Juno McEnroe: Reading the signs from crucial constituencies

Juno McEnroe: Reading the signs from crucial constituencies
Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne meets John Lambert in Rosslare, Co Wexford, during canvassing for the by-election last November. Picture: Patrick Browne

A small number of bellwether constituencies could be highly significant in the battle for top spot between Fiann Fáil and Fine Gael, says Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.

This could be one of the tightest general elections in recent times for the two main parties but there are several bellwether constituencies that could reflect a greater trend in the country once all votes are counted.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are neck and neck in many counties and those who win a seat in those constituencies could indeed end up deciding who the next taoiseach will be.

It is all to play for and every vote counts then, party strategists will tell you.

And with a short campaign of three weeks left, the two main parties will try to outdo each other to get that local win.

In some constituencies, geography will be a deciding factor, in others, internal spats or discipline among the ranks, while a generational change could be an influence.

Outcomes in these crunch constituencies will without doubt be decisive in general election 2020.

Wexford is a good example where both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will fight it out.

With its two outgoing TDs — Michael D’Arcy and Paul Kehoe — Fine Gael had hoped to pick up a third seat with the recent by-election there, but those hopes collapsed after its candidate, Verona Murphy, was removed from Fine Gael over comments on migrants requiring “deprogramming”.

She now will stand as an Independent for this election and will likely eat into Fine Gael’s votes.

Fine Gael, at this stage, will only run their two incumbents there.

Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, encouraged by a seat win for Malcolm Byrne in that same by-election, will field four candidates in the constituency, hoping to improve on its two-seat tally in Wexford.

Fianna Fáil’s candidates, unlike Fine Gael’s, are based both in the north and south of the county.

Gains for either side in this packed five-seater here are a litmus test for the greater national vote.

Equally, there is a dog fight for the second seat in Cork North West, where agriculture Minister Michael Creed has former Independent John Paul O’Shea as a running mate for Fine Gael.

The three-seater has, in the last three general elections, seen a straight swap for either two Fianna Fáil and one Fine Gael or vice versa.

This time around, locals see Fianna Fáil whip Michael Moynihan fighting to retain his seat alongside fellow party TD Aindrias Moynihan (no relation), who was first elected in 2016.

It could be a tough ask, given the popularity of Creed’s running mate. Nonetheless, this is a farming constituency and Fine Gael’s results may be impacted if disgruntled farmers get to the ballot boxes.

Again, the second seat for either party will be key to shedding light on the national trend.

Another turf war between the two biggest parties is being played out in Dun Laoghaire, south Dublin.

Maria Bailey
Maria Bailey

Following a decision by Fine Gael to remove sitting TD Maria Bailey from the ticket over her swing-gate court case, it has replaced her with a former party advisor and lawyer, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, in its hope to retain three seats in the constituency.

This is a tall order, even with junior minister Mary Mitchell-O’Connor and party councillor Barry Ward running strong campaigns.

Instead, Fine Gael will be lucky to cling onto two seats. If Ms Bailey runs as an Independent, which she has yet to rule out, Fine Gael’s chances could diminish further.

Fianna Fáil currently has no TD in Dun Laoghaire and will hope to land one seat, with former minister Mary Hanafin and councillor Cormac Devlin vying to win.

With Labour and the Greens also hoping to capitalise on shake-ups in the constituency, targeted voting pacts and discipline will be crucial for the two main parties.

A win for Fianna Fáil could signal its national comeback, while a comfortable two-seat victory for Fine Gael would settle some of its election woes.

With Dublin Central turning from a three- to four-seat constituency for this election, the expectations are that Fianna Fáil may make a breakthrough and win a seat with councillor Mary Fitzpatrick.

But sitting TD Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister, has councillor Deirdre Duffy as a running mate in Fine Gael’s bid to win a second seat.

While other parties, including the Social Democrats and the Greens, hope to be in with a chance for that fourth seat, a win for either of the two big parties will bolster their final seat tally.

Another crucial constituency is Dublin North West, where sitting Fine Gael TD Noel Rock is battling to hold onto his seat.

Noel Rock
Noel Rock

While only a first-time TD, a win for the young deputy could represent a stabling vote for the incumbent government party.

However, if Fianna Fáil makes a breakthrough with Paul McAuliffe — currently the sitting lord mayor — this would signify a significant victory for Micheál Martin’s party.

The two big parties also look certain to be fighting for the last seat in Sligo-Leitrim.

A series of additions and removals from the ticket have resulted in an unstable campaign here for them.

While Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry and Eamon Scanlon hope to retain their seats, the latter is speculated to be in trouble.

For Fine Gael, the party has delayed deciding its ticket here and two councillors opted late in the day not to run, leaving newcomer Thomas Walsh.

Former TD Frank Feighan will also be on the ticket here. Long-time TD Tony McLoughlin, who turns 71 this weekend, has decided not to seek re-election.

Despite running two candidates, Fine Gael will struggle to win a seat here, especially with the recent announcement that Independent Marian Harkin, a former MEP, who also takes from the party’s same voting pool, is aiming to now return to the Dáil.

Fine Gael’s win could be Fianna Fáil’s loss. But neither party may win the last place in the four-seater.

Louth is another battleground where, again, defections and retirements have influenced the political field.

Declan Breathnach
Declan Breathnach

With Sinn Féin former leader Gerry Adams, a poll topper, stepping down, the voting pool will open up to a degree in this packed five-seater.

Fianna Fáil is hoping to win a second seat here, running councillor James Byrne alongside first time TD Declan Breathnach.

It could be a tough ask, but Mr Martin’s party will hope to capitalise on Sinn Féin’s loses. On the other hand, Fine Gael is in trouble, with the defection of TD Peter Fitzpatrick to the Independent benches.

He stands a good chance of sweeping up both Independent and Fine Gael votes, therefore reducing the chances of sitting TD Fergus O’Dowd bringing in running mate councillor John McGahon for a second seat.

The likelihood here is that Fianna Fáil could gain one seat, but keep an eye on Labour senator Ged Nash, who has campaigned strongly to regain his seat and would be one of his party’s best hopes nationally.

Current predictions put Fianna Fáil ahead on overall seat tallies, potentially winning 55 places or more out of the 160 in the 33rd Dáil.

This would be a respectable increase on their current outgoing tally of 46. Fine Gael, on the other hand, is currently facing losses in several constituencies.

Coupled with some heavyweight and senior figures stepping down and leaving politics, such as former finance minister Michael Noonan, former party leader and taoiseach Enda Kenny, former ceann comhairle Sean Barrett, and outgoing mental health junior minister Jim Daly, Fine Gael could struggle to reach the same numbers as Fianna Fáil.

Every win will count for either of the two big parties in the crunch constituency races.

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