Thursday 5 December 2019

John Downing: 'Dress rehearsal will give parties much to reflect on ahead of main event next year'

Fianna Fail Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Fianna Fail Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
John Downing

John Downing

The four by-election count results today will sharpen our view of the big tussle next year between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin for the keys of Government Buildings.

Mr Martin expects a good day out - Mr Varadkar is preparing to put the best gloss on a bad story. Those ballot boxes in Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West, Cork North-Central and Wexford will give us a very strong indicator of the national mood. The canvass revealed that all four constituencies share common problems: health, housing, crime, childcare, transport and traffic. Each brings its own special flavour of local issues.

For Dublin Mid-West, there is chronic traffic congestion on the edge of the M50. Dublin Fingal has concerns about Dublin Airport, both as a huge source of jobs and controversial plans for another runway.

Wexford brings a focus on the challenges facing mid-sized provincial towns along with a deal of the gloom currently surrounding the rural economy. The county also has the large port of Rosslare, which will be a key element for Ireland's efforts to keep in touch with our mainland European neighbours in a post-Brexit world.

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Cork North-Central is a unique mix of rural and urban, along with affluent and poor areas. It is about as far away as you can get from the metropolitan political bubble.

So while these by-elections also bring the usual huge welter of local personalities and issues, they also give us a huge slice of Irish social, political and economic life. By teatime this evening we will have a unique insight into the political mood of the nation less than half a year away from an expected general election.

By-elections often come in pairs for a variety of reasons. This quartet come in the wake of the European Parliament results last May which returned four TDs, the Independents4Change pair of Clare Daly in Dublin Fingal and Mick Wallace in Wexford; Fine Gael's Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West; and Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher in Cork North-Central.

Thanks to a 2010 High Court ruling, in a case brought by Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty, governments are now obliged to avoid their previous practice of delaying by-elections. On foot of the Doherty case, votes have to happen within six months of a Dáil vacancy occurring.

The four new TDs who emerge today know they will have to do it all again - very probably sometime soon after Easter of next year after an expected 40 Dáil sitting days at most. It is an expensive and daunting prospect - but that is politics.

Since we will know all later today, it is more worthwhile to reflect on the bigger picture after these votes. For many years now, all general elections have had a strong "presidential element", with much depending on how voters rate the leaders of the big parties.

The next election will have this in spades. Voters will be repeatedly asked to challenge who they trust most to take this country forward - the current incumbent who is part of a Government which has ruled since March 2011, or the leader of the opposition for all of that period.

Brace yourselves for the Varadkar versus Martin show.

For almost two years now, Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael have had a small but significant edge on Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin. But Martin is nothing if not persistent and his speciality is debunking opinion poll ratings.

Governments always find it difficult to win by-elections and Fine Gael went into these four contests believing realistically it was likely to win only one. That is in Dublin Mid-West.

In recent days, politicians at Leinster House have been quietly questioning the potential of even that happening.

The party has wheeled all its big names in recent days to try to save the day there, indicating a certain nervousness. We shall see - but already we know that Mr Varadkar will be concentrating on talking up vote shares in all constituencies and arguing they mean that in the "big election" seats will be won in all four.

Fianna Fáil strategists expect to win two of the four, and might even squeeze a third on an excellent day out. That would certainly allow Micheál Martin to seize the momentum back from Fine Gael and kick-start hopes of a win next year from this very day.

So, while we will ponder poor turnout and strange happenings in these various constituencies, we will also be looking upon these four counts as a kind of harbinger of political developments to come. Strategists from all parties and none believe they have much to learn from the overall trends and the transfer patterns.

Irish Independent

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