With little more than a year (at most!) to go until the next general election and with the candidate selection convention process likely to commence in the coming months, I am going to start of a series of posts where I offer a geographical perspective on the state of play for the different parties at this point in time. Note – I stress at this point in time! I also throw in the proviso that changes in party support trends do not vary evenly across space – as past elections have shown, party support levels can hold up well or increase to higher degrees in some constituencies, relative to a national average, whereas changes in party support in other constituencies can prove to be highly disappointing in the context of those same national trends. As examples have shown in the past (many of which seem to be involve Westmeath!!!), candidates can often eschew what is an unpromising political climate for their party and hold their support levels and seats when national trends might suggest otherwise.
This first post will look at Fine Gael. While much of the focus in terms of declining government support levels has been on the Labour Party, it is worth noting that Fine Gael too has experienced a similarly notable fall in party support levels, as measured in opinion polls over the past three and a half years, while the party lost more than a hundred seats in May’s City and County Council elections – a result that was offset somewhat by the results in the European Parliament elections and the Longford-Westmeath Dáil by-election. On the basis of the most recent opinion polls at this point in time, with the added proviso of the overall reduction in Dáil seat numbers and further changes to constituency boundaries, the party could lose between twenty and thirty, or even more, seats at the next general election.
Top Ten Problem Constituencies:
- Cork South-Central: One of the party seats are at risk here, mainly due the loss of a seat in the 2012 Constituency Commission boundary amendments and rising Sinn Féin fortunes, both nationally and with Cork City specifically, but also down to the local strength of Fianna Fáil in the home constituency of that party’s leader.
- Dublin Central: Paschal Donohoe may have been promoted to the cabinet, but this constituency – which Fine Gael did not hold a seat in between 2002 and 2011 – has become a more difficult prospect after the 2012 Constituency Commission moved some of the more middle class areas into the neighbouring Dublin North West and Dublin West constituencies. To make matters worse, this is now a three-seat constituency, have lost a seat in the boundary amendments. The party’s local election performances in North Inner City and Cabra-Finglas (part of which of course will be in Dublin North-West) would also need to be significantly improved on to keep Fine Gael in contention for one of the three seats here.
- Dublin South-Central: There was only one other Dáil constituency area that Fine Gael fared worse in than in the Dublin Central constituency area at the May local elections and that was Dublin South-Central. Fine Gael’s strongest area in this constituency – the Terenure area – has now been moved into Dublin Bay South (and the number of seats have also been reduced by one), which also makes this one of the most working class constituencies in the state. This constituency could well return four out of four left of centre candidates at the next general election. Even if that does not prove to be the case, Fine Gael will face a challenge from Fianna Fáil for the one centre/right of centre seat in this constituency.
- Dublin Rathdown: Winning three out of the five seats in Dublin South, especially in the face of the Ross-slide, amounted to one of the best Fine Gael performances at the 2011 election. But the party locally in the last few years have had to face a perfect storm of defections, ministerial resignations and of course boundary changes. The 2012 Constituency Commission boundary amendments have significantly reduced the size of this constituency and changed it from being a five-seater to a three-seater, while also renaming it. Given their local strength, Fine Gael will be hopeful of taking at least one seat here. But with Shane Ross and a cabinet minister (Alex White) both based in this constituency, as well as the Green Party leader, and with Fianna Fáil’s fortunes improving (at least relative to 2011), the party faces a struggle to take more than one of the three seats here.
- Cavan-Monaghan: This constituency has lost a seat in the 2012 Constituency Commission boundary amendments, as well as the western part of Cavan to the new Sligo-Leitrim four-seat constituency. One of Fine Gael’s best results in 2011 was gaining two seats here to take 3 out of the 5 seats. It is hard to see the party retaining all these three seats at the next general election. With the rise of Sinn Féin, there is also a significant risk here that there might be just one Fine Gael seat in Cavan-Monaghan at the next general election.
- Roscommon-Galway: The Roscommon Hospital issue, the loss Denis Naughten, a Fianna Fáil revival and the local strength of independent candidates all combine to make this a very difficult constituency for Fine Gael. Furthermore, the boundary change means that Frank Feighan’s North Roscommon base moves from being at the heart of the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency to the periphery of the new Roscommon-Galway constituency, also depleting the pool of local votes that he can hope to draw from.
- Wicklow: Fine Gael comfortably took three of the five seats here in 2011. However the Billy Timmins defection means that one of these seats (at least for now) is lost to the party. Sinn Féin came very close to winning a seat here in 2011, while support levels at the May local elections suggest that Fianna Fáil are well placed to regain a seat here. The sum of Fine Gael ambitions for the next general election, unless Timmins returns to the fold, would be two seats and there might be just one seat here of the next general election turns out to be a bad day for the party…
- Louth: This still remains a five-seat constituency and all of these seats will be contested at the next general election, as opposed to the case in 2011 when Seamus Kirk’s automatic return as Ceann Comhairle meant Louth was effectively a four-seater. With effectively more seats up for grabs, this should bode well for Fine Gael’s chances of retaining their two seats here. But the local election performance in this area in May (including a disappointing result in Drogheda, which is normally Fine Gael’s strongest area within this constituency) leaves the party with a significant amount of ground here to make up between now and the next general election if they hope to retain both seats, especially in the face of a likely strong change from Sinn Féin for a seat gain, or possibly even two, here.
