As the political temperature soars to levels usually only seen when we approach the end of a five year Dáil cycle, Insider has decided to offer the benefit of his wisdom to the main political parties on how they should approach the forthcoming election, which, based on recent events, cannot be delayed much longer.
The resignation of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, and the Taoiseach’s determination to reform the "basket case" Department of Justice, may have taken the heat out of the political situation temporarily, but Insider still expects his colleagues to be on the campaign trail before Galway begin their defence of the All Ireland hurling title.
Insider has heard many people speculate that we are in a political scenario similar to the early 1980s, when three general elections were held in an 18 month period. Insider disagrees and feels this period will be more comparable to the 1987 to 1997 period when we had six different governments over a period of less than 11 years.
The political system needs time to adjust when governments need to be formed in newer, different, ways. For the first 70 years of the State’s existence, there were really only two alternative governments, Fianna Fáil on their own (either as a majority or minority government ), or Fine Gael supported by other parties. Though they remain the two largest parties in the State, their dominance is nothing like it has been, with real implications for the formation of future governments. It will save the politicians a lot of political angst if they can quickly come to terms with the new political dispensation, and evaluate how future governments can be put together without the need for elections every two or three years.
Fine Gael continue as the largest party in the State, but that position is under threat. In the 2011 General Election, FG had a 19 per cent lead over FF; that was reduced to one per cent in the February 2016 election. However, the quirks of the PR system allowed FG to secure 50 seats to FF’s 44. After more than two months of negotiations, the present Government was formed with Fine Gael supported by The Independent Alliance and a number of Independents, with support also provided by FF in a "confidence and supply" arrangement.
The big change for FG since February 2016 has been the change of party leader. This has boosted the party’s fortunes in the short term, but therein lies the problem. In Insider’s opinion, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had an opportunity to stamp his authority on the party when it came to appointing his first cabinet. For reasons which Insider cannot understand, he failed to do this.
It appears that to secure the party leadership, he may have made promises to a number of cabinet colleagues in return for support. If that is the case, it was a serious mistake on his part. With the exception of Eoghan Murphy in exchange for Mary Mitchell O’Connor, he appointed the same cabinet personnel as Enda Kenny. Does anyone seriously believe Leo and Enda were of such a similar mind that they would agree on more than 90 per cent of the people to be appointed? This decision has now come back to haunt the Taoiseach, with members of his cabinet proving not to be up to the job. It does call his judgment into question, and has led to a difficult start to his leadership of the country.
For FG, the argument that FF wrecked the economy when last in government, will have one final outing. When Micheál Martin speaks about the future, and his plans for the coming years, it will be important that FG remind the public that we don’t really need to hear about what FF will do, as we have seen what the party has done.
Critics will tell FG to move on and defend their own performance in government, which no doubt they will have to do, but it is important they remind people of the devastation and hardship caused by the failures of the last FF government, of which Micheál Martin was a pivotal member. Are the public ready to put them in charge again? Recent improvements in our economic performance were hard won on the back of many sacrifices by the public: Insider is not certain they are ready to risk these gains so soon after the last economic collapse. Leo must convince the electorate he has learned from the past, and can provide a better future. In Galway West, Fine Gael has a realistic chance of holding it's two seats, but could still struggle to do so. In Galway East, one seat is secure, and this one seat is probably the extent of FG's ambitions at this stage.
Which brings us to Fianna Fáil. Is it to be third time lucky for Micheál Martin? Having presided over the improved fortunes of FF in the 2016 election, the question is can Martin mount one last offensive to put himself in the taoiseach’s office? It seemed unlikely for most of 2017, as FG benefited from a ‘Leo bounce’ which looked as if it would ensure FG return to the next Dáil as the largest party. All that has changed this week, and the wind is now very much in FF’s sails.
There is certainly no room for complacency, and a week is still a long time in politics, not to mention three weeks or three months. The events of this week will play only a small part in the election campaign, but the margins are so tight that this small part could determine whether FF or FG return as the largest party to the next Dáil.
Martin proved a good campaigner during the election of 2016, but he was up against a weak foe in then FG leader and taoiseach, Enda Kenny. If the events of the past week have strengthened Varadkar’s resolve, he will prove a much tougher adversary for the Fianna Fáil leader than his predecessor was. Also, as campaigns are increasingly fought through various media channels, Leo should prove more than a match for Micheál.
One area of concern Insider has will be the Taoiseach’s ability to connect with people on the hustings; slightly shy, and a little uncomfortable in the back slapping aspects of political campaigning, the Taoiseach’s media performances may have to make up for his shortcomings in this area. FF will comfortably hold its one seat in Galway East, but it is difficult to see it having any chance of challenging for a second. In Galway West, the party is in with a fighting chance of securing a second seat. Can the FF vote be split more evenly between Éamon Ó Cuiv and his running mate(s )? If so, the party will be in the running for a second seat, but, as with all recent elections, the last few seats in Galway West will be very closely fought.
Labour had a disastrous election result in 2016, and all indications are the party vote in the next election will be along similar lines to last year, if not actually lower. The electorate have clearly not forgiven Labour for its part in the government of 2011 to 2016. Insider regrets this, and accepts the rebuilding process for Labour will now be measured over a number of elections. The party can take heart from the performance of FF over the last six years. A party that looked dead and buried has managed to resurrect itself over a much shorter period than most had envisaged. Insider cannot see Labour winning a seat in either Galway West or Galway East at the next election, but when the comeback happens, as it must, these are two constituencies which the party will target with realistic prospects of winning a seat in both.
Sinn Féin will need to show a greater appetite for the world of real politics. It is difficult to assess its political performance due to the collapsing of the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year, its refusal to take its Westminster seats, and failure to play any role in government formation in the Republic after the 2016 election. It makes life difficult for a decent local candidate, such as Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh in Galway West, if the party hierarchy refuse to move from the sidelines and meaningfully engage at a national level, where they may be able to make a contribution. If Sinn Féin get their act together nationally, then Sen Ó Clochartaigh is in with a realistic chance of winning a seat in Galway West.
Insider expects Independent candidates will not perform as well in the next election as they did in 2016. Outside of Denis Naughton, those Independents supporting the Government are underperforming, and indeed are in danger of becoming something of a laughing stock, with their proposed jaunt to North Korea the most recent example, leaving us unsure whether or not to take them seriously. The fact that some of them hold important positions in Government is obviously no laughing matter. Despite their national performance, Insider still expects Galway West and Galway East to each return an Independent candidate at the next election. Galway-Roscommon may even return both sitting Independent TDs to the next Dáil.