Following on the two earlier posts in relation to Irish electoral politics, and its geographical expression, during the post-Celtic Tiger or NAMA era (the second of which proved to be quite similar to an article in last Sunday’s Sunday Tribune), this final piece will move on fron discussions of potential election dates and government prospects to a study of the key electoral battlegrounds that will dot the political landscape in (presumably) Spring 2012 and what the different parties must do to successfully navigate these.
The next general election will be fought on the basis of the new electoral boundaries, as recommended by the 2007 Constituency Commission report and as legally enacted by the 2009 Electoral Act. The scope of the changes involved in this report is not as extensive as those involved in previous boundary reports, with no new constituencies created (although the Limerick/ north Kerry constituencies were renamed), only a handful of constituencies losing (Limerick City, Dún Laoghaire) or gaining (Louth, Dublin West) extra Dáil seats, and territory transfers involving some other constituencies. Although obviously having some impact at the local scale, in national terms these changes should not unduly influence the results of the next general election.
An Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll in January 2010 ranked Fianna Fáil as the third most popular political party in the state, after Fine Gael and the Labour Party, while the local and European elections of June 2009 proved to be the first national elections since the late 1920s in which Fianna Fáil did not emerge as the largest party in terms of votes and seats. In the local elections, Fianna Fáil won over 125,000 fewer votes and 122 fewer council seats than Fine Gael did, but they won over 200,000 more votes and 86 more seats than Labour did. On this basis, while Fianna Fáil currently trail Labour in the opinion polls, the strong likelihood is that they will win more seats than Labour at the next general election. Why? The main reason has to do with the geography of Labour Party support, with very weak levels of support for the party registered across large tracts of the Irish political landscape – in 2007, for instance, Labour contested very constituency in the state but failed to win over 5% of the vote in any of the Connacht-Ulster constituencies (apart from Galway West), as well as Clare, Cork North-West, Laois-Offaly and Meath West. Draw a line between the cities of Dublin and Cork and there are very few pockets of solid Labour Party support to be found – with the notable exceptions of Limerick City, Galway City and the towns of Mullingar, Drogheda, Killarney and Tralee. Hence, prospects of Labour seat gains in these constituencies are limited. The bad news for Fianna Fáil, however, is that although Labour may not pose a serious electoral threat in these western constituencies, the electoral threat from Fine Gael, by contrast, proves to be most potent here – conversely, the eastern constituencies where Fine Gael support is weakest generally tend to be the constituencies where Labour polls strongest.
The crucial battlegrounds and what the political parties must do
The nature of the Irish multi-member proportional representation by single transferable vote (PR-STV) dictates that all constituencies are marginal, as opposed to first past the post systems which tend to be characterised by a superfluity of predictable, “safe seat”, constituencies. But some of these marginal constituencies are less marginal than others! In some constituencies, while questions still remain as to the personnel to be elected, the destination of seats by political party may prove to be relatively predictable, barring an electoral meltdown for one, or more, parties – in other words, the main competition in these constituencies are likely to be between candidates from the same party. Significant changes in representation appear unlikely at this stage in some constituencies (Clare, Galway East, Laois-Offaly, Waterford, Wexford), and there are other constituencies where the result appears to be relatively predictable (Dublin West – Joe Higgins will probably win the extra seat in this enlarged four seat constituency”. The main competition in other constituencies will likely focus around parties from the “same side of the House”, wherein Fine Gael will fight it out with Labour for the final seat in some constituencies while Fianna Fáil and the Green Party do likewise in other constituencies. The constituencies that will be of especial interest in terms of the national picture, however, are those where the destination of the final seat will involve head-to-head clashes between the main government and opposition parties – the constituencies where Fine Gael and/or Labour stand to make gains at the expense of Fianna Fáil and/or the Green Party, and vice versa. Constituencies that would fall into this category include Cork East, Dublin Central, Dublin Mid West, Dublin North East, Dublin South, Dublin South Central, Kerry North-West Limerick and Sligo-North Leitrim. In addition to these, however, are the five constituencies that I believe could prove to be the most crucial at the next general election:
- Carlow Kilkenny (5 seats): The government parties could easily lose two seats in this constituency. In 2007, the combined Fine Gael and Labour vote here came to 26,355, or 39.0% of the total vote, yet between them the two parties won as many seats (i.e. one!) as the Green Party did with just 5,386 votes (8.0%). Labour and Fine Gael will both be looking to take the Green Party seat, but the third Fianna Fáil seat in this constituency is also vulnerable. Labour failed to hold a Dáil seat in Carlow-Kilkenny after the 2007 contest – the first time the party had failed to do so in this constituency for 50 years and would be expected to reclaim that seat at the next election, especially after strong local election performances by the party in Carlow and Kilkenny in June 2009. But Fine Gael’s John Paul Phelan came close winning a seat in 2007 and would have a strong chance of taking a second Fine Gael seat. Thus there are strong prospect of the government parties shedding two seats to the opposition parties here.
