Friday 28 October 2016

So much has changed in such a short space of time - and it's all to play for

A dire Fine Gael campaign and a surprise performance by Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin has left this election difficult to call, writes Shane Coleman

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

TIME FOR TALKING IS OVER: The leaders’ debate is done and dusted so will Gerry Adams, Micheal Martin, Enda Kenny or Joan Burton sink or swim when the nation decides on Friday
TIME FOR TALKING IS OVER: The leaders’ debate is done and dusted so will Gerry Adams, Micheal Martin, Enda Kenny or Joan Burton sink or swim when the nation decides on Friday

Perhaps we should all heed the advice of legendary baseball sage, Casey Stengel, who famously cautioned: "Never make predictions, especially about the future."

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Calling the outcome of this General Election is almost impossible. The PR-STV electoral system makes it tricky at the best of times. But throw in a hugely fragmented electorate, and an election campaign that hasn't gone the way anybody believed it would, and General Election 2016 is in a different league altogether.

You'd probably have a better chance discovering the secrets of black holes than predicting the final seats in the likes of Dublin Bay North and Sligo-Leitrim.

Two weeks ago, I made predictions on these pages for all 40 constituencies and came up with the following national tally: FG 60 seats, FF 36, SF21, Labour 12, Social Democrats 3, Renua 2, AAA-PBP 3, Greens one and Independents 20.

But that was then and this is now. A lot has changed in the past two weeks. The dire Fine Gael campaign - complacent, jaded and out of touch - could not have been anticipated.

The view was that Fine Gael's 'Keep the Recovery Going' and 'Chaos v Stability' messages would ultimately gain traction with the electorate. Basically, when push came to shove, enough voters would opt for the devil they knew. Just five days out from polling, there's no sign of that happening.

If anything, the Fine Gael campaign looks like it's going backwards. For all the focus groups, it appears the party has spectacularly misjudged the public mood - a majority of people haven't felt the 'recovery' and seem irritated at the suggestion they have. Enda Kenny, meanwhile, looks tired and stilted.

Labour just looks shell shocked.

It's not that the party is having a particularly bad campaign, it just isn't figuring. There is a nagging feeling that just like in 1977, when a Fine Gael and Labour coalition was decimated, the public has made their mind up they want shot of them.

Sinn Fein is also having a bad campaign. Gerry Adams's performance on Sean O'Rourke's show last Thursday was surely the worst ever given by a leader in a general election campaign. But, such is the level of disenchantment with the political establishment among sections of the electorate, it probably won't matter.

Then there is Micheal Martin, the surprise package of this election and now by some distance the most popular leader. It's no surprise Martin has proven to be the best debater and TV performer of the party leaders. But his election strategy - ruling out being a junior partner for Fine Gael - was widely dismissed by commentators. It would leave Fianna Fail looking irrelevant. It hasn't worked out that way.

Fianna Fail's campaign hasn't been perfect but it's been a good deal better than any of the other big parties. At just four percentage points behind Fine Gael in today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, whatever momentum is in this campaign looks to be with Fianna Fail. And, especially in the final days, momentum is everything.

At 27pc, many Fine Gael TDs will be nervously looking over their shoulders. That level of support got the party 51 seats in 2007. But it was a bigger Dail and Fine Gael was far more transfer-friendly then.

The competition now is far more intense. Support for Independents and the smaller parties, contrary to predictions, is so far staying rock solid. They're in contention for seats in virtually all of the 40 constituencies. Fianna Fail, heading towards the mid-20s, is also now eyeing up second seats in the likes of Offaly, Kildare South, Wexford, Donegal and, at a push, Mayo to add to Cork South-Central and Carlow-Kilkenny.

For Fine Gael, talk of pushing close to 70 seats has vanished. This is damage-limitation time. There was a reason, for example, why Enda Kenny visited Bailieborough in Co Cavan in recent days. Joe Reilly's seat is now in serious jeopardy. Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will all take a seat in Cavan-Monaghan but the latter two are now seriously in the mix for Reilly's seat, with Sinn Fein possibly having the edge.

