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#Elections2019 analysis: Public make it clear to Varadkar, must do better

Since the RTE/TG4 exit poll dropped at 10 pm on Friday evening, most of the talk about the local and European elections has been about the so-called 'Green Wave'.

For a party which was wiped out at national level in 2011 and almost wiped out at local level in 2009, the news was extremely welcome.

Likely to be the dominant party in Dublin at 18%, certain of at least one MEP seat and possibly three, this election is a hugely significant milestone for Eamon Ryan and his band of eco-warriors.

But for the larger parties, it has been and will be once counting is all said and done a disappointing.

Having boasted only weeks ago of winning an extra 50 seats, Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael were certainly chastened by the result of the exit poll, which at 23% put them neck and neck with Fianna Fail.

That boast gave way to a mantra of being the first party of government in 20 years to increase their local party seat number. Since the exit poll, such claims have all but disappeared.

Continuing underway in the Nemo Rangers hall in Cork this morning.
Continuing underway in the Nemo Rangers hall in Cork this morning.

In 2014, at the last local elections, Fianna Fail shocked many by becoming the largest party at local level winning 267 of 949 council seats, compared to Fine Gael's 235.

Enda Kenny's party that day, in the teeth of the Irish Water controversy, lost an incredible 105 seats, ironically the exact same number Sinn Féin gained on the day.

This time around, despite starting from that lower base, Varadkar's hopes of a return to former glory is in jeopardy.

Primarily, Varadkar and his Dublin-centric cabinet have been seeking to woo rural voters in recent months and weeks, with announcements to beat the band complete with money and goodies.

Micheál Martin at the Ireland South constituency and local election count in Nemo Rangers Sports Centre, Cork. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Micheál Martin at the Ireland South constituency and local election count in Nemo Rangers Sports Centre, Cork. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

A succession of opinion polls put Fine Gael in the mid-30s in Dublin yet the RTÉ exit poll - which has a margin of error of 3 per cent - had Fine Gael on 15 per cent, just one per cent ahead of Fianna Fáil on 14 per cent.

One interpretation is that Dublin voters have fallen out of love with Leo and such a drop in support has sent a stiff breeze up the backs of many a Fine Gael minister and strategist.

Were such a scenario repeated at a General Election, Fine Gael will quickly find themselves back on the opposition benches in Leinster House.

Where did it go wrong for them?

For much of the period since Varadkar became Taoiseach in June 2017, Fine Gael has consistenly polled up to 10 points higher than Fianna Fail, and the bedrock of that gap has been the party's strong standing in Dublin.

The party has endured a torrid 2019 so far, with controversies relating to the National Children's Hospital, the National Broadband Plan and Cervical Check badly damaging the Government's credibility.

Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton at the Local and European Elections and divorce referendum counts in the RDS, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton at the Local and European Elections and divorce referendum counts in the RDS, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Too, during the campaign, the story about Dun Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey's personal injuries legal action against a hotel has knocked the party even further.

It reinforced an image of an out of touch government party ignorant of the needs of small business owners across the country.

While it is hard to quantify the damage the Bailey case, now dropped, did to Fine Gael, there was certainly considerable internal anger within the party at her.

In terms of the European elections, it is a bit of a mixed bag for Varadkar.

Frances Fitzgerald will slot into the Dublin seat vacated by Brian Hayes and Sean Kelly will certainly top the poll in Ireland South as will Mairead McGuinness in Midlands/Northwest.

However, if as expected Deirdre Clune, a sitting MEP, is to fall short despite a well-monied campaign, questions will be asked.

Senior Fine Gael ministers said the party will need to reflect on the result but insisted the prospect of an early election has lessened. No Taoiseach would willfully want to go to the people in such relatively hostile waters.

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