Election 2016 promises an eventful 32nd Dáil

Eamon Ó Cuív celebrates his re-election to Dáil Éireann with his wife Aine (pink top) with their  family, from left; Sean Ó Bioragra and wife Emer Ní Chuív, with their children Aine, Seán, Eamon, and Mairead Ní Bhioragra; with Anna Murphy and her fiancé Eamon Ó Cuív jr. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Eamon Ó Cuív celebrates his re-election to Dáil Éireann with his wife Aine (pink top) with their family, from left; Sean Ó Bioragra and wife Emer Ní Chuív, with their children Aine, Seán, Eamon, and Mairead Ní Bhioragra; with Anna Murphy and her fiancé Eamon Ó Cuív jr. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Seismic! Earthquake! Meltdown! Some of the words being used to describe the outcome of last week’s General Election. With the results still being digested, it is too early to go into a detailed analysis – Insider hopes to return to that once the various tallies, results, and exit polls have been parsed – but the headline outcomes are quite stark.

At Christmas it all seemed to be coming together for the Government. Rising in the polls and with a realistic hope of tagging on a few points during the campaign proper, re-election seemed within their grasp. There was no clear alternative government on offer and FF in particular seemed ill-prepared for the campaign. The only thing likely to stop the coalition being returned was if a very bad Labour showing convinced that party to stay out of Government. Despite all of the aces it held, the government instead managed to get an almighty drubbing, dropping to only 57 seats from the 113 it won in 2011.

Fine Gael – an awful campaign

The FG campaign will surely go down as one of the worst in living memory. It got it messaging all wrong, asking people to ‘keep the recovery going’ when most people are not themselves convinced it has yet taken hold. This approach also exacerbated the image of the Government as arrogant and out of touch. Then, to cap it all, we had a series of gaffes, such as the row over the ‘fiscal space’, the John McNulty affair being brought up by FG itself, and of course ‘whinger-gate’.

In politics, messaging and the way it is delivered is as important as policies themselves. Many people comment on new Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughten’s interest in acting as an interesting aside, but she is by no means the first person from such a background to make a name for herself in politics, and that is no coincidence.

Barely breaking 25 per cent and 50 seats was not, to put it mildly, the plan. The party did manage to salvage a few seats more than its vote share strictly entitled it to, through a combination of good vote management; capitalising on the Labour collapse and benefitting from its transfers; and the general ‘Balkanisation’ of the vote. This was epitomised by Galway West where the party held its two seats, despite polling only 24 per cent and finishing behind FF. The party did not do as well elsewhere in the county, devastatingly losing the Connaughton seat in Galway East, and failing to take a seat at all in the new Roscommon/Galway constituency.

Labour's armageddon

When it came to assessing the prognosis for Labour, there was a very familiar feel to matters. The polls were awful, the party had shed a lot of its activist base, and was struggling to avoid being overshadowed by FG. Yet there was still hope that ‘people are listening to our message’ and of course a feeling that individual candidates would buck the trend. All very reminiscent of the Liberal Democrats in 2015, or indeed, to a degree, FF in 2011, but no votes, no seats is the way elections work.

Labour has been reduced to single digit numbers in the Dáil and in the process has lost the long-held seat in Galway West with Derek Nolan’s vote plunging to five per cent, and behind, not only Catherine Connolly and SF, but to the Social Democrats as well.

Where did it all go wrong? In Insider’s view, the damage was done in the early years of the coalition; its first Budget in 2011 contained a number of cuts and measures that Labour had specifically campaigned against and the impression was created that the party was dancing to a FG tune. Despite some notable policy successes – legislating on the X-case, delivering a successful referendum on same-sex marriage, twice increasing the minimum wage, and resisting calls for further spending cuts for instance – it could not shake off this image.

In those early years some of the party’s ‘big beasts’ also inflicted a lot of damage. Pat Rabbitte (who was a poor minister ) and Ruairi Quinn both arrogantly admitting, with zero regret, to misleading the electorate in order to gain votes. Despite sacking these ministers when she became leader, it was all too little too late for Joan Burton, who herself came across as shrill and contemptuous of opposing views after becoming Tánaiste.

