Tuesday 25 June 2019

John Downing: 'Our party leaders have a huge amount at stake in these elections - not least their own personal futures'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

What comes out of those ballot boxes in the count centres across the country next Saturday will shape the futures of Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald, and quite a few others. So, watch for a rise in campaign tone and tempo from today.

Many prospective voters have struggled to contain their apathy thus far about these council and European elections ahead of polling on Friday.

But for our political leaders, it is big stuff. For Leo Varadkar, it is his first test at the hands of the voters at a time when opinion polling is telling him the extended honeymoon, since he took over just 23 months ago, is very definitely over.

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The Taoiseach is on a dangerous corner. A bad result on Friday could really hurt into the longer term.

Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil needs to maintain impetus and show progress, especially in Dublin despite the constraints of 'propping up' a minority coalition led by its arch-rival Fine Gael. A general election is a maximum of 12 months away - the doubts persist about his becoming the only party leader never to have been Taoiseach.

Mary Lou McDonald's Sinn Féin is stuck in the polls, and had a dreadful experience in her first electoral outing as leader in last October's presidential election. The expected move to a post-conflict leadership, making the party more attractive to middle-class and women voters, just has not happened. A bad day out on Friday could raise questions about her leadership.

And while we're at it, Labour's Brendan Howlin will recall the speed with which one of his predecessors exited the leadership after huge losses in these very elections five years ago. No prizes for guessing what Alan Kelly will do if Labour candidates are disappointed in numbers this week.

Fine Gael began these campaigns in a very ebullient mood. On Friday, May 3, launching its local and European Parliament campaigns in Moate, Co Westmeath, its local campaign director, John Paul Phelan, said Fine Gael aimed to be the first party of government to increase its presence in the councils.

It has long been accepted as a given that the party in power suffers losses in the locals as a kind of kickback from voters. The Carlow-Kilkenny TD said it was targeting going from 230 councillors on a bad day in May 2014 up to 280 on Friday.

He said these ambitious targets were realisable. We shall see on Saturday.

It is true that the party is blessed with a stellar group of outgoing MEPs and new candidates who are campaigning well and showing well in the opinion polls. Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin, Mairead McGuinness in Midlands-North-West, and Seán Kelly in South are all set to win. There is also every chance that either Deirdre Clune or Andrew Doyle will take a seat in the South.

For the outgoing contestants, it is based on a huge volume of hard work over the past five years. McGuinness and Kelly have impressed in Brussels on a number of issues and were seen as huge advocates for Ireland's case over Brexit. McGuinness especially, as senior parliament vice-president, is Ireland's best known MEP who can hold her own in any debate.

But think 'broadband and beef' when it comes to the locals. In the past two weeks, Fine Gael has sought to address the legend, much of it put about by Fianna Fáil, that it has no great commitment to areas beyond the Pale.

Two weeks ago, the party unveiled its €3bn plan to bring broadband to every home and business still waiting for what is an essential service. Last week EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan signalled a €50m beef support package which Agriculture Minister Michael Creed indicated will be matched by another €50m in national money.

When you drill down into recent survey data, you find that the flat-lining in Fine Gael support is in part due to farmers losing faith in the party. It is clear that stricken beef farmers feel more could have been done for them amid all the Brexit market turmoil. So these two packages are a tacit admission that Fine Gael must try harder in the country.

Fianna Fáil is clearly hoping that in an ideal world, rural voters will not believe Fine Gael on broadband. Martin's party will also hope that older urban voters will see the broadband announcement as an abrogation of Fine Gael's fiscal probity.

But that may be a bit too much of a stretch at a time of almost full prosperity when there is a great deal of contentment across the land. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin know they have a difficult row to hoe when it comes to rural broadband.

Criticisms of Fine Gael on the issue of broadband can also amount to telling country voters that they must continue to wait even while the internet infiltrates every aspect of daily life in education, health, agriculture and other things.

Fianna Fáil is facing its first electoral test since it opted to support this hybrid minority Fine Gael-led Coalition in May 2016. After its general election meltdown in February 2011, its performance in the last locals in 2014 was hailed as an achievement, making it the largest party in local government.

Martin needs to maintain momentum to silence internal critics unhappy with propping up Fine Gael. In 2014, the party's European Parliament performance was poor, returning only Brian Crowley in South - and he promptly parted company with it.

On that front the indicators are good, with Barry Andrews tipped to win back a seat in Dublin, which the party last held in 2009. In South, Billy Kelleher will win and Malcolm Byrne has a fighting chance of also coming home.

Midlands-North-West risks seeing a repeat of the 2014 debacle where two Fianna Fáil candidates dragged each other down. You will see a huge commitment of resources to former agriculture minister Brendan Smith in these final days in an effort to redress that and avoid a repeat.

In the 2014 locals, Fianna Fáil picked up some future stars like Fiona O'Loughlin in Kildare South and James Lawless in Kildare North. They will hope for some more people to emerge in Saturday's counts, bringing them to 50-plus TDs in the next general election and raising hopes that Martin will become Taoiseach after all. They need fresh faces for the road ahead.

Back with Sinn Féin, while Gerry Adams never had to worry about a leadership challenge over his 35 years at the helm, if this election is a bad day for them, the same will not be said for Mary Lou McDonald. Their presidential election amounted to a shambles last year and she badly needs a good result this week.

Irish Independent

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