Is the tide about to turn for Fine Gael after 25 years?

Could Fine Gael actually eclipse rivals Fianna Fáil come election time or is it simply wishful thinking, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

A QUARTER of a century ago, Fine Gael managed the incredible feat of almost eclipsing Fianna Fáil as the State’s largest party.

Its haul of 70 seats in 1982 (to Fianna Fáil’s 75) was never going to be repeated. In fact, save for one or two small peaks, it has been all downhill since.

The nadir came with the melt-down of 2002 when the party was salamandered, returning with only 31 seats. To compound its misery, it won only three seats in the Dublin constituencies, where it once held a dizzying 28.

But now the party is strongly on the comeback trail. When Enda Kenny told the parliamentary think-in in Kilkenny two years ago that the party was targeting 30 seats, the immediate two thoughts that came to mind were “impossible” and “hubris”.

But this weekend in Sligo, the party’s senior strategists, including its director of elections, Frank Flannery, are chipper, believing this target is within its sights.

To arrive at his prediction, Flannery has used a combination of recent opinion polls, Fine Gael’s own private polling and a detailed analysis of voting patterns in all 43 constituencies.

In addition to being a formidable number cruncher, Flannery is also a formidably polished and compelling communicator.

His thesis is that if Fine Gael can hit the high 20s in percentage support in the election, there is going to be a sharp increase in Fine Gael seats. The party, if it can get up near 30%, could also benefit from a seat bonus and win 33% or 34% of the seats.

There is no denying how chipper the Fine Gael mood is; and some of it is deliberate, a party wanting to show it is confident enough to put it up to Fianna Fáil and the PDs.

“I have been through 10 elections,” Kenny said at the end of the Sligo think-in yesterday.

“The tide has come in on occasion and the tide has gone out on occasion.”

And clearly he believes that the ebb of 2002 is going to be followed by a spectacular spring tide.

Flannery’s hypothesis on how things stand now is based on an aggregation of all the polls which means that Fianna Fáil will win 37% of the vote (compared with 41% in 2002); FG will win 28% or 29% and Labour will win 13%.

If that happens, he says, the FF seat tally will fall to between 61-65; Fine Gael will see its total rise from 32 to between 56 and 60 and Labour will move from 21 seats to between 24-26.

“Fine Gael will be very close to having an overall majority,” says Flannery.

There are a couple of caveats, some, in fairness, that Flannery points out himself. The predictions relate to the here or now and can’t take into account the changes, the spin, the campaigns and counter campaigns over the next nine months.

For example, Fianna Fáil has yet to roll out the big guns and it is certain that when it starts its full-blooded campaign, it will have an impact.

“This is where we are now,” says Flannery. “On the other hand the Government may engineer a last-minute recovery.”

And to be sure, Flannery’s analysis is very much that of his own party. He talks about “best case scenarios” for the party.

For example, if you follow his analysis, there will be no tangible gains for the Green Party (perhaps one or two), and only marginal gains for Sinn Féin, despite its stronger showing in election polls. There is no indication, either, of a strong surge for Labour, despite his insistence that only two of Fine Gael’s gains will come at the expense of the Mullingar Accord partners.

Elsewhere, the Fine Gael analysis identifies six possible Labour gains including Meath East, Tipperary South and Dublin South-Central.

The gains would come at the expense of Fianna Fáil, naturally, and of the PDs, who would be almost cleaned out, losing half or more of the eight seats it currently holds.

The independents would also be squeezed out in this scenario — Flannery reckons that only seven independents will return to the next Dáil.

Part of the thinking behind this is that in the absence of a feasible alternative in 2002, the electorate expressed anti-government sympathies by voting for local candidates and issues.

It is indubitable that Fine Gael will make gains and that Fianna Fáil will not reach the high watermark of 2002.

On paper, the Greens should make gains but even its strongest hopes may find themselves in fights for the last seat.

There is also a growing consensus that Sinn Féin have lost a lot of the momentum it has built up. And though it will make gains, they may be confined to two in Dublin North East and Dublin North West and a possible gain in one of the Donegal constituencies.

For Fianna Fáil, controlling the extent of slippage will be its main task. Last year’s constituency changes have already had an adverse effect on the party, even before the first real blood has been spilled. It has already conceded one loss in Cork North Central; it has three TDs vying for a maximum of two seats in Cork North West; and with the transfer of Batt O’Keeffe to that constituency, it will have difficulty retaining three in Cork South Central.

Moreover, two of its TDs in Dublin North Central have an unenviable task in a constituency that has been reduced from four seats to three.

Fine Gael predicts sweeping gains in all constituencies, with gains in most Dublin and Cork constituencies.

The capital will be the cockpit of the election — Fine Gael is predicting that it can make 10 gains, most at the expense of Fianna Fáil or the PDs.

Sligo Cllr Imelda Henry and Deputy Olwyn Enright: a Fine Gael gain is predicted in Sligo-North Leitrim.

Where Fine Gael may make its election gains

KEY: Constituency: gain or loss (FG seat/total seat)

Donegal North East: FG gain (1/3)

Donegal South West: FG loss (0/3)

Cavan-Monaghan: FG gain (2/5)

Sligo-North Leitrim: FG gain (2/3)

Roscommon-South Leitrim: FG gain (new constit) (2/3)

Mayo: FG gain (3/5)

Galway East: FG gain (2/4)

Galway West: same (1/5)

Clare: FG gain (2/4)

Limerick East: same (1/5)

Limerick West: FG gain (2/4)

Tipperary North: FG gain (1/3)

Tipperary South: same (1/3)

Kerry North: same (1/3)

Kerry South: FG gain (1/3)

Cork North West: FG gain (2/3)

Cork South West: FG gain (2/3)

Cork North Central: same (1/4)

Cork South Central: FG gain (2/5)

Cork East: FG gain (2/4)

Waterford: same (1/4)

Wexford: same (2/5)

Carlow-Kilkenny: FG gain (2/5)

Wicklow: same (1/4)

Laois-Offaly: FG gain (2/5)

Kildare North: same (1/4)

Kildare South: FG gain (1/3)

Meath East: same (1/3)

Meath West: same (1/3)

Longford-Westmeath: same (new constit) (1/4)

Louth: same (1/4)

Dun Laoghaire: FG gain (2) (2/5)

Dublin South: FG gain (2/5)

Dublin South West: FG gain (1/4)

Dublin South East: FG gain (1/4)

Dublin South Central: same (1/5)

Dublin Central: FG gain (1/4)

Dublin Mid West: FG gain (1/4)

Dublin West: FG gain (1/3)

Dublin North Central: same (1/3)

Dublin North East: FG gain (1/3)

Dublin North West: same (0/3)

Dublin North: FG gain (1/4)

GAINS: 27 TOTAL: 58/166.

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