Thursday 23 January 2020

General Election 2020: Campaigns kick off as parties scramble to shore up support

FG pins hopes on ministers as FF focuses on need for change

Sealed with handshake: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin to dissolve the Dáil. Photo: Mark Condren
Sealed with handshake: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin to dissolve the Dáil. Photo: Mark Condren

Philip Ryan, Fionnán Sheahan and Hugh O'Connell

Fine Gael is planning a three-pronged campaign which will see the party's key players separately seek to shore up support ahead of polling day on Saturday, February 8.

It will be the first time an election has been held in Ireland on a Saturday since 1918 - with Fine Gael hoping the weekend vote will help more working families and students favourable to the party to get to the polls.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanáiste Simon Coveney will embark on separate nationwide tours while Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will be based in the party's headquarters in Dublin.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney will both campaign separately with election candidates while Mr Donohoe, who is the party's director of elections, will hold daily briefings on the key issues.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin will launch a similar ground offensive, relying less on staged events in favour of meeting as many voters as possible.

The opposition leader, who believes the main parties are "neck and neck", will push the message that the country needs change after nine years of Fine Gael government.

However, Fine Gael is eager to highlight its ministerial team during the campaign, and a party source said Health Minister Simon Harris and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy will be "out front and centre" defending their records. "We will be very much taking on housing and health and Simon and Eoghan will be important figures," the source said.

Fine Gael is also expected to target Border communities over the next three and half weeks to highlight its performance on Brexit.

The party's campaign launch is being held today in a forklift factory in Co Monaghan.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach said he called the election for February 8 because he wanted a new government in place for a crucial European Council Summit on Brexit on March 26.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil will launch a major ground offensive focusing on party leader Micheál Martin meeting voters during daily canvasses with teams of candidates.

Last night, he was canvassing with the party's Dublin North West candidate Paul McAuliffe in Finglas.

Fianna Fáil's core message will be that the country wants change and it will criticise Fine Gael for making long-term promises about fixing the health service and the housing sector in the distant future. A Fianna Fáil source said Fine Gael's election slogan, "a future to look forward to", was an example of its criticisms of the party.

"The slogan that they pulled out demonstrates the key point we are making that they are always talking about things happening in the future," the source said. "People want things fixed now."

Sinn Féin and the Labour Party are set to make the retirement age an election issue.

Mary Lou McDonald will promise to reduce the retirement age from 66 to 65, while Brendan Howlin said he will stop it increasing to 67 next year if in government.

However, the two main parties will seek to squeeze the smaller parties out of the campaign and force voters to choose between Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil on election day.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Martin said he believed the two parties were "neck and neck" in terms of public support.

Mr Martin said there were "a lot of competitive electoral battles in the different constituencies" which will determine the outcome of the election.

Fine Gael sources said they expected the two parties to win up to 60pc of the overall vote once the ballots are counted.

The Fianna Fáil leader also said he would "love" a head-to-head debate with Mr Varadkar.

TDs from all parties are expected to face-off on a series of debates on RTÉ's 'Prime Time', which will focus on their portfolios.

The first debate is due to take place on Thursday and it will see Mr Donohoe take on the other party finance spokespersons on the economy.

Mr Varadkar confirmed the date of the election at the end of yesterday's Cabinet meeting. He told ministers if he was re-elected to power, he would first talk to Independent TDs who "had the courage to go into government" with Fine Gael in 2016.

It means Mr Varadkar would be likely to ask Transport Minister Shane Ross and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone to rejoin Fine Gael in government if they are re-elected.

Ms Zappone said she "would be happy to talk to anyone who wishes to speak with me", while Mr Ross expressed a desire to progress new legislation to overhaul how judges are appointed which failed to become law before the Dáil was dissolved.

After he informed the Cabinet, the Taoiseach called Mr Martin to inform him of the election date. Mr Varadkar then travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin to officially seek President Michael D Higgins's permission to dissolve the Dáil

The election writ will be signed in the coming days and the election campaign will then have legally commenced.

Candidates will have seven days to put their names forward for election after it has been signed.

Parties were last night still putting final touches to their election tickets with a number of new candidates expected in the coming days.

There has also been a wave of retirements of senior political figures, which means the landscape in several key constituencies has dramatically changed ahead of polling.

Irish Independent

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