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Fionnán Sheahan: 'A November election, but will the whole country be going to vote?'



Canvassing: Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps ahead of the Dublin Mid-West by-election

Canvassing: Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps ahead of the Dublin Mid-West by-election

Canvassing: Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps ahead of the Dublin Mid-West by-election

When Michel Barnier has Brexit sorted out, he can come to suburbs of Dublin to intervene on the trees.

Britain's exit from the EU is not the most pressing issue on the doorsteps of Aylmer Road in Newcastle.

In quite a few houses around here, it's trees: too many, too few, the damage from roots to footpaths, sap falling on cars, leaves in the gutters.

It's not the only matter arising as Emer Higgins literally runs from door to door. The local councillor is the Fine Gael candidate in upcoming Dublin Mid-West by-election.

Pensions, parks, playgrounds and an extra water tap at the cemetery also feature.


Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps

Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps

Fine Gael by-election candidate Emer Higgins talking to voters on their doorsteps

"I said to myself: 'when I see Emer next time I'll say it to her'," a woman recalls.

When a man is asked how is he today, he replies good humouredly: "Terrible and yerself. I got nothing in the Budget on Tuesday."

Brexit is mentioned once as a resident is concerned about what's about to happen.

Ms Higgins deploys the Willie O'Dea-perfected tactic of having her team of canvassers knock on the doors so she can swoop in if someone answers. No wasted time for the candidate at an empty house.

For a Friday afternoon, there are plenty of pensioners and parents home as the canvassers cover the 200-odd houses on the road.

It's fertile ground for Ms Higgins. It's her council area, she's originally from the nearby village of Brittas and her younger brother, Ronan, plays for the local GAA team, St Finian's.

Beyond the trees, the truly big issues which come up repeatedly in the rapidly growing commuter belt constituency are public transport and housing developments.

A councillor for eight years, the 34-year-old works with the multinational electronic payments firm PayPal, as chief of staff for customer service operations.

Although she represents the Clondalkin Electoral Area on South Dublin County Council, she rents an apartment in Lucan so feels she has a sense of the issues affecting many young workers, such as security of tenure for tenants.

"I don't know of any female TD in the Dáil who is a renter and is bringing those issues to the table," she says.

There are four by-elections arising from the European elections: Dublin Mid-West, Dublin North, Wexford and Cork North-Central.


Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald

Ms Higgins represents Fine Gael's best chance of a victory as she bids to replace her mentor, former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

"This is the only one of the seats up for grabs that is Fine Gael's. It's really important I do very well in these elections, in particular in the context of the ever, ever changing-by-the-minute Brexit saga," she says.

"It's pressure for sure."

The main competition appears to be coming from Independent Paul Gogarty, the former Green TD.

Also in the race are another former TD, the Labour Party's Joanna Tuffy, Fianna Fáil's Shane Moynihan, Sinn Féin's Mark Ward, the Green Party's Peter Kavanagh, Social Democrats Anne-Marie McNally, People Before Profit's Kelly Sweeney and Independent Francis Timmons.

A by-election win is a big ask for a Government party. A party strategist says the aim is to ensure their candidates can win seats in a general election.

Ms Higgins leaflets say "Elect Emer to the Dáil". They don't specify if she means the by-election or general election.

Whether the by-elections will happen at all is now the subject of much speculation.

The gag going around Leinster House, emanating from a Cabinet minister, is that general election polling day will be November 31. It's a non-existent date, of course.

Yet a resolution to Brexit at the end of this month would open a window for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to go to the people - if he wants to.

Senior Fine Gael figures speak of a November election as "a natural sequence of events" if Brexit plays out with the backstop intact.

"A November election may become a necessity," a minister told Independent.IE.

Yet it's not a universal view.

"I don't see it this side of Christmas. There are just too many variables," another party figure says.


Paul Gogarty

Paul Gogarty

Paul Gogarty

Fine Gael's pitch to the public won't be any big surprise and the party has already been setting out its stall of statesmanship, stability and scare stories.

The performance of Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the Taoiseach on the Brexit negotiations is winning kudos from the public, even on the doorsteps of Dublin Mid-West.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe's boring Brexit Budget will be used to emphasise the importance of a stable administration in charge of a strong economy at a time of so many external threats, be it Brexit, Donald Trump's tariff wars or assaults on our corporation tax rate.

Beyond that Holy Trinity of Varadkar, Coveney and Donohoe though there isn't much for Fine Gael to crow about.

The international and economic agenda is working well, but the domestic issue report card shows little by way of achievement.

The quagmire of housing, the never-ending and never-delivering reforms in health and troubling patterns on crime have replaced water charges as reasons to question Fine Gael's fitness for office.

The party is already taking swipes at Fianna Fáil over the crash and its spending commitments.

The attacks on Micheál Martin's party abated this week as the Taoiseach turned his attention to Sinn Féin and the Green Party.

Fine Gael will fight a similar battle to Fianna Fáil in 2007, the last time a booming economy had clouds overhead.

The Fine Gael message is clear: you may not love us, but you have little option.

It's not exactly a compelling argument to vote for the party but it often proves effective for sitting governments.

Like the rest of the political system, Fine Gael isn't totally ready for road, but would get into gear pretty quickly.

The party has to make decisions on adding candidates in Cavan-Monaghan, Cork South-West, Waterford, Roscommon-Galway, Dublin Mid-West, Kerry and Donegal, although the latter is unlikely to ever be resolved.

The doubts over the line-ups in Dublin North and Clare will be left lie.

The ongoing 'how do you solve a problem like Maria' issue in Dún Laoghaire where Maria Bailey's woes are a ticking timebomb in an election campaign still remains.

Her compensation claim is firmly in the public psyche and there has been all sorts of talk about additions and subtractions from the party ticket in the constituency.

"We're betwixt and between. This is going to dog us during the campaign. There is no doubt something will happen to bring it all up again," a frustrated party insider says.

Moreover, the complacency of the last General Election in 2016 can't be repeated. Everyone in the party assumed they would be back in office and senior figures ran away from a floundering national campaign.

Failing to win extra seats or bring in running mates will mean the party simply won't be back in office this time.

"We know we're fighting for our political lives," a minister says.

"They are hungry for it this time," a party source says.

Irish Independent