This may be a straightforward contest between Leo and Micheál but smaller groupings will be key in deciding who is crowned king, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
“Obviously, the general election is now on.”
That was the clear and unambiguous declaration from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on RTÉ radio yesterday morning after several days of intense media speculation driven by the coy talk fromTaoiseach Leo Varadkar.
The country’s youngest-ever leader says he has his mind made up, leading many to conclude that the election will be held on Friday, February 7, or a week later on St Valentine’s Day.
For the first time since 2007, we have a genuine head-to-head contest between Varadkar and Martin as to who will be taoiseach, meaning this campaign is likely to be the most personalised and presidential campaign in living memory.
Whether it is a three- or a four-week campaign, it is worth looking at the chances of all of the parties, groupings, and unaligned Independents who may be critical in forming the country’s next government.
Fine Gael — 47 seats
Swept into office in 2011, the party is now nine years in office. Following a bruising first five years in office, Enda Kenny and his troops failed to get any credit from the public for dragging the country back from the economic abyss.
In fact, he lost the election and saw 26 of his colleagues elected in 2011 lose their seats. It was a remarkable reversal of fortune for Kenny, who returned with just 50 TDs. The loss of so many seats in Munster in particular — 15 in total — severely damaged the party’s standing.
Even though he managed to cobble a minority government together and stayed in office for more than a year, he was fatally wounded by that result and his authority was shot.
Replacing him with Varadkar in the summer of 2017, the party began to enjoy a prolonged honeymoon reflected by a substantial lead across many opinion polls over Fianna Fáil.
It appeared at one stage that Varadkar was assured of re-election and came under significant internal pressure in 2018 to call a snap election to capitalise on that lead. He didn’t and his party has since endured a torrid time in office.
National scandals such as the cost overruns in the National Children’s Hospital and the National Broadband Plan, coupled with significant internal party discord involving Maria Bailey and Murphys and Verona, means the shine has very much come off Varadkar’s halo.
Between retirements, resignations, and deselections, Varadkar is also facing into this election 10 seats down before he even begins. That is a lot of ground to make up.
The party is clearly looking to Brexit and the economy as its key selling points and, on a good day, would hope to return with 55 to 60 seats if it has genuine hopes of winning that historic third term in office.
Fianna Fáil — 45 seats
Led by Martin since 2011, the party’s near-total demise that year came after allowing the economy to ‘go off a cliff’.
Martin, despite significant personal tragedy at the time, won the leadership and has steered the party to happier times.
Not universally loved by his own colleagues, he took them from 20 seats in 2011 to 44 in 2016 and the party became the largest at local level following an impressive performance in 2014.
Following the 2019 local elections, it remains the largest party and has gained significant ground in Dublin in particular.
Within the Dáil parliamentary party, Martin has faced down significant pressure on many issues and won out. Most notably, his stance to support the Government’s laws to liberalise abortion came despite a large majority of his own TDsopposing the plan.
Winning two of four by-elections in November has given the party a lift and with the two parties virtually neck-and-neck in Dáil numbers, and momentum behind Martin, he appears favourite at this stage to win out.
But, having lost two elections as leader, this is his last chance and the stakes could not be higher.
Sinn Féin — 22 seats
Mary Lou McDonald failed in her first electoral test when her party lost two of their three MEPs and 80 of its local authority councillors.
She says she and her party have learned the lessons, but while they capitalised on the public anger against austerity in 2014 and 2016, they have yet to convince people they can deliver credible solutions.
For the first time, Sinn Féin says it is ready for government, even as the junior party, but Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour have all ruled out entering power with them.
Were the local election results to be repeated, Sinn Féin could lose up to 10 of its current TDs and McDonald knows that if she fails again, her tenure as leader will be cut short.
Labour Party — 7 seats
Nearly wiped out in 2016, the party has struggled for relevance in the 32nd Dáil.
A reasonable if unspectacular performance in the 2019 local and Europeans and later the four by-elections has given some in the party hope that it can increase its Dáil seat total next time around.
While the Brendan Howlin/Alan Kelly conflict has been parked, it appears that it is merely a matter of time before the young pretender will ascend to the top position.
Should it manage to win more than10 seats, then expect the party to be central to any government formation talks and Howlin could yet end up astánaiste.
Solidarity/PBP — 6 seats
Their councillors were squeezed last summer and should that be repeated, the ranks of this hard-left grouping could be greatly depleted.
The somewhat farcical split by Paul Murphy from within the group only highlights their current unfitness for high office.
They will not feature in any government talks as most others see them as unsuitable to govern.
Green Party — 3 seats
Leader Eamon Ryan, a former communications minister, has made no secret of his desire to re-enter Government.
While the climate change agenda will be one of the key themes of the election, and the party will undoubtedly make gains, there is a major question as to how ready it is to capitalise on any green wave which may arise.
Ryan’s big challenge is to win more seats than Howlin, as they are in a race to become tánaiste.
Social Democrats — 2 seats
The party, born out of disaffection with the Labour Party, could struggle to grow its Dáil presence but hopes that Gary Gannon could win a seat in Dublin-Central.
They again could end up being crucial in government formation talks.
Independents — 24 seats
The Independent Alliance appears to be no more with the decision of Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran to paddle his own canoe next time, and their time in Government is coming to an end.
No one expected them to last as long as they have and recent opinion polls show that the influence of Independent TDs in the next Dáil is likely to be reduced.
A small number of individual Independents could well be needed to shore up any working Dáil majority.