Could Ireland’s next general election mirror the drama of Britain’s?

Talking Politics - Are our politicians giving value for your vote?

Political anoraks will have enjoyed - and indeed are still enjoying the fallout from - the past month as the first genuinely competitive British general election since 1992 has played out.

Aside from the drama of the event itself, an obvious question is, does it offer any clues of what might happen in our next election?

There have been striking parallels between political events in Ireland and Britain in the past 15 years; two young leaders coming to power, enjoying a wonderful decade-long relationship with the voters before leaving under something of a cloud, and passing on the baton to their finance ministers who have endured a torrid time as the global economic crisis bit hard.

So what clues does the British election offer us as regards what may happen in our next election?

Insider would highlight a few factors worth noting. The first and most general point is that the outcome may not be a foregone conclusion. Last summer you would have found very few people who expected anything other than a large Tory majority and until quite recently, even as the polls tightened, most observers felt Labour’s ambitions were merely to restrict the scale of the Tory win.

This type of analysis ties in with that being offered by most observers of Fianna Fáil’s current situation. Could FF defy the odds and at least find themselves in the game when post-election negotiations get under way next time?

Insider thinks on balance that is a step too far. Unlike the Tories - who had a mountain to climb in terms of seat gains - FG and Labour only need a small swing and a few extra seats in order to win a majority.

Hence, while it would be wrong to assume Fianna Fáil are heading for a Tory 1997-style landslide defeat, their ambitions are likely to be restricted to a repeat of Labour’s damage limitation exercise last week.

The second point to address is the impact the televised leaders’ debates had on the campaign. Unlike in Britain (where this was a first ) we are quite used to having such debates during the course of an election campaign.

There were some differences however in terms of the number and timing of the debates and their style, most notably the fact that the British debates included three party leaders and not merely the two main party leaders as is the case in Ireland.

“Should we let Fianna Fáil participate next time as well so?” I hear some of you smart alecs say, in light of recent opinion polls placing the Soldiers of Destiny in third place!

Of course it is Eamonn Gilmore and Labour who are mostly loudly calling for a three-way debate, but while RTÉ seemed enthused the main two parties are still resisting such calls.

Labour hopes - and the other two fear - that the exposure a series of debates would give them during the campaign would boost interest in their leader and would give them a Nick Clegg-style bounce in the polls. In particular Labour feels such debates are particularly suited to its man.

This however leads Insider to his third point – and this is one that Labour won’t appreciate as much. Namely that in spite of all the hype and the bounce in the polls midway through the campaign, in the final analysis the Liberal Democrats barely increased their vote and in fact lost a few seats.

Labour will be unnerved by this and will fear a similar outcome on this side of the Irish Sea. Labour will be aware however that this has happened to Irish parties before – the Greens in 2007 and PDs in 1997 for example – and will be acutely aware of the need to have the advance groundwork done in order to sustain and capitalise on any bounce.

Moving away now from the British experience, what are the chances of us going to the polls before the year is out?

Having survived a dreadful 2009 the Government was regarded as being in it for the long haul earlier this year, but an awful series of events in February/March led people to shorten the odds on an early election.

Things are now calmer again but banana skins are on the horizon. Economic conditions continue to be difficult and there could be great volatility in the months ahead.

The Government faces three by-elections later in the year that will surely eat into its majority. Then there is the fact of several close Dáil votes in recent times, on two occasions relying on the casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle that will cause the Government great unease.

Could a schoolboy error like that of Galway West TD Frank Fahey’s last week - pushing the wrong button while talking to his buddy at the back of the classroom - cause the Government to unwittingly lose a key vote?

Even if the election doesn’t happen soon, the parties will be in preparation mode. Labour has been busy scouting for candidates in recent weeks and has signed up some strong performers in the west of Ireland including former Mayo TD Jerry Cowley. Fine Gael likewise have been laying the groundwork.

Now we have Fianna Fáil sending out a signal this week that they want constituencies to be going about selecting candidates for the election by next October. Hence we can expect to find the jockeying for position in both Galway West and Galway East to intensify.

We have seen the Government – and indeed politics in general – get itself into more hot water over the matter of pensions for serving politicians in recent weeks. At the heart of the storm has been Galway East TD Noel Treacy.

Does his initial belligerence hint at a man who is perhaps not intent on facing the electorate next time? Does it hint at a man who doesn’t mind causing a bit of unease for his boss Mr Cowen? Does this in turn hint at a level of dissent on the backbenches that could eventually lead to a mutiny and an early election?

On balance Insider feels the likeliest outcome is that the Government will survive this year. However it will fare badly in the three by-elections towards the end of 2010, thus reducing its Dáil majority. It will then look to call a general election at some point in the first half of 2011.

It is far from unusual for governments to go for an election at the end of their fourth year though normally only in cases where it is advantageous for them – and its objective will be to mimic British Labour in limiting the damage and living to fight another day after a period out of power.

However as last week’s events across the water – and indeed in East Belfast – remind us, elections are full of unpredictability!


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