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February, Easter, May? UK results ratchet up Irish election talk but Leo says it's not the right time

Leo Varadkar says the election should be May 2020, Micheál Martin wants it in Easter. Who will win out?

Image: Francisco Seco

DOES THE UK election results pave the way for an early general election here in Ireland?

With Boris Johnson winning a thumping majority in Westminster, the UK is on its way to formally leave the EU.

First it requires Johnson to get the House of Commons approval for the withdrawal agreement, but it’s widely anticipated that it will pass by 31 January.

With the uncertainty around the withdrawal agreement lifted, it could pave the way for an early election here, with some floating the idea of February or March. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is on the record as stating that he wants the election to be held in May 2020.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said Easter time would be the “natural” end to this government. 

But who will win out? 

When asked about the possibility of an early election today in Brussels, Varadkar said: 

I think we are getting ahead of ourselves a little bit there first of all we want to see the withdrawal agreement ratified so that we can have that orderly Brexit. And secondly, I think there really has to be a focus between now and 13 Jan on Northern Ireland and getting the Assembly and Executive back up and running. That is going to be the focus.
I have always said that the election, if it’s my choice, it may not be my choice, but if it is my choice, the election would happen at the right time for the country. That’s still not yet.

What does Martin want?

He’s keen to pin down an exact date for the general election, but said it should be after Easter, which is 12 April. 

“We need clarity and we need certainty now,” said Martin, when speaking on RTÉ’s News at One today.

He said there was a lot of work to be done in the Spring session of the Dáil, and a lot of legislation that needs to get over the line. 

“Easter for me is the natural cut off point for this Dáil,” he stated. Martin said Fianna Fáil has given this government stability, but that a change of government is needed.  

He called for an “orderly wind down”, adding: “I haven’t played games with this, I am not trying to catch anyone.”

Name the date

Martin called for certainty around the date of the next general election, stating:

“There will be an election, it should happen, and it should be Easter.”

So that’s what the political party leaders are saying publically. But what is going on behind the scenes?

Since the confidence motion in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy was defeated by a slim margin of Fine Gaelers, and the cobbling together of a few independents, there has been a distinct feeling that it is the end of days for this government.

The shaky Dáil numbers means that should another motion of no confidence come in the new year, this time perhaps against the Health Minister Simon Harris or another minister, will the government have the numbers?

While a confidence motion being lost is not an automatic election bell, a government spokesperson has said that it is a “proxy vote” for the government, and if lost, this Dáil would no longer be operational.

One minster told this publication that with a clear majority in Westminster, a Brexit deal is all but done. 

After Christmas

“He [Leo Varadkar] might be minded to not even return after Christmas. He might come back on the 16 January and just call it there and then,” they said. 

Brexit has been the reason given by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for delaying an election, and the main reason for the extension of the confidence and supply arrangement. With complications with it greatly reduced, there’s not much blocking the way, said the minister. 

taoiseach-leo-varadkar-opens-shopping-centre Varadkar could be at a lot more of these events sooner than he thought if the election date moves up. Source: Niall Carson

They described the atmosphere in Leinster House and government, as “dead”, adding that people are “jaded” and ready to start knocking on the doors. 

“We were ready last year sure, and we were ready last month too” they said, adding that there is just the dregs of legislation left to get passed.

While that minister thought Varadkar might cut and run sooner rather than later, another minister said “Leo keeps his cards close to his chest, as everyone knows”.

The case of the Murphys 

However, they said that the Taoiseach is acutely aware that the government has been getting a hammering in recent weeks with the big loss in the by-elections, not to mention all the Murphy cases – Verona Murphy, Eoghan Murphy and Dara Murphy.

And then there is the Maria Bailey case, which as one TD said has left a stench around the party. 

Throw in the rising homeless numbers, the housing crisis, record numbers on trolleys as well as the impact of insurance costs, it hasn’t been a great few weeks. 

“He’s behind, he’s had a few bad weeks and he knows it, and I think he knows he needs a few weeks to build himself back up,” said the minister, who believes a date past February, closer to April is more likely. 

“I know some are saying that they don’t think he will come back after Christmas, but its his intention to come back. He does intend to come back,” they added. 

“He has had a bad few weeks, so I think he’d be avoiding an election at this point. It is difficult, as the opposition are competing to put down no confidence motions,” said the minister who acknowledged that this could take the choice of when the next election will be away from Varadkar. 

“There could be a motion in any of us, something, anything can arise between now and then that would get a minister in trouble. One of us is bound to have a bad story or mess up, and then we will have to see,” they added. 

“But I think he [Varadkar] will be making efforts to avoid it [an election]. I think he will sit on his hands for now,” they said. 

November election a missed opportunity 

Sources within Fine Gael feel the Taoiseach might have missed a beat by not calling an election in November. There was a push by some members of the party for an election at the time, though more senior figures have denied their involvement. 

“There was a clear moment in November where election speculation reached a fever pitch because things were going well for us. Leo did right thing and put the country before the party. Don’t see that logic changing,” said one Fine Gael source. 

Another said they felt November was “an opportunity missed” as there was momentum within the party to go.

However the Taoiseach is understood to have told members that he is first and foremost Taoiseach, and the party must come second. 

It’s not just government ministers and Fine Gael TDs that are growing weary. One non-government TD said the prospect of an election has been weighing on all TDs in Leinster House for the past six months. 

One Fine Gael source disagreed that Varadkar would call it after the new year stating that it will be March “at the earliest”

“A lot to be done on the Brexit front from an Irish perspective”

“Mood is good and upbeat. Clarity on Brexit although we’re disappointed to see UK leaving EU in near future. Going back to August 2018, Leo has always said Summer 2020 so we’re looking at May. Lot of work to be done now on Brexit with Boris taking our biggest trading bloc out,” said another source. 

While Varadkar has said that he might not have a choice when the election is, with perhaps Fianna Fáil pulling it all down, one minister said pressure will be on Martin from within his own party to call it a day. 

“He will get pushed, they are not going to like it [members in Fianna Fáil]. But does he want to go when he is behind. Does he want to go himself when Fianna Fáil are behind in the polls,” they said. 

One thing all members of government agree on, is that the majority reached in Westminster is good news when it comes to taking a no-deal Brexit off the table. 

The threat of a no-deal certainly delayed any prospect of an election, said one minister. 

“Weeks and weeks of preparations in all departments” were carried out in order to prepare Ireland for what might be around the corner, they said.

“That was the nightmare, the stepping into the unknown,” they said, welcoming that if nothing else, at least that is one positive to be taken from the results across the water. 

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