In Clare, Fine Gael's second seat is also vulnerable. Independent Michael Harty looks likely to join Fianna Fail's Timmy Dooley and one of the two Fine Gael TDs. But the feeling locally is Fine Gael might be edged out for the final seat, possibly by Labour's Michael McNamara. Fine Gael's figures for Munster in this poll are particularly worrying, with the party lagging behind both Fianna Fail and Independents/others. On that basis, it's very hard to see the government parties holding three of the four seats in Cork East - Fine Gael might also lose out here.

By the same reasoning, unless its support picks up, the party may not hold two out of three seats in Cork North-West. The mood towards Independents suggests John Paul O'Shea should now be the favourite for the third seat. The same goes for Cork South West, where the split looks likely to be 1 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fail and 1 Independent. And indeed for Limerick County, where one of two Independents Emmett O'Brien or Richard O'Donoghue could deprive Fine Gael of a second seat.

If Fianna Fáil is ahead in Munster then Mary Butler has real designs on Paudie Coffey's seat in Waterford in a battle of two Portlaw candidates. In Kerry, it might be down to a battle between Fine Gael's Brendan Griffin and Danny Healy-Rae. All these had looked likely holds for Fine Gael two weeks ago - less so now.

Dublin, where the recovery has been most obvious, is one of two areas (the other being Connaught-Ulster) where Fine Gael still holds a strong lead over Fianna Fail. But it is far from guaranteed to hold its second seats in the likes of Dublin Fingal, Mid-West and Rathdown.

If the wind is against Fine Gael, taking three out of four seats in Dun Laoghaire looks too big an ask - the balance may have swung in favour of Mary Hanafin. In Dublin North-West, Fine Gael's hopes of winning a seat there for the first time since 1992 depend on a strong campaign finish. Two weeks ago, it looked like Noel Rock, now it's anybody's guess.

At just 6pc for Labour, there are few if any safe seats for the party, even in Dublin. On those figures, Joan Burton won't make it in Dublin West. Nor would Aodhan O Riordain in Dublin Bay North. And the party might now draw a blank in North West, Mid-West, South-Central and South-West, all places the party won two seats in 2011. Despite Fine Gael's relatively strong numbers in Connaught-Ulster in today's poll, the party remains under pressure to hold its second seats in both Galway East and West. It's in a dog fight to win a second seat in Sligo-Leitrim with Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and an Independent.

Roscommon-Galway was a banker for Fine Gael a couple of weeks back but Shane Curran's entry into the field for Fianna Fail means it's no longer a dead cert.

With the party struggling behind Fianna Fail in the 'rest of Leinster', the Taoiseach's visit to Meath East last week has taken on added significance. Sinn Fein's Darren O'Rourke is a real threat here although it would still be a surprise if the Fine Gael ticket of Helen McEntee and Regina Doherty doesn't hold on.

On a bad day for Fine Gael, its second seat in Wicklow could be in jeopardy. Two seats in Louth currently looks beyond the party with Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail both likely to make gains there and Labour's Ged Nash set to hold on.

In Kildare South, with the Labour seat looking vulnerable, it had been expected that Fine Gael would make a gain. But, based on today's poll, Fianna Fail will fancy its chances of taking a second seat.

That final seat, like so many across the 40 constituencies, is almost impossible to call. But we can make a reasonable guesstimate of the 32nd Dail based on the figures in today's poll.

At 27pc, Fine Gael will be doing well to get to 50/51 seats. A return of 23pc would leave Fianna Fail close to the 40-mark, assuming it gets the transfers that today's poll suggests. Suddenly, the gap between the two parties doesn't look so wide - revolving Taoiseach anyone?

On these numbers, Labour won't make double figures. Sinn Fein looks poised to gain at least 10 seats and hit the mid-20s, leaving a considerable haul of 35 seats for smaller parties and Independents - it may even end up higher.

The caveat? There's still five days of campaigning to go. It's really all to play for.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

Sunday Independent

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