- Cork South Central (5 seats): Despite combining to enter government after the last general election, both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party lost seats to Fine Gael and Labour in this constituency in 2007. As opposed to the other examples, this is a constituency where the government parties must be the ones looking to gain seats if they are to enjoy any prospect of retaining power after 2012. A reversal of the 2007 result would amount to a net gain of two seats by the government parties, but such a result looks highly unlikely at this stage.
- Dublin North (4 seats): Between them, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have won roughly 60 per cent of the vote and three out of the four seats on offer in this constituency in the last three general elections. With this constituency having ceded significant amounts of territory to neighbouring Dublin West and Dublin North West in the 2007 Constituency Commission report, this constituency will be very unpredictable, but the second Fianna Fáil and/or the Green Party seat must be viewed as vulnerable to a gain by Labour and/or Clare Daly of the Socialist Party.
- Dublin South East (4 seats): Traditionally, Dublin South East and Dún Laoghaire (see below) tend to be included amongst the most volatile constituencies in the state – if there is a national swing towards/against a party in an election then this will tend to assume tidal proportions in these constituencies. This has traditionally tended to be one of Fianna Fáil’s weakest constituencies, but the party won almost one and a half quotas here in 2007 and, barring a total electoral disaster, should probably hold this in 2012. The vulnerable government seat is that of John Gormley, the current Minister for the Environment, especially given that he only narrowly retained this seat in the 2007 election. However, should Gormley retain his seat, or should his seat be won instead by Fianna Fáil, then a Fine Gael-Labour government after this election might not prove to be as certain as has been expected. The destination of the votes that former PD leader, Michael McDowell, won here in 2007 could ultimately prove decisive in this contest, but a very strong showing in the local elections by Labour might suggest a gain for that party.
- Dún Laoghaire (4 seats): As well as being one of the most volatile constituencies in the state, Dún Laoghaire lost a seat in the 2007 Constituency Commission boundary revisions, meaning that at least one of the five current incumbents will lose their seat in 2012. Of these, the most likely victim is Ciarán Cuffe, who currently holds what is probably the most vulnerable of the six Green Party seats. In 2007, Cuffe won the last seat in the constituency despite winning less than half of a quota and he proved to be highly dependent on Fine Gael and Labour transfers. With these transfers likely to dry up somewhat in 2012 and with the percentage share of the vote needed to reach the quota increased from 16⅔% to 20%, one could feel almost safe in betting a house on Cuffe failing to retain his seat in 2012: it would be an exceptional achievement if he were to hold his seat, even in slightly less unpromising times for the government parties. But given the volatility of this constituency, a national swing against Fianna Fáil would leave at least one of their two seats here vulnerable, either to a resurgent Fine Gael or Labour or to Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit alliance.
I will conclude by addressing the challenges and issues facing all of the major political parties in the lead up to the next general election, while also identifying the constituencies that I believe they
(i) must gain seats in – in order to attain/retain power or at least achieve an acceptable electoral result,
(ii) could gain extra seats for the party – on a very good day for that party,
(iii) are likely, or could possibly, to lose seats in – constituencies that the party could easily lose seats in, barring a good election result for that party, but could still manage to retain/gain power or achieve a respectable electoral showing, despite such losses,
(iv) could lose seats in, but must not lose seats in – otherwise prospects are bleak for that party winning power or at least achieving a respectable electoral showing.
For Fianna Fáil, party discipline is essential in terms of maximising the party’s number of seats. In the last three elections, even though the party’s support levels have proved to be relatively low in historical terms, Fianna Fáil came relatively close to winning almost half of the Dáil seats on offer. A more centralised and professional approach to candidate selection, in addition to effective vote management strategies, allowed the party to maximise the amount of seats won relative to their share of the national vote. If this party discipline collapses in the face of individual TDs/candidates’ fears that government unpopularity will threaten their own seats then a decline in Fianna Fáil support levels could translate into an even more catastrophic decline in their representation levels, akin to what happened to the party in the 1992 election, or what happened to Fine Gael in 2002.
