The way is clear for a general election. But when?

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar needs to consider a number of issues in relation to any potential by-elections this year, writes our columnist. The Dáil arithmetic isexceedingly tight, with the Government reliant on Independents, including Noel Grealish and Michael Lowry, to survive. Picture: Liam McBurney

Miracles can happen. A week ago, we were told that it would take 28 working days to resolve the recount in Nemo Rangers to decide the last two seats in Ireland South. The recount, understandably called by Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada, was to see if she could make up the 327 votes that Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan held in her favour.

None of the MEPs elected in Ireland South would have been able to take their seats in the European Parliament until the ticket was concluded. After the weekend, the miracle became clear. Martin Harvey, the returning officer, reduced the 28 days to five: His warning of a €1m cost and the time delay convinced Sinn Féin and the powers that be that such a scenario was not acceptable.

Then, by the end of Monday, Ní Riada had graciously conceded, acknowledging that there was no hope of overtaking O’Sullivan.

All that was left to do was distribute her votes to see whether O’Sullivan or sitting MEP Deirdre Clune, who had appeared dead and buried, would end up with the fifth, and final, ‘zombie’ seat. By Tuesday, it was confirmed that O’Sullivan had overtaken the incumbent and would be going to Brussels immediately, while Clune will have to wait until the British exit from the EU is formally concluded.

Now that Ireland has its 13 MEPs, a significant milestone has been passed. The shaky Fine Gael-Independent minority government, formed under Enda Kenny in 2016, was not expected to have lasted until this point.

It was thought we would have had a general election before the people voted at local and European level. But survive it has.

With the landscape in local government also resolved for the next five years, the path has been cleared for the battle to commence for the next general election. When that election will be is primarily a decision for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. But unlike the people who previously held his office, he does not have an exclusive handle on that call.

Since polling day on May 24, Varadkar, as leader of a fragile minority government, has made clear, correctly, that the timing of the general election is not totally in his gift to determine. The big question for the past two weekends has been whether Varadkar will cut and run early, before the budget, or will cling on and pass the budget, allow the Brexit quagmire to find some equilibrium, and contest four by-elections in January.

The by-elections in the Dáil are caused by the election of Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald, Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher, and the Independents4-Change duo of Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, who will all take their seats in the European Parliament on July 2. So far, Varadkar has been giving out mixed messages.

On the weekend of the elections, he stoked up talk of an early general election by repeatedly refusing to rule one out. Varadkar said he will only stay in office if he can do the job: “This is all about ensuring we have a functioning government. So as long as the Government can function and function well, and get our job done and get our agenda through, then there is no need for an election. But if that becomes a problem, then, obviously, that changes things.”

Asked if he was definitively ruling out an early general election, Varadkar added: “I can’t rule it out. First of all, it is not necessarily my decision. Others could pull the plug on the Government.”

He added:

Brexit, getting the broadband contract through, putting together a budget, and, of course, there are by-elections. All those four factors, and others, are at play, but I don’t intend to be calling into Áras an Uachtaráin in the next couple of days.

Behind the scenes, his messaging appears to have been equally confusing. Sources at Cabinet tell me the Taoiseach was emphatic about not pulling the plug — insisting he was working towards getting a budget through in October and contesting the by-elections.

But at his parliamentary party meeting last week, the Taoiseach also indicated that by-elections to fill seats vacated by new MEPs would not happen, and that a general election was more likely this year.

“He told the room, at the next election that all our faces will be on the ballot paper, which we all took as by-elections will not happen,” one source said.

In terms of the by-elections, a number of issues need to be considered. The Dáil arithmetic is exceedingly tight, with the Government reliant on Independents, including Noel Grealish and Michael Lowry, to survive.

The losses of Fitzgerald, a government TD, and Kelleher, as a Fianna Fáil TD who is facilitating the Government, further heaps pressure on the administration and its security.

Fine Gael had 49 seats, having lost Peter Fitzpatrick last October, over his objections to abortion, but the loss of Fitzgerald to Europe drops it to 48. Fianna Fáil had 44 seats, but the loss of Billy Kelleher drops it to 43.

They are helped by the departure of both Wallace and Daly, who reduce the opposition numbers by two as well.

But by-elections are highly unpredictable and rarely bring good news for sitting governments, especially ones jaded after eight years in office. There is no certainty that Fine Gael would hold Fitzgerald’s seat in Dublin Mid-West, while Fianna Fáil is petrified that Kelleher leaves a gaping hole to fill in Cork North-Central.

It may be the case the parties swap seats with senator Colm Burke, who is tipped to be competitive in North-Central, while Fianna Fáil has a number of strong councillors in the Lucan area, like Ed O’Brien and Trevor Gilligan, in the mix, and could snatch it. But with the rise in the Green agenda and given this is former Green TD Paul Gogarty’s home patch, this seat could easily go elsewhere.

In Fingal, there is no obvious replacement for Daly from her pool of Independents, while Fianna Fáil has a sterling offering in senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, if only her party colleague, Darragh O’Brien, bought into a two-candidate strategy, as some Fianna Fáil figures bemoan.

Clifford-Lee has done well to establish herself in the area, and Daly’s absence, coupled with the retreat of Sinn Féin and the stagnation of Labour, leaves a clear gap, and one suspects she is a far more attractive candidate to younger voters than James Reilly, the former health minister.

Fianna Fáil is also likely to look to Malcolm Byrne to contest the Wexford by-election caused by Wallace’s departure and he could be in with a shout to win, given his strong showing in the locals and the Europeans. But a strong Green candidate, or another left-wing Independent, could steal the seat.

The other consideration for the Taoiseach is when to hold by-elections. Does he do it in September, in the hope the public will be more forgiving after the summer break, or in January, when, by law, they have to be held.

The smart money is on Varadkar digging in and trying to hang on until 2020.

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