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Monday, June 08, 2009

Elections 09 - Parsing the Prelude

As even the bookies are now offering only 1-2 odds on a general election this year, it seems we have entered dead government walking territory.

Hence, these local and European elections aren't just a referendum on the government's performance, they are a prelude to the main event of a general election.

As I write, the three Dublin seats have been filled, with sitting MEPs Eoin Ryan and Mary Lou McDonald making way for Socialist leader Joe Higgins. In a sense, that tells half the story of these entire elections: a slump in support for the government parties, Sinn Fein disappointment and the rise of protest Independents.

We saw the power of support for protest independents on Saturday at the Dublin Central by-election too, where Maureen O'Sullivan, the 'Gregory' candidate, managed to parlay her friendship with the late Tony Gregory into a Dail seat.

And the government slump has seen the Greens hardest hit, cut to the very bone for dancing with the Fianna Fail devil. Their organisation is now reduced to a handful of councillors, their MEP candidate lost her deposit and came in behind Independent Green Patricia McKenna, and now no Green Dail seat can be considered safe.

Fianna Fail themselves must look hard for positives. The backwoods of Westmeath and Roscommon offer a starting point. They actually improved their representation in those areas. And given the trend among some nervous FF-ers to go independent in order to ensure election to local authorities, Fianna Fail will find their numbers boosted as the likes of Tony Fox return to the fold. So this is not quite the tsunami that it initially looks.

There is further upside for Fianna Fail in the return of some dozen former PDs to local councils as independents. The PDs may be gone as a party, but as the cart which led the FF horse for over a decade, the working relations of PDs with Fianna Fail remain strong and ideologies remain compatible. FF are therefore boosted by their presence too.

Fine Gael's Christmases have all come at once. Historic is actually the word for it. George Lee elected first count in a by-election, 3 Dublin South TDs for the first time since the early 80s, the biggest party in the state for the first time ever.

No wonder Enda Kenny spent much of yesterday evening in the RDS grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

But the downside is that even if FG can maintain momentum into a general election, their simple lack of political nous means that they will not maximise their representation in Leinster House.

Tomorrow, Enda Kenny will overshadow the Dail debate on the Ryan report into clerical abuse by tabling a motion of no confidence. This is exactly the sort of politico-nerd behaviour the public despair of in the FG leader, and it is why Fine Gael should still consider thanking Enda for his great work so far and promoting Bruton to leadership in advance of a general election. But they won't.

The biggest winners of all appear, paradoxically, to be Labour. I say paradoxically, because one might have assumed it was a poor election for them, what with losing both Dublin by-elections and having a stiff race in the Ireland South European constituency.

But their representation across the country means that they, rather than the now-stalled Sinn Fein, are the main left challenge pretty much everywhere. If they had only fielded more candidates, they'd have maximised their representation even more. Labour for the first time in a generation have a national base to build on. And with a soft Fianna Fail vote there for the taking, Labour may well feel they can make it a three horse race in future.

What does this mean for any possible general election? Well, if the bookies are right and we see one in the next six months, it is fairly certain that Enda Kenny will be Taoiseach of a FG-Labour coalition.

The Greens can expect to be annihilated in their current form, while former Greens like McKenna and Maher could end up being the eco-representatives in Dail Eireann.

Sinn Fein appear to have reached their glass ceiling of 10%. Mary Lou will get a seat next time out, but they won't grow their vote until they outgrow the dodgy Northern leadership that too many Southerners find toxic.

The heart will be out of Fianna Fail campaigners for another election. They were anonymous on the ground this time and will be even more so in a general election. This is an opportunity for Fianna Fail to rid itself of much dead wood.

Perhaps they will be especially smart and de-select some of their sitting TD cohort in advance. Why bother running what the electorate wants shot of? Run the young candidate instead, give them a base from which to build. But FF are ultimately a party of gombeens shafting each other, as Mary Fitzpatrick could tell you, so don't expect this to happen. It's too sensible for them.

When will we see this election? Very soon. The Green leadership is panicked, trapped in power with their party and their voters deserting them. They're actively looking for the exit.

And Brian Lenihan is promising another hairshirt budget to punish the electorate for voting against Fianna Fail. That is likely to be the catalyst to bring people onto the streets to demand the removal of this government, which clearly now has no mandate left.

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