News Comment

Thursday 2 October 2014

Andrew Lynch: Enda goes ‘all in’ hoping a double bluff will pay off

Published 25/04/2014 | 15:52

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD during the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, Co Meath. Picture Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD during the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, Co Meath. Picture Collins

Enda Kenny obviously likes a gamble.

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The Taoiseach is reportedly about to roll the dice by holding two Dail by-elections on the same day – the day of the local and European contests in four weeks’ time.

This will officially turn May 23 into a Super Friday poll – but it also increases the risk of a Miserable Monday for the government when all the votes are counted.

Kenny’s logic is clear. He believes that Fine Gael has a decent chance of winning at least one of these by-elections, which would put a better gloss on the party’s overall performance.

The Taoiseach had better be right – because otherwise his colleagues will blame him for not waiting until the government had come out of its current opinion poll slump.

The two by-elections are happening for completely different reasons. In Longford-Westmeath, a vacancy has been created by the death of FG TD Nicky McFadden from motor neurone disease.

In Dublin West, Independent TD Patrick Nulty was forced to resign after the discovery that he had been sending inappropriate messages to women through Facebook.

Longford-Westmeath is where Kenny sees his biggest opportunity. FG are almost certain to run McFadden’s sister Gabrielle, the current Mayor of Athlone, who can reasonably expect a big sympathy vote.

Her main competition could come from Fianna Fail, with councillor Aengus O’Rourke (son of former minister Mary) being touted as a possible candidate.

She might start a favourite, but FG would be unwise to see McFadden as a shoo-in.

FF tried something similar on the day of the last local elections in 2009, running Shay Brennan in a by-election caused by his father Seamus’s death – but the government was so unpopular that he never stood a chance.

Dublin West is even harder to call. The FG contender may well be Senator Eamonn Coghlan, a former 5,000m world champion. However, Coghlan has never run a political race in his life and it will take more than star power to get him over the line.

 Instead, the early favourites here are Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party and FF’s David McGuinness. Coppinger is a local councillor with a high profile thanks to her campaigns against property and water taxes. McGuinness came a strong second to Patrick Nulty at the last by-election in 2011.

These local skirmishes should also provide some insights into the shape of national politics.

One important subplot at present is the ongoing contest between Labour and Sinn Fein for Ireland’s left-wing. The Shinners are confident of polling well, while it would be a minor miracle if Eamon Gilmore’s party came even close to a seat.

Meanwhile, FF will be desperate to win Dublin West – if only to disprove Bertie Ahern’s recent claim that they are doing “fairly brutal” in the capital.

Whatever the results, Longford-Westmeath and Dublin West are unlikely to be the only by-elections we see in 2014. Enda Kenny will soon appoint a cabinet minister as Ireland’s next EU Commissioner (probably Phil Hogan), while TDs Brian Hayes, Simon Harris and Luke Ming Flanagan all have at least a sporting chance of being elected MEPs on May 23.

This is another reason for the Taoiseach to get two by-elections out of the way now, because he does not want to hold six in the autumn and potentially lose every one.

In at least one respect, however, Kenny’s timing is lousy. Election season has kicked off just as the government is tearing itself apart over water charges, with FG and Labour ministers now openly at odds.

This week has been yet a shambles, as Phil Hogan promised that the outstanding issues would be resolved “within the next 10 days” and Eamon Gilmore retorted Labour “won’t be bound by any timetable.”

Enda Kenny is about to raise the stakes for May 23. After that, we should find out just how strong or weak the Taoiseach’s hand really is.

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