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Clune in danger as Cork vies for three seats from five in election

There are two sleeps left to local and European elections on Friday. The indifference is palpable. When we were in austerity for five years, amidst real public anger, 52% turned out to vote in the 2014 local elections.

This time there is a lot of apathetic politeness meeting canvassers on the doors. Bursts of anger are rare. People are busy and getting on with it. There are now 2.3m people at work — the highest number in the history of the State. There is little sign of a political groundswell this week. That doesn’t mean incremental change won’t be important, however.

Fianna Fáil is focused on getting Brendan Smith over the line and into the European Parliament in Midlands-North-West. Failure, and it’s possible, will dent what otherwise might be a mildly pleasant day.

Fine Gael knows that Deirdre Clune isn’t where she needs to be in Ireland South, so it went all out on one last push to save their second seat in the constituency. Personally able, her political personality is beige. And her fundamental problem is that Cork is full.

If Billy Kelleher (FF) and Liadh Ní Riada (SF) are elected, and I believe they will be, Cork will be expected to deliver three out of five MEPs in a constituency spanning 12 counties. That’s a tall order for Clune. In those circumstances, Andrew Doyle, the minister of state at the Department of Agriculture from Wicklow, could be in contention for a second Fine Gael seat, if there is one.

The problem is, that is not certain.

Malcolm Byrne (FF) from Gorey and Senator Grace O’Sullivan (Green) from Waterford are together with Doyle and Clune competing for the last two seats in the constituency. I don’t think Mick Wallace will be in the shake-up.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of transfers, and they are critical in a general election where a handful of votes decide the handful of seats that determine the ultimate outcome. It is worth remembering the two golden rules, however.

Rule-number one is that you must be in the frame on the first count for the number of seats available in the constituency. Secondly, you must have at least 60% of the quota. Some 92% of seats are determined on those criteria.

The vagaries of proportional representation determine the other 8%. Deirdre Clune has to be in the frame on the first count, outrun Doyle and then stay ahead of one of either O’Sullivan or Byrne. In Dublin Frances Fitzgerald (FG) and Barry Andrews (FF) seem well set. The final two seats are between Lynn Boylan (SF), Clare Daly (Independents 4 Change) and Ciaran Cuffe (Green).

I think Cuffe has a real chance and climate change as an issue is helping the Greens. Failure for Fianna Fáil to deliver in Midlands-North-West, Sinn Féin in Dublin or Fine Gael to hold its two seats in Ireland South would be bellwether results.

For all the headlines they could generate, they would also be a storm in a saucer. European elections matter more for what they indicate about domestic politics than what they deliver themselves. That’s a pity, but it’s also a truth.

If Frances Fitzgerald (FG), Barry Andrews (FF) and Ciaran Cuffe (Green) are good for three of the four Dublin seats, though not necessarily in that order, the battle in Dublin is between Boylan and Daly. Together with local elections, the results shape the contours of the general election which effectively starts next Monday morning.

But perhaps the largest influence on the timing of an election here, and possibly ultimately of history in Britain, is the expected huge upset for Labour and Conservatives in the European elections there. If the Tories are decimated, Labour is deeply disappointed and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has a major victory, it could trigger the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown in both of the larger parties.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage holds a placard during the campaign trail in Exeter, ahead of this week’s European elections. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage holds a placard during the campaign trail in Exeter, ahead of this week’s European elections. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

A Conservative leadership contest seems imminent and an agreed Brexit in parliament apparently impossible. Internecine warfare in both parties could reach new levels. All the while, a no-deal Brexit is being slowly normalised in British conversation, and is becoming more likely. That matters here because of the potential horror of the ultimate outcome and because the opportunity for the space to call an election soon, is seemingly disappearing.

What will become apparent as the votes are counted on Saturday, is whether a modest regathering at the centre is continuing apace and who of either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil it favours. Fine Gael’s problem is recent events and the fact that choices made in Government are incrementally bleaching its brand. Another fact is time. It is now eight years since 2011, and that matters. Scoring three in a row, after the first phase of romance is a distant memory, is always hard.

That has implications for Project Leo. I don’t think he ever intended to be still this side of a general election at this point. You can feel the improvisation becoming more feverish. Perhaps the leader these elections matter most for is Mary Lou McDonald.

Failure to deliver for Lynn Boylan in Dublin will really matter. It won’t simply be another cock-up of the Fianna Fáil sort in Midlands-North-West or even the unexpected and very disappointing loss for Fine Gael of a second seat in South, were those events to actually occur. The fundamental question for McDonald is whether she can lead the Sinn Féin project forward, electorally.

As numbers at work increase, I am struck by the Sinn Féin narrative. It is still in the full-throated throes of protest, but has little to say to aspirational Ireland. There was one fork in the road between the old guard of leadership, which has stepped back, and the new.

There is another between an angry base and a wider electorate that is too busy getting on with life to be out marching on a Saturday afternoon. One amusing Sinn Féin quip called the Greens “green-fingered blueshirts”. I get the play on the middle-class manners of An Comhaontas Glas.

But the Greens are offering solutions and they don’t have one for everyone in the audience. They are upfront about the need for carbon taxes, and aren’t political panderers. It will be an interesting contrast between the two parties next weekend.

Fianna Fáil’s grip on masterly inactivity is now complete. Slowly, it serves them well. But ultimately it won’t be enough. They may have a good weekend, but don’t have either the policies or the personnel to convincingly campaign as an alternative government.

Perhaps after the Taoiseach has enjoyed another winter in government, and as Micheál Martin’s hopes is further diminished by events, that prism will have refined further.

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