time were seen as a reverse. But there are many within the party who argue that it would be enough – given that their February 2011 election calamity had them on 17pc – to allow Martin talk of another step in slowly rebuilding.

Their hope is that FF can gain seats in the local council elections. But they also very badly need a good result from the bigger 'headline' contest for the European Parliament. The hard work and diligence of sitting MEPs, Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher and Brian Crowley, may be enough.

But FF needs Dublin, and it needs more women. Eoin Ryan's loss of the Dublin seat in June 2009 was a body blow to the party. It was then reduced to just one Dail seat in the capital after the 2011 General Election. Mary Fitzpatrick's fate in this election is about more than just another seat – it is emblematic of the party's fate generally.

There is a similar story within Labour – only the situation is worse. They are down and down in the opinion polls – over half their record in February 2011. Party sources are quietly trying to modify their own supporters' and the general public's expectations for the upcoming election.

None of the trio elected in June 2009 is fielding in the party colours again this time. Emer Costello has replaced Proinsias De Rossa who retired; Nessa Childers has quit and switched constituencies to stand as an independent in Dublin; and Phil Prendergast in South has replaced Alan Kelly who returned to the Dail and a junior ministry. Newcomer Senator Lorraine Higgins will field in Midlands North West.

By now the quiet admission by some in Labour is that realistically Emer Costello has the best chance in a very difficult battle ahead. Ms Costello, a former lord mayor and inner-city campaigner, has much to do to spread recognition throughout the suburbs.

Unlike Fianna Fail, Labour is expecting a kicking on May 23. Also unlike Fianna Fail, it appears to have a ready-made replacement for Eamon Gilmore as leader. The more Joan Burton brushes the idea aside the more people think she would be the one.

This may well be why we can expect Enda Kenny to finally reshuffle his Cabinet very soon after these mid-term elections. It would also coincide with him naming Ireland's next European Commissioner – whom everyone still expects to be Environment Minister Phil Hogan.

There was a mischievous old canard doing the rounds at Leinster House last week that Justice Minister Alan Shatter could be the one for Europe. And, while it would not be the first time Brussels was used to fix domestic problems, we think not.

But back with Labour, the idea of Gilmore abandoning the foreign affairs beat come this summer looks increasingly likely. Latest speculation centres on him replacing Brendan Howlin as Public Expenditure Minister. It takes in the assumption that there will have to be a loosening of the public purse strings in the run-up to the general election in spring 2016 and Gilmore could cadge a bit of glory.

But in the meantime, a win for the party and Emer Costello would be a big help to the beleaguered Labour leader.

Irish Independent

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