This time last year Irish politics was in a state of paralysis; the most inconclusive general election result in the State’s history was followed by 10 weeks of protracted negotiations to form a government. One year on, and with a sense the next electoral test may not be far away, Insider has been considering the shape the various parties find themselves in and their battle plans both locally and nationally.
For Fine Gael it has been a testing year. It holds more ministerial offices than ever, yet the actual power it wields, like the size of its parliamentary party, has waned in the past year. There is a sense of uncertainty and unhappiness in the party coupled with a sense of resentment at the influence exerted by FF in keeping it in power.
The complex power-sharing structure in place since last May is something FG is struggling to adapt to – but it is also likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and FG does not want a reputation as a party that cannot adapt to, or operate it effectively. Back in the 1990s one of the party’s big calling cards was that it could manage coalitions, in contrast with FF which had recklessly collapsed arrangements with the PDs and Labour. It would be ironic if the roles were now reversed but, while the behaviour of the Independents has been eccentric at times, FG has looked lost, and unnecessarily waded into choppy waters to put the Government in danger.
It is not all doom and gloom though. The party continues to enjoy a clear lead for economic competence - an important asset in any fresh elections, and it continues to hold an advantage over FF among key segments of the electorate, including urban (especially Dublin ) and better-off voters. This alone will not suffice to return it to government, but does illustrate there is no widespread collapse in support either.
Looking forward, the big issue for FG on a national level is the election of a new leader. Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has been seen as the frontrunner for some time, but there is now a sense the party will play it safe and go for FG blueblood Simon Coveney instead. For Insider there has, for a while, been a whiff of the Michael Portillo about Varadkaar, a sense that after being the assumed frontrunner he is destined to get overlooked when it comes to the crunch. He certainly appears to be the bigger risk – the potential gains are larger, but with a real uncertainty as to how it would pan out in reality - with Coveney offering a more ‘steady as she goes’ outcome.
On a local level, while holding two seats will be easy, FG feels it has two settled TDs in Galway West in Hildegarde Naughton and Seán Kyne – the big question is whether a third candidate from south Mayo accompanies them and if that will again be John O’Mahony. The challenges are greater in the other two Galway constituencies – regaining lost seats will not be easy in either case.
Fianna Fáil on a high
FF have been on something of a high this past year. After a better than expected general election result the party has enjoyed the power without responsibility that it has wielded since the new Government was formed. All indications are that the party has won back more lost support, even if cracking the 30 per cent mark will be difficult.
On the downside, there is a sense in FF that the new arrangements has constrained it from developing policy and the public profile of some of its key spokespersons has been lower than the party would like. The difficulty for FF is that if it speaks out on an issue and calls for a certain course to be taken, it calls the future of the Government into question.
There is a sense that FF has been taking a scattergun approach and even ‘making it up as they go along’, with a lack of coherence in many of its public stances. Insider is aware that behind the scenes the party is working on policy in more detail, and this is something it needs to beef up on because, with FF now back in the game and tipped to lead the next government, it will face a greater scrutiny in this area during the next election campaign.
One problem the party has is that it is still weak among certain sectors of the electorate, particularly well educated, middle to higher income earners in their 30s and 40s living in urban and suburban areas. Dare we say it, but this is the type of voter that went heavily for Hillary Clinton last November – to which FF will no doubt reply ‘But she lost’! Very true, but FF likes to pride itself as a broad church and if it does not shape up among this group its recovery, like that of the Irish economy will be an uneven one!
Looking at matters locally, the party has some challenges. The type of demographic it struggles with is especially prevalent in Galway city and its commuter belt. This makes winning a second seat in Galway West a highly implausible prospect. Adding to its woes is that, six years after Frank Fahey’s retirement the party still has not identified a clear city champion. Talk now reverberates around another run for John Connolly or an unexpected resurrection of Cllr Peter Keane. They are making it up as they go along.
Things are brighter in Galway East where the party’s new TD Anne Rabbitte has settled in well, earning immediate promotion to the frontbench. There may be much fun and games at the northern end of the constituency however with the Kitt and Killelea dynasties trying to reclaim the slot on the ticket held by Colm Keaveney, and setting up a mouth-watering showdown with long-time party colleague Sean Canney - a contest the Independent Alliance man would be strongly favoured to win.
Sinn Féin - a pep in its step
To say that SF has a pep in its step right now is an understatement. The party had a tremendous result in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, closing to within one seat of the DUP. Perhaps even more significant however was that this represented the nationalist voters finally waking from their slumber – the SDLP also held their own to become the third largest party - something that has led to the prospect of a united Ireland raising its head again.
The impact of Brexit on the border area means that nothing is off the table, including reunification. These are exciting time for SF then, and for others such as FF who have now also turned their attention to reunification. On the other hand, Brexit, in addition to the various problems it creates in the North and border regions could have the impact of hardening the border and driving a bigger wedge between the two jurisdictions on the island. This is therefore a high-risk area for SF and nationalists generally.
In the Republic, the party has had a boost in polls this past month – publicity from pushing for a general election over the Garda whistle-blower controversy and good PR from the Northern elections are probably key factors – although more generally in the past year the party has flatlined somewhat.
Insider would also caution that, after years of FF being perceived as under pressure from SF, the reverse may now be true. With FF taking a more hard-line stance on issues such as water charges as well as renewing its interest in reunification it is moving onto SF territory. Throw in the fact that FF are now perceived as back in contention for power after two elections on the side-lines and you can see why some ‘greener’ FF voters may ‘come home’. Watch out for Eamon O Cuiv trying to eat into Trevor O Clochartaigh’s vote in Connemara.
Labour - does anyone care anymore?
For Labour the prognosis is not good. An awful general election result has been followed by a further dip in support. The party looks a little lost and caught between two stools – wanting to distance itself from its erstwhile government partners in FG yet acutely aware that it cannot credibly criticise many of its actions so soon after being in power. Insider is of the view that the public persona of Labour as just an addendum to FG has not been shaken off.
To a degree, like FF in 2011 the party is resigned to a period of marginalisation and poor ratings and, like FF after 2011 will focus on working behind the scenes on renewing and geeing up the party base and structures. The problem is that it most likely does not have the luxury of waiting five years for the next election and runs the risk of another poor result, which would set back its recovery prospects. Labour will rely on big names in key constituencies winning seats against the wind and hope that suffices to establish itself as the main ‘soft left’ player in the next Dáil and build from there.
As for the rest? Independents and others are so varied a group that they deserve an analysis of their own. What Insider will say however is that their electoral success and increased prominence in recent years makes the task for the four main parties all that more difficult. For all protagonists, these are challenging times.