Talk of terminal decline is ridiculously over the top, but it is a long way back for Labour. The aforementioned Pat Rabbitte’s tour de force blaming all and sundry for the result does not help its cause either.

Fianna Fáil – keep the recovery going

As Insider has noted, at Christmas the prognosis for FF was not great. In particular, the fact the party was not offering a clear alternative government – ruling out coalition with both FG and SF – seemed to create a relevance problem for FF. As with FG, the reality was very different!

In returning with 44 seats, including six hard-fought seats in the problematic Dublin area, and nine constituencies in which it won a second seat, FF has exceeded all expectations, including its own. No more than the economy, FF’s recovery has been patchy in places too. It is still trailing somewhat in urban areas, although it will be encouraged by its decent performance in the Dublin commuter belt.

With success comes challenges, and the biggest immediate issue for FF is how it navigates the talks around government formation in the coming weeks. External support for a minority FG government appears to be FF’s preferred route, but we shall see.

Locally, after an eventful selection process, the party managed to gain a seat ‘against the wind’ in Roscommon-Galway, and elected a female TD, Anne Rabbitte, in Galway East. The party also emerged as the largest in terms of vote share in Galway West, but with matters dominated by Eamon Ó Cuív a second seat was never on the cards. As Insider has long said, in order to challenge for a second seat, the party needs to clearly identify its ‘city champion’, who will then develop into a strong contender in his/her own right. John Connolly is clearly eager but, having opted out of the local elections in 2014, probably now needs a Seanad seat to maintain his profile. There are no guarantees on that front.

Sinn Féin - mixed success

Insider has long felt SF would poll at levels around, or slightly below, its local election vote share, and would return with seat numbers in the low 20s. SF should therefore be pleased with its result. The party insists it is, but there is nevertheless a nagging sense that more could have been achieved, as the party missed a number of key target seats, including Galway West, but more particularly in the Dublin region.

The party did not run the greatest campaign, getting caught out on a number of issues and then, having dug a hole for itself on some issues, seemed unwilling to put the shovel down. Insider detected a sense of frustration from some sectors of the electorate who wanted SF to step up to the mark, but who felt that as long as the party was focused on defending its past, the opportunity for the likes of Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald to flourish would be hindered.

The key for SF though is what comes next. This has been overlooked - probably as it has been inevitable for a few years - but the party overtook Labour as the largest on the left. This is a pivotal development. It also has put down good roots across the State. As in Northern Ireland, the party has the resources to thrive in rural constituencies on a more consistent basis than Labour or other left wing parties, and it has terrific potential to deliver further seat gains in future elections.

And the rest?

It was quite a spectacular result for Independents and smaller parties. Contrary to many people's expectations, support for these grouping did not fall away during the campaign. The Greens made a return to the Dáil, while the Social Democrats, although not adding to their tally of three seats, polled well for a new party. The Anti-Austerity Alliance had a number of wins, mainly in the Dublin region. Renua though bucked the trend for smaller parties by polling disastrously and losing all of its seats.

The real story though was the Independents – in the three Galway constituencies, five of the 11 TDs returned are Independents! The Independents are quite an eclectic group. Let us look at the aforementioned five Independents elected in Galway for instance. Catherine Connolly, despite her Labour background is very independently minded and would be highly unlikely to do a deal to back any government. The other four however are classic middle of the road figures who would relish such a role. Seán Canney and Noel Grealish are very much seen as 'FF gene pool', Dennis Naughten is of a strong FG background, while Mick Fitzmaurice resembles an old-style FF constituency TD.

Ironically in a ‘very hung’ Dáil, with a FF/FG agreement the only apparent way to break the deadlock, the Independents may not play the pivotal role they expected in government formation. Nevertheless in the context of a minority government they may have a significant impact on legislation in this Dáil. We shall have to wait and see – the dust is still settling but it promises to be an eventful 32nd Dáil.

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