Friday 17 January 2020

Mary O'Rourke: 'Let the jousting begin as it's all to play for at polls'

As we head into 2020, the political landscape is vast and the outcome unknown, writes Mary O'Rourke

Well, the season of goodwill has passed. I'm sure for many of the readers there were lots of conversations in their homes over the Christmas days.

I had great conversations, and what truly struck me was that while I am a political nerd, and I know a few more political nerds, the general population is quite immune to infatuation with the political system.

All they know is that there are letters and emails flying between Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar. As one person said to me over Christmas: "Why don't they just talk, why are they sending correspondence to one another? It sounds a bit daft." Yes, of course, to the ordinary citizen, it does appear daft, but we are now in 2020 and there is no doubt there is going to be a general election. Whether it's going to be in February, March, April or May remains the outcome of the upcoming conversation between Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin.

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Prior to Christmas, there was a poll which showed the two parties equal, and I am firmly of that opinion. But the recent by-elections occasioned by European vacancies have shown us one important part of the electoral system. It appears that when you look at those results, the party that received more in preferences when somebody was going out was Fianna Fail. They remained the favourite in those election jousts, not just in number ones but in preferences too.

In the election system which we have, this is very good news, because of course the preferences in so many cases mean the winning or losing of a seat.

Both parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, seem to have their ducks in a row, in that they have been quietly arranging their final candidates up and down the country for the general election, and both parties appear ready for the fray in that regard.

Micheal Martin
Micheal Martin

Apart from the preference advantage, there is also the fact that there are up to 10 vacancies on the Fine Gael side. That is retirees such as Michael Noonan, Enda Kenny and others, some who have left the party and become Independent, some who have had misadventures accorded to them, and so it goes.

Now, when we talked this over, we decided this was a very real disadvantage for Fine Gael. Incumbency in a seat brings with it an added voter appeal. Of course, if you carry this to its logical conclusion, the incumbent in the Irish political scene at the moment is Fine Gael, so that one advantage squares off the other, so to speak.

But above everything else, there is the unknown. Which party will fight the better campaign? Which party is better in the field? Evidence dating from the last election in 2016 is that Fianna Fail performed far better in the field than had been anticipated, and far better than had been indicated in the polls going into it. They somehow managed, in all of the election outings in the various constituencies, to do that bit better than had been forecast, and in the end that meant a much better return in seats gained than had been at all anticipated. Now, will this hold true for the forthcoming election? That remains to be seen.

So we have Leo Varadkar fresh from his Christmas Day swim, his visit to the Leopardstown Races and his week-long holiday in India. He will be buoyed up and freshened by all of that.

We have Micheal Martin, himself buoyed up and freshened by his line-up of candidates for the general election, whenever it comes, and imbued with a quiet spirit of determination that this is Fianna Fail's chance to make a breakthrough after eight years of Fine Gael. The commentators are saying that the electorate is fed up with the Confidence and Supply arrangement. I'm not so sure of that; the commentators are saying it, but I'm not sure that the electorate themselves are saying it.

After all, what we have got from almost four years of Confidence and Supply is secure government (apart from a few scary moments), as distinct from many other democracies throughout Europe who are experiencing electoral turmoil.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the result will mean a Confidence and Supply by Fine Gael to Fianna Fail or a repeat of Fianna Fail to Fine Gael, or more likely a Fianna Fail government in tandem with a resurgent Green Party and an emboldened Labour Party.

So you see, it is all to play for. The one aspect of the Confidence and Supply arrangement which is troubling is that somehow there was no appreciation from the Fine Gael side of the fact that they were in government by the grace and favour of Fianna Fail.

The only politician of note that I heard saying anything in that regard was Paschal Donohoe in a radio debate one day, saying something along the lines of: "Remember, we are here because Fianna Fail have us here by their grace and favour arrangement."

He didn't enthuse about it, but he did mention it. It seems to me that one of the underpinnings of Confidence and Supply should be that there is proper regard for the work of the party who is supplying the arrangement, and awareness on the ruling side of the sensitivities and concerns of the smaller party. That did not obtain during the last four years.

As 2020 begins, the political scene is full of maybes, full of promise for some and not for others. The landscape is vast, the outcome unknown. But there is still a while to go before the starting whistle.

Let's hope the conversation between Leo and Micheal is definitive and has an outcome which will give us a date for the general election.

By the way, isn't the year 2020, both written and spoken, such a lovely, rounded and promising year, so distinct from the ragged-sounding 2019?

Let's raise a glass for the jousts to come.

  • Mary O'Rourke is an author and former government minister.

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