Monday 16 September 2019

The pretence is over: FG and Labour approach election with daggers drawn

Labour leader Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny outside Leinster House last week. Photo: Arthur Carron
Labour leader Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny outside Leinster House last week. Photo: Arthur Carron
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

It's time to end the pretence. As the Coalition parties tick the final boxes in their election preparations, the real, untold story of the campaign will be apparent. Behind the forced facade of a joint mandate to continue in office, Fine Gael and Labour are in cut-throat competition in 28 of 40 constituencies.

Divisions run deep. Pro-Government support pledges will dissolve as the constituency competitors go at it. Simply put, it will be a scramble for survival as each TD seeks to salvage their own precious seat.

Let's start with the mission impossibles. In 2011, Fine Gael and Labour won all seats in Dublin South East, Dublin Mid-West and Meath East. But 100pc government representation is simply unsustainable.

Despite the retirements of Ruairi Quinn and Robert Dowds, plus the expulsion of Lucinda Creighton, it's inevitable that either Joanna Tuffy, or Fine Gael's Derek Keating (or both) will make way for Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin. Either Labour's Dominic Hannigan, or Fine Gael's Helen McEntee or Regina Doherty, must lose (to Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne). Even the best-case scenarios pit current colleagues against each other in a fight to the death.

One has to go quite far back to find a time when failure was the potential fate of so many and where government parties obtained all but one seat in constituencies.

But five-seat disaster zones this time out include Carlow/Kilkenny, Wicklow, Galway West, Wexford, Dublin South and Cork South Central - three are especially problematic, with redrawn boundaries.

Phil Hogan's former seat wasn't retained in the by-election. Fine Gael's plan is to hold two TDs; Labour's Ann Phelan may have to be eliminated to achieve this.

For both Fine Gael's Simon Harris and Andrew Doyle to survive, Labour's Anne Ferris will have to be defeated. Alternatively, if Labour holds its seat, Fine Gael will provide ballast.

The late withdrawal of Liam Twomey in Wexford enhances the prospects for Brendan Howlin's re-election, but it also jeopardises Fine Gael's two seats.

Cork South Central loses a seat, and is now a four-seater; unless Micheál Martin goes under a bus (unlikely), there's a humdinger of a dogfight pending between Labour's Ciaran Lynch and Fine Gael's Jerry Buttimer - both could lose.

Galway's battlefield sees Derek Nolan square off against Fine Gael's trio of John O'Mahony (a Mayo evacuee), Seán Kyne and Hildegarde Naughton. Amongst the four-seaters, the mayhem is worse, if anything.

Campaign strategies based on a presumption of support from erstwhile bedfellows are based on delusions. You can't really cooperate meaningfully when everything hinges on the premise of defeat for one of your colleagues.

Deliverance exacts a price. Thus in Waterford, Fine Gael's John Deasy and Paudie Coffey (50pc of seats, less than 40pc of votes) surviving presumes Ciara Conway's elimination. In Clare, where there is an identical scenario, just substitute Joe Carey, Pat Breen and Labour's Michael McNamara. Vice versa for the Labour TD to defy the odds.

Constituencies completely reconfigured by boundary changes and/or personnel departures will also lead to some fierce combat. Dublin South/Dublin South-West previously had nine seats but has now been reduced to eight, creating Dublin Rathdown. Communications Minister Alex White faces an almighty uphill battle in the face of Fine Gael's stated ambition of retaining two out of three seats. The absence of Pat Rabbitte and Brian Hayes leaves both parties depending on newbies to repel socialists and Shinners.

An utter bloodbath for both Fine Gael and Labour awaits if Independent dark horses like Senator Katherine Zappone break through.

Added constituencies will probably signal severe seat haemorrhaging - if local election results are any indication.

In Cork East for Fine Gael to retain David Stanton and Tom Barry, the considerable figure of Sean Sherlock - who is likely to keep his seat - looms like a rock in the road. In a unified County Tipperary constituency, the Environment Minister and Labour deputy leader, Alan Kelly, won't hesitate to unseat either Tom Hayes or Noel Coonan - as six TDs scramble for five seats.

Meanwhile, in Limerick city, the Education Minister, Jan O'Sullivan, may require the elimination of the Fine Gael backbencher Kieran O'Donnell, given the strong position of Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

In Louth, Junior Minister Ged Nash has already taken aim at what some see as Fine Gael's perceived private sector bias as he dispatches press releases. His sights are more probably trained on Peter Fitzpatrick or Fergus O'Dowd.

In Kildare North, for Emmet Stagg to remain as a TD, either Bernard Durkan or Anthony Lawlor will have to be, politically, a dead man walking.

In Longford/Westmeath, where the inevitable re-election of Willie Penrose places either Fine Gael's James Bannon or Gabrielle McFadden in extreme jeopardy. Dublin South Central could see Fine Gael's Catherine Byrne and veteran Eric Byrne (ex Democratic Left) fight out the last seat between them. And Eamon Gilmore's Dún Laoghaire Labour seat can't be held if Mary Mitchell O'Connor is to re-join Sean Barrett in the next Dáil.

A few constituencies do suggest the prospect of compatible coexistence. The Leo Varadkar and Joan Burton show in Dublin West should be a hoot. She may require some of the health minister's surplus transfers to repel left-wing opponents. Both can hold two seats out of four, but it's not guaranteed. In Kildare South, Jack Wall's son, Mark, could survive alongside Fine Gael's Martin Heydon, but it could be squeaky bum time for either.

Both ministers for state Dara Murphy and the feisty Kathleen Lynch could survive, but it's more probable that one will bite the bullet. Richard Bruton's campaign may have put paid to Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in a revised five-seat Dublin Bay North (six incumbent TDs).

Senior strategists in both parties are privately briefing about how they'll win at the other's expense, which makes for quite a spectacle for veteran cynics. The dog-eat-dog dynamics can only lead to an outbreak of open hostilities early in New Year.

This will intensify as the polls confirm Labour's vulnerability and Fine Gael's consolidation.

Locally, credit for projects delivered will be claimed as personal rather than collective victories. Solo runs will eclipse team tactics.

Our electoral system of multi-seat proportional representation transforms party colleagues into sworn enemies on the hustings.

Joan Burton has already branded Fine Gael's minimum income plans as "corporate welfare".

For its part, Fine Gael aims to attract disaffected former Labour supporters.

One way or another, skin and hair will fly. Talk of a joint platform is a joke, as 115 seats will come down to 65 survivors.

Irish Independent

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