John Downing: 'It's the most important Euro election since we joined the EU - with big and intriguing face-offs'
It is just 31 days away, counting from today. And already there is no shortage of talking points as the campaign finally opens up with some big personality contests looming into view.
Can Independent firebrand Clare Daly mount a strong enough campaign to challenge the Sinn Féin incumbent Lynn Boylan in Dublin?
Will the arrival of maverick Peter Casey in Midlands North-West upset the hopes of the sitting maverick Luke Ming Flanagan?
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Does the Fianna Fáil ticket of Billy Kelleher and Malcolm Byrne have the oomph to get their party's vote out in numbers in the South, where there is a very crowded field?
Alright, we are talking about the European Parliament elections which are not often seen as something to enthuse the citizens. But this, our ninth contest since the first direct elections in 1979, comes at a pivotal time for Ireland amid the continuing threat of Brexit.
Voters would do well to give some attention to this election, combined with the local council elections, to be held on Friday, May 24. The calibre of people we send to Brussels and Strasbourg can affect our standard of living.
Granted, there are many odd things about these elections.
The first one to demand a recount should be shot dead on sight. As it is, vote counting in these European Parliament elections next month will go on and on and on, because there are a total of 59 candidates: 23 in Ireland South, 19 in Dublin, and 17 in Midlands North-West. And they are vying for 11, or maybe eventually 13 seats.
The Euro constituencies are more than a little on the crazy side. Dublin city and county occupies little more than 1pc of the State's territory. Ireland South, comprising Munster and six Leinster counties, Carlow, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford, takes up more than half of the State. Midlands North-West is getting on for half the national territory, with Connacht, the three Ulster counties in the Republic, and Kildare, Meath, Louth, Longford and Westmeath from Leinster.
The junior minister directly responsible, John Paul Phelan, has conceded that there was a case for having just one national Euro constituency as happens in other member states. But he said Ireland had no tradition of this.
In fairness we probably do have some traditional examples of strange combinations of territory to make electoral areas. But we have had nothing like people in Dundalk and Clifden sharing the Midlands North-West constituency, and people in Valentia Island, off West Kerry, and Bray, on the cusp of Dublin, being lumbered into the so-called South constituency.
Yet that is how things are. The boundary fixers have argued that they had few options in the circumstances.
Many of you will already know the "Brexit twist" whereby we're not entirely sure Ireland will get the two extra re-allocated UK seats, due to Britain's delayed EU departure. It is more likely Ireland will return a total of 11 on polling day, with the last home in Dublin and South being left on the subs bench, hoping to take up their Euro seats whenever the UK extricates itself.
Will the subs get paid? Will they get allowances? Could they be observers? All that is yet to be decided by the European Parliament.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave the election organisers a scare on a visit to Midleton last week when he suggested there may have to be two separate counts, in Dublin and South, to take account of the Brexit factor. There is a certain logic behind this zany suggestion because the quota is largely determined by the number of seats on offer.
But the word from the home of the "election police" at the Customs House was swift. "There will be just one count - there is legal provision for this," came the swift reply to our query.
But for all its strangeness, this European election in the shadow of Brexit is of huge importance to Ireland. More than at any other time, Ireland needs the best team of MEPs to maximise its EU influence.
These elections are also crucial for all the main parties. Fine Gael needs to keep its current four seats and has fielded a very strong team, including Frances Fitzgerald, in Dublin, who is joined by former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who is, we could say, "guesting" from his Derry fastness.
In the South, the outgoing duo of Seán Kelly and Deirdre Clune are joined by Junior Farm Minister Andrew Doyle, who is trying to stretch the Kerry/Cork pair's appeal eastwards. In four-seat Midlands North-West the standard bearer will be European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness, who is joined on the Fine Gael ticket by former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh.
It's a very solid candidate line-up for Fine Gael, but it faces a hard campaign. Fianna Fáil badly needs to re-establish European presence, and also has good contenders in Barry Andrews in Dublin, Billy Kelleher and Malcolm Byrne in South, along with former agriculture minister Brendan Smith and Anne Rabbitte in Midlands North-West.
Sinn Féin got a jolt in the presidential elections last autumn and is stalled in opinion polls.
A plethora of left-leaning candidates will challenge its outgoing trio of Liadh Ní Riada, Matt Carthy and Lynn Boylan. Labour, fielding Shiela Nunan, Dominic Hannigan and Alex White, is fighting for its existence.
Dublin has rightly been dubbed the "group of death" with three ex-ministers, a former junior minister, a sitting MEP, the President's daughter and a well-known TD. All of these are fighting for just three or eventually four seats.
The late entry of Independent Clare Daly will narrow things for the "left or alternative seat" there. Sinn Féin is looking for ways to strengthen the individual identity of its incumbent Lynn Boylan here.
Clare Daly does appear better fixed than her Independents4Change colleague Mick Wallace, standing in South. Many newcomers and non-party contestants will struggle for recognition against more high-profile contenders, including outgoing MEP Luke Ming Flanagan, and Peter Casey, who surprised with almost a quarter of the vote in last October's presidential election.
Of all of these, perhaps the "Casey versus Ming" Midlands North-West face-off may be the most intriguing of contests. Doubtless, they'll keep us posted.
The Dublin representative office of the European Parliament is mounting a campaign to try to stimulate turnout. Interesting to note that, while Irish turnout could be better, on 52pc last time in 2014 it was well above the EU average of 43pc.
There is concern about low turnout in the younger ages who say they identify most with Europe. In 2014 turnout in the 18-24 age group was only 22pc.