- Offaly: The splitting of the Laois-Offaly constituency into two new three-seat constituencies must pose significant challenges for a Fine Gael party, whose support levels have fallen notably since the last general election. This is especially the case in Offaly; a county in which the party has polled well behind Fianna Fáil in all recent general election contests, even including the 2011 election. The inclusion of the northern parts of Tipperary county within this constituency is unlikely to significantly improve Fine Gael prospects here, but instead will undermine Noel Coonan’s prospects in the new Tipperary five-seater. A disappointing result in the local elections, in which Fine Gael took just over seventeen percent of the vote and three seats in Offaly, also suggests that the party could face problems in taking one of the three seats here at the next election, unless there is a notable improvement in party support levels over the next year, or so.
- Donegal: The growing strength of Sinn Féin, added to the Fianna Fáil recovery and the challenge offered by independents, would have meant that Fine Gael would have faced a struggle to hold either of their two seats in Donegal had the county remained split between two three-seat constituencies. The amalgamation of (most of) these two constituencies into a new five-seat constituency does notably help Fine Gael’s prospects of taking at least one seat in Donegal at the next general election, although the results of May’s local elections suggest that this will amount to the sum of the party’s ambitions in that constituency. With just over fifteen percent of the vote in Donegal county at May’s local elections and with part of southern Donegal, where they party has tended to fare best in that county, being moved into the Sligo-Leitrim four-seater, even that one Fine Gael seat is by no means guaranteed however.
Top Ten Promising Constituencies
- Dublin North West: In the present political climate it is hard to conceive of a constituency where Fine Gael could win a seat. Ironically, the one constituency that Fine Gael failed to win a seat in at the 2011 contest could provide such a gain. This constituency has become more middle class arising from the boundary amendments in the 2012 Constituency Commission report, although – that being said – it is still one of the most working class constituencies in the state and could again conceivably return three left-of-centre candidates as was the case in 2011, especially if Fine Gael does not significantly improve on its local election performance in this area in which Noel Rock was the only Fine Gael candidate to be elected to Dublin City Council from this area.
- Galway West: Logic dictates that the first Fine Gael seat loss should come in Galway West, a constituency where the party took the final seat by a margin of just 17 votes in 2011. However, the addition of a significant chunk of territory from Mayo has changed the political balance in this constituency and gives Fine Gael a chance at least of retaining both their seats here.
- Dún Laoghaire: With Sean Barrett as Ceann Comhairle to be automatically returned to the next Dáil, Fine Gael will expect to still have two seats in this constituency following the next general election, with the party well placed to contest for one of three seats in this constituency, especially following a relatively strong performance in this area at the local election contests.
- Longford-Westmeath: With Fine Gael notably stronger than Fianna Fáil in the last general and local elections in Longford County, this gives the party a notable head start in this constituency. (The by-election win in May must also be looked on as good for the morale of the local party.) This is by no means to under-estimate the challenge Fine Gael face in taking two out of the four seats here (as has always been the case throughout the history of this particular constituency), especially given improving fortunes for Fianna Fáil and the rise of Sinn Féin and with Willie Penrose likely to fight hard to hold onto his seat here.
- Galway East: The reduction in seat numbers (from 4 to 3), of course, will not help Fine Gael, nor will the strong independent challenge and the recovery in Fianna Fáil fortunes (especially in the wake of gaining another TD in this constituency following Colm Keaveney’s defection). But a strong local election performance in this area suggest that Fine Gael probably still holds a realistic chance of taking two seats here (especially if they apply good vote management) and – given that they held two out of four in 2007 and 2011 – two out of three definitely ain’t bad…
- Laois: In the old Laois-Offaly five seat constituency, the Laois Fine Gael TD was never certain of retaining their seat and indeed lost it on one occasion (2002). Ironically the splitting of the constituency/reduction in constituency seat numbers probably helps Fine Gael here (while working against the party in Offaly) as there should be enough party votes in Laois (and the “bit of Kildare”) to see them hold one seat here at the next general election.
- Limerick County: In the present political climate and on the basis of recent opinion polls, Fine Gael are at risk of seat losses in all of the Dáil constituencies, but the party results in the recent local elections (where they outpolled Fianna Fáil in both Limerick City and County) suggest that they might entertain hopes of holding their two seats here unless there is an especially strong challenge from an independent candidate/independent candidates or unless Fianna Fáil claw back more ground in the next 12-15 months. The (new) Limerick County constituency area also represented the strongest performance by Fine Gael out of all the (new) Dáil constituency areas at the May local elections.
- Limerick City: The scenario outlined for Limerick County also applies here. There is the added dimension here of a strong challenge from Sinn Féin for a gain in this four-seat constituency, though the Labour seat as opposed to the second Fine Gael set may be the more vulnerable to the Sinn Féin challenge.
- Cork South-West: In a similar vein to Limerick County (but perhaps not to the same degree), this is a three-seat rural constituency in which Fine Gael can entertain some hopes of holding their two seats on the basis of a decent performance locally in the May elections. Fianna Fáil look almost certain of regaining a seat here, but the Labour seat is by far the most vulnerable of the three seats here. Fianna Fáil may not be likely to take two seats here also, but of course the second Fine Gael seat will be at risk from a likely to be strong challenge here from an independent candidate, or group of candidates, as well as from Sinn Féin.
- Dublin South-West: Fine Gael currently holds no seat in this constituency after Brian Hayes won a seat in the Dublin constituency at May’s European elections and are unlikely to reclaim this seat at the upcoming by-election. However, boundary changes (involving the gaining of an extra seat and the inclusion of the old Rathfarnham electoral area -i.e. the area that formed this constituency prior to the 2013 boundary changes) will significantly improve Fine Gael’s chances of winning back that seat at the next general election. A solid performance, in relative terms, at the local elections in this areas suggest the party should have at least a quota, or close to it, in the new, larger constituency, especially if the party can claw back some support at the national level over the coming year.