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Larry Donnelly: Buckle up, this #GE2020 campaign promises to be interesting

As a self-confessed political anorak, Larry Donnelly is looking forward to the race.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WELL, THE TAOISEACH finally put a stop to the incessant and increasingly annoying speculation this week.

The general election campaign is in full swing. And its opening stanza has already demonstrated – with the awful incident involving a homeless man on the Grand Canal and Leo Varadkar’s unfortunate initial response which politicised a tragedy – events that politicians, strategists and pundits, prepare as they may, cannot foresee will help to shape the contours of the contest.

The following are observations from the unique vantage point of an anorak who is fascinated by all that makes Irish campaigns and elections similar to and different from those in my life back in Boston.

First, like many parents, and unlike their children, I was personally delighted that the Taoiseach decided to hold the election on Saturday, 8 February.

For I will be out of the country on Friday, the 7th, and would, therefore, have been disenfranchised if, as had been rumoured, the election was held then.

Leaving aside the contentious topic of emigrant voting, it is indefensible that resident Irish citizens (with few exceptions) who happen to be away on the day of an election cannot vote.

The dates of general elections are set not much in advance and long after travel and other plans may have been made.

Why provision cannot be made for voters who will be away to cast their ballots ahead of time is mystifying.

And most of the related justifications proffered simply are not good enough in 2020. Early, absentee and postal voting is a fact of life in numerous other western democracies.

No excuse for this

The state of play in Ireland on this front is ludicrous. It is galling when often ill-informed observers here condemn voting processes in the United States, where voters typically have the options of voting by post or at city or town hall for days, weeks or even months prior to a designated election day. They don’t have to give any reason for doing so.

In the overwhelming majority of occasions, if putative voters find themselves in lengthy queues outside a polling place, it’s their own fault.

Second, external election watchers will be wondering if the Irish electorate will buck the trend and again endorse centrism.

While the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vote total won’t approach what it was decades ago, they are still certain to command the support of roughly half the electorate – probably more than half this time around.

Resistance to the hard left and the far right can be attributed to multiple factors. Among them are the PRSTV system, the necessarily outward-looking stance of the Irish people and their economy and the widespread experience of emigration.

In the context of the present general election, this political reality sets up what should be a fascinating “mano a mano,” presidential style match-up between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

2338 Posters This election looks like a fascinating “mano a mano,” presidential style match-up between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

They are different people and leaders, yet each is formidable in his own right. Neither enjoys the “man of the people” label that Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny, whether deserved or not, wore before them.

Their strengths as politicians lie elsewhere.

Few doubt Micheál Martin’s capacity to be the next Taoiseach. He has experience and integrity. On the other hand, while his popularity has dipped, there is still something a lot of voters like about Leo Varadkar. He has a good back story and is seen globally as the embodiment of a new Ireland.

At the same time, the former will come under attack for his prominent role in previous governments which critics say “bankrupted the country.” Many believe the latter to be unfeeling and the glib comments he is prone to making only reinforce that unenviable perception.

The electorate’s collective comparing and contrasting of the relative merits and demerits of the two leaders, especially when they face off alone in a debate to be televised by RTÉ, will help dictate their party’s fortunes.

Third, there is considerable conjecture as to how well the Green Party will fare after its successes in the European and local elections last year.

It has been posited that they have a realistic chance of electing a TD in most Dublin constituencies. Because they are transfer-friendly and because climate change definitely matters to a broad swathe of Irish people, the Greens will gain seats.

That the general election is being held on a Saturday, when third level students are more likely to vote, further bolsters their prospects.

2803 Green Party The Greens should gain seats, with a Saturday election date and an electorate that is invested in the climate change issue.

Against that rather rosy picture, two questions arise. While climate change is the party’s defining issue, could it be seen by some voters as something of a luxury in light of the immediately pressing problems of housing, homelessness and health?

The other parties, groupings and individuals on the left, particularly in Dublin and the other cities, may seek to frame the Greens as out of touch or even indifferent to the related struggles of working-class voters.

The insurgent party must convince those unacquainted with the benefits flowing from solid economic indicators that it is about more than environmental concerns and that its policies fully account for the need for a just transition.

Moreover, can the Greens win any seats outside of Dublin? Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, while embracing aspects of the green agenda, will surely posit that the costs of many of Eamon Ryan and Co’s proposals are exorbitant and reflect an ignorance of the truths of life on the ground for families outside the capital.

Some farmers, for instance, undoubtedly feel that they are being castigated unfairly for the country’s failings when it comes to meeting climate change targets.

Don’t discount the rural voter

The argument from the two main parties and independents that they are more in touch with rural Ireland is a potent one. In making the case against Green hopefuls like Saoirse McHugh in Mayo, however, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael equally need to be careful lest some of the rhetoric of their candidates beyond the pale foster a view among urban dwellers that they are “faking it” on climate change.

It’s a delicate balance.

Fourth is a related point and is what I believe could prove to be one of the dispositive elements of this campaign: the divide – some would call it a gulf – between rural and urban Ireland. And if it emerges as a significant fault line, it would operate more to Fine Gael’s detriment.

tractor 618 Farmers stopped Dublin traffic this week in protest over beef prices.If the divide between rural and urban Ireland emerges as a significant fault line, it would operate more to Fine Gael’s detriment. Source: Sam Boal

Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, notwithstanding his being sui generis, sketched out this vulnerability in a radio contribution in which he railed against the party’s Dublin leadership: the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, “from just down the road in Bray or Greystones.”

And while the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, is from Cork, his bearing and manner of speaking are undeniably patrician.

The optics, for example, of having a housing minister from one of the country’s most affluent areas in a time of unprecedented crisis are not good, to put it mildly.

Rural Fianna Fáil politicians know this and will exploit it when canvassing in parishes and townlands where jobs, investment and public transportation are sparse.

There are more than a handful of constituencies where the last seat should come down to a close scrap between the former confidence and supply partners. Attacking the Fine Gael party for being too “Dublin centric” could be one of the key tactics that tell the tale.

These are just four of the myriad elements at play that may engender many more twists and turns on the campaign trail as 8 February rapidly nears.

Buckle up.

And if a general election isn’t enough, the Iowa Caucus takes place on the 3rd and the New Hampshire Primary is on the 11th. These are heady days for avid fans of electoral politics, this one included.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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