Must gain extra seats in: Louth, Dublin North East, Roscommon-South Leitrim
Could gain extra seats in: Cork South Central, Wicklow
Likely/possible seat losses: Cavan-Monaghan, Dublin South Central, Dublin Central, Kildare North, Tipperary South
Must not lose seats in: Carlow-Kilkenny, Cork East, Donegal North East, Donegal South West, Dublin North, Dublin North West, Dublin South (relative to 2007 level), Dublin South East, Dublin South West, Galway West, Kerry North-West Limerick, Kildare South, Limerick City, Limerick, Mayo, Meath East, Sligo-North Leitrim,
The challenge for Fine Gael is to probably become more Fianna Fáil than Fianna Fáil themselves; in other words to surpass their main rivals in terms of party and campaign organisation to a degree that sufficient seats are won in 2012 for a Fine Gael-led government to be formed, or even to allow Fine Gael surpass Fianna Fáil and emerge as the largest party in the state. The party lost out on seats to Fianna Fáil in some constituencies in 2007 (Carlow-Kilkenny, Louth, Sligo-Leitrim) due to poor vote management, although there were instances of exceptional vote management in other constituencies (Roscommon-South Leitrim) – greater consistency across all constituencies is required at the next election. Ultimately, the post-election bargaining with the Labour Party could play an equally important role in determining the party’s chances of winning power.
Must gain extra seats in: Carlow-Kilkenny, Cavan-Monaghan, Dublin Central, Kildare South
Could gain extra seats in: Cork East, Cork North West, Dublin South East, Dún Laoghaire, Galway West, Limerick, Mayo, Sligo-North Leitrim,
Likely/possible seat losses: Limerick City, Roscommon-South Leitrim, Wicklow
Must not lose seats in: Cork South Central, Dublin North East, Tipperary North
For Labour candidate selection will be vital in determining the party’s ability to transfer anticipated increases in support levels into significant seat gains. For instance, the party needs to avoid a scenario whereby potential seats gains are lost due to not running enough candidates, as happened with constituencies such as Dublin North and Dublin South in the “Spring-tide” election of 1992. Excluding those constituencies where a Labour seat is viewed as vulnerable (e.g. Dublin North East, Kildare South), the party must give strong consideration to running more than one candidate in their stronger constituencies (and possibly three in a constituency such as Dublin South Central). Outside of the party’s stronger areas in Dublin and eastern Ireland a different challenged is posed, wherein the party must compensate for a limited natural support base by looking to draw in other left-leaning candidates, who have built up significant personal support bases in these areas, either from the independent ranks (e.g. Luke Flanagan in Roscommon-South Leitrim), from small socialist parties (e.g. Seamus Healy in Tipperary South), or even from other parties such as Sinn Féin (e.g. Brian Stanley in Laois-Offaly).
Must gain extra seats in: Carlow-Kilkenny, Dublin North, Dublin South Central, Dublin South, Kerry North-West Limerick, Meath East
Could gain extra seats in: Dublin South Central (second gain), Dublin South East, Kerry South, Tipperary North, Tipperary South, Wicklow
Likely/possible seat losses: Limerick City
Must not lose seats in: Cork East, Cork South Central, Dublin North East, Kildare South
The next general election for The Green Party may ultimately be about survival as a very real prospect exists that the party could lose all their seats in Dáil Éireann. While there are prospects of seat gains for the party in constituencies such as Cork South Central (where Dan Boyle won a seat in 2002), Louth and Galway West, given the current political context the real challenge for the party will be to try to hold as many of the current Dáil seats as possible. At this stage, the party looks likely to lose its seats in Carlow-Kilkenny and Dún Laoghaire, and faces a huge struggle to retain the seats in Dublin Mid West and Dublin South East. The key battlegrounds may prove to be Dublin North and Dublin South, the constituencies that the party’s prospects of holding their seats are strongest in.
Must gain extra seats in: Not applicable
Could gain extra seats in: Cork South Central, Louth
Likely/possible seat losses: Carlow-Kilkenny, Dún Laoghaire,
Must not lose seats in: Dublin South, Dublin North
For Sinn Féin prospects for the next general election appear to be decidedly mixed at this stage. A series of defections and disappointing electoral results in recent years has weakened the party’s standing in the Dublin region, as well as in certain parts of the state such as Wexford, but against that the party made significant gains in the 2009 local elections in other parts of the state such as Cork City, Limerick City and Wicklow and the party also has a strong chance of recording its first ever victory in a by-election in the Republic of Ireland when the Donegal South West contest takes place later this year. The party suffers from a rather unfortunate geography of support in that many of its stronger constituencies tend to be three-seat constituencies, which tend to be more difficult for smaller parties, such as Sinn Féin, to win given the higher percentage of the vote required to reach the quota. The challenge for Sinn Féin at the next general election will be to try and regain the momentum that the party had in the earlier 2000s; to redress the party’s problems and declining fortunes in Dublin and to turn potential gains into real gains in target areas such as the two Donegal constituencies.
Must gain extra seats in: Donegal South West, Donegal North East, Dublin South West
Could gain extra seats in: Dublin Central, Dublin North East, Dublin North West
Likely/possible seat losses: Kerry North-West Limerick, Dublin South Central
Must not lose seats in: Louth