With the government having survived a series of hurdles in the latter months of 2009 – the renewal programme for government discussions between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, the NAMA debate and the Budget – it now looks likely that – barring a series of by-election defeats – that the next general election will take now take place some time in the spring or summer of 2012.
This election will be fought on the basis of the new electoral boundaries, as recommended by the 2007 Constituency Commission report and as legally enacted by the 2009 Electoral Act. The scope of the changes involved in this report is not as extensive as those involved in previous boundary reports, with no new constituencies created (although the Limerick and north Kerry constituencies have been renamed), only a handful of constituencies losing (Limerick City, Dún Laoghaire) or gaining (Louth, Dublin West) extra Dáil seats, and territory transfers involving some other constituencies. Although obviously having some impact at the local scale, in national terms these changes should not unduly influence the results of the next general election.
The most recent Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll currently ranks Fianna Fáil as the third most popular political party in the state, after Fine Gael and the Labour Party, and the local and European elections of June 2009 proved to be the first national elections since the late 1920s in which Fianna Fáil did not emerge as the largest party in terms of votes and seats. In the local elections, Fianna Fáil won over 125,000 fewer votes and 122 fewer seats than Fine Gael did, but they did win over 200,000 more votes and 86 more seats than Labour did. On this basis, while Fianna Fáil currently trail Labour in the opinion polls, it is safe to say that they will outpoll Labour at the next general election.
Why? The main reason has to do with the geography of Labour Party support, with very weak levels of support for the party registered across large tracts of the Irish political landscape – in 2007, for instance, Labour contested very constituency in the state but failed to win over 5% of the vote in any of the Connacht-Ulster constituencies (apart from Galway West), as well as Clare, Cork North-West, Laois-Offaly and Meath West. Draw a line between the cities of Dublin and Cork and there are very few pockets of solid Labour Party support to be found – with the notable exceptions of Limerick City, Galway City and the towns of Mullingar, Drogheda, Killarney and Tralee. The bad news for Fianna fáil, however, is that although Labour may not pose a serious electoral threat in a number of constituencies, these also prove to be the constituencies where the electoral threat from Fine Gael proves to be the most potent – conversely, the eastern constituencies where Fine Gael support is weakest generally tend to be the constituencies where Labour polls strongest.
The constituencies where the next election could be won (and lost…)
Given the nature of Ireland’s electoral system and the small numbers of votes that usually decide the destination of the last seat(s) in most constituencies, it could be argued that every Irish Dáil constituency is marginal. However, there are some constituencies where significant changes in representation levels appear unlikely at this stage (Clare, Galway East, Laois-Offaly, Waterford, Wexford) or appear to be relatively predictable (Dublin West – Joe Higgins will probably win the extra seat in this enlarged four seat constituency). On the other hands, the results in some constituencies could prove to be decisive in terms of determining the relative balance of government party (Fianna Fáil/Green Party) and Fine Gael/Labour seats, and hence the composition of the next government. Constituencies that would fall into this category include Cork East, Dublin Central, Dublin Mid West, Dublin South, Dublin South Central, Kerry North-West Limerick and Sligo-North Leitrim, but in my opinion the five key constituencies could well prove to be:
- Carlow Kilkenny (5 seats): The government parties could easily lose two seats in this constituency. In 2007, the combined Fine Gael and Labour vote here came to 26,355, or 39.0% of the total vote, yet between them the two parties won as many seats (i.e. one!) as the Green Party did with just 5,386 votes (8.0%). Labour and Fine Gael will both be looking to take the Green Party seat, but the third Fianna Fáil seat in this constituency is also vulnerable.
- Cork South Central (5 seats): Despite combining to enter government after the last general election, both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party lost seats to Fine Gael and Labour in this constituency in 2007. As opposed to the other examples, this is a constituency where the government parties must be the ones looking to gain seats if they are to enjoy any prospect of retaining power after 2012.
- Dublin North (4 seats): Between them, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have won roughly 60 per cent of the vote and three out of the four seats on offer in this constituency in the last three general elections. With this constituency having ceded significant amounts of territory to neighbouring Dublin West and Dublin North West in the 2007 Constituency Commission report, this constituency will be very unpredictable, but the second Fianna Fáil and/or the Green Party seat must be viewed as vulnerable to a gain by Labour or Clare Daly of the Socialist Party.
- Dublin South East (4 seats): Traditionally, Dublin South East and Dún Laoghaire (see below) tend to be included amongst the most volatile constituencies in the state – if there is a national swing towards/against a party in an election then this will tend to assume tidal proportions in these constituencies. This has traditionally tended to be one of Fianna Fáil’s weakest constituencies, but the party won almost one and a half quotas here in 2007 and, barring a total electoral disaster, should probably hold this in 2012. The vulnerable government seat is that of John Gormley, the current Minister for the Environment, especially given that he only narrowly retained this seat in the 2007 election. However, should Gormley retain his seat, or should his seat be won instead by Fianna Fáil, then a Fine Gael-Labour government after this election might not prove to be as certain as has been expected.
- Dún Laoghaire (4 seats): As well as being one of the most volatile constituencies in the state, Dún Laoghaire lost a seat in the 2007 Constituency Commission boundary revisions, meaning that at least one of the five current incumbents will lose their seat in 2012. Of these, the most likely victim is Ciarán Cuffe, who currently holds what is probably the most vulnerable of the six Green Party seats. In 2007, Cuffe won the last seat in the constituency despite winning less than half of a quota and he proved to be highly dependent on Fine Gael and Labour transfers. With these transfers likely to dry up somewhat in 2012 and with the percentage share of the vote needed to reach the quota increased from 16⅔% to 20%, one could feel almost safe in betting a house on Cuffe failing to retain his seat in 2012: it would be an exceptional achievement if he were to hold his seat, even in slightly less unpromising times for the government parties. But given the volatility of this constituency, a national swing against Fianna Fáil would leave at least one of their two seats here vulnerable, either to a resurgent Fine Gael or Labour or to Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit alliance.