Adrian Kavanagh, 26th September 2014
This is the second in 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 (September 2014)! The different provisos outlined in the first post in this series on Fine Gael will also apply in the case of this second post, which will focus on Fianna Fáil.
While Fianna Fáil’s support levels in most recent opinion polls have marked an improvement on their 2011 General Election performance, the extent of these support gains has not proven to be especially notable and has been dwarfed by the levels of gains for Sinn Féin and the Independents and Others grouping, as indicated by these same polls. Against that, the party has been performing much better than then polls would suggest when it comes to actual electoral contests and the 25.3% vote share won by the party in the May local elections was higher than the Fianna Fáil support levels in most of these recent polls (and also notably higher also than the support levels measured in the exit poll taken on the day of the elections of May 23rd 2014). The decline in support levels for the two government parties has created opportunity spaces for Fianna Fáil to make gains at the next election, while the changes made by the 2012 Constituency Commission report were generally quite favourable from a Fianna Fáil point of view also.
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 gain between ten and twenty, or even more, seats at the next general election. The party support patterns at the local elections suggests there will be a definite geography to the potential seat gains, with the party likely to fare better in rural areas and less well in the Dublin constituencies, though some of the latter constituencies may offer considerable potential for Fianna Fáil seat gains.
Top Ten Problem Constituencies:
- Dublin Central: During the Ahern era this was one of the party’s strongest constituencies, but the party vote here has fallen notably since the 2007 General Election (when Bertie Ahern brought in Cyprian Brady on his surplus) and this decline in support levels in this constituency continued into May’s local elections. Boundary changes associated with the 2012 Constituency Commission report have not helped matters either. This constituency has lost a seat and some of its territory to the neighbouring Dublin North-West and Dublin West constituencies, including much of Mary Fitzpatrick’s old Navan Road/Ashtown political base.
- 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: Fianna Fáil held two seats in the old Dublin South constituency after the 2007 General Election, but failed to win any seat in 2011 – although the party probably came closer to holding a seat here than they did in most other Dublin constituencies. Compared with the rest of Dublin, Fianna Fáil fared better here at the May local elections than they did in a number of other parts of that region. The problem here has to do with the reduction in seat levels – from 5 seats in the old Dublin South to 3 seats in this new constituency, with a number of traditionally stronger Fianna Fáil areas now also moved into the neighbouring constituencies.
- Louth: This constituency traditionally was a strong one for Fianna Fáil, but the party lost a lot of ground in this area at the 2009 and 2011 elections, although Seamus Kirk’s holding of the position of Ceann Comhairle means they still hold a Dáil seat in this constituency despite failing to win one here at the general election contest (where Louth effectively became a four seater due to automatic election of Kirk). Kirk will not be contesting the next election. On the basis of the local election results in Louth in May the party should hold that seat (although this is by no means a 100% certainty, especially with the growth of Sinn Féin support) but a further gain does not look likely at this stage.
- Dublin Bay South: Traditionally this constituency (or the old Dublin South-East) has been one of Fianna Fáil’s weaker constituencies and party prospects here suffered another setback with the defection of Chris Andrews to Sinn Féin (and the loss of personal vote). The party’s performance in the local elections, where they won two Council seats here and took over fifteen percent of the first preference votes, suggests they can nonetheless entertain hope of a seat gain in this four seat constituency, but candidate selection will be vital.
- Dublin North-West: The main issues here for Fianna Fáil relates to the constituency size, although the party performances in the central and western parts of the North City area may offer further cause for concern. Fianna Fáil are by no means without prospects here and will be helped by the fact that this constituency has become somewhat more middle class with the inclusion of parts of the old Bertie Ahern bailiwick. But Sinn Féin and Róisín Shortall look well placed to take two of the three seats here and on current poll levels Sinn Féin could be well placed to take the third. At this point in time it looks that at best Fianna Fáil will be contending for this final seat with the second Sinn Féin candidate, Fine Gael, Labour and other independents.
- Waterford: The party lost both of their seats in this constituency at the 2011 General Election, with an ill-advised single candidate strategy preventing Fianna Fáil from taking one of the seats here. The party won the equivalent of just under a quota for the general election constituency, suggesting that they have a good chance of winning back a seat here. But candidate selection will be crucial and if they get this wrong then a gain might not pan out here. They also need to claim a seat from one of the four incumbents – while the Labour seat is vulnerable, John Halligan is well placed to hold his seat and Fine Gael can entertain hopes of defending both of their seats – while Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane is also strongly placed to make a gain here.
- Dublin Mid-West: Fianna Fáil lost John Curran’s seat here in 2011. Based on their local election performances in Lucan and Clondalkin, where the party’s combined share of the vote came in at just over eleven percent, the party would appear to be facing a struggle here to regain that seat. Sinn Féin are better placed here than Fianna Fáil to make seat gains here and the prospect of two gains is by no means impossible, especially following the party’s performance in the Clondalkin electoral area especially. Gino Kenny of the People Before Profit Alliance is another candidate who would be contesting any further potential seat gains here with Fianna Fáil.
- Dublin South-West: The Conor Lenihan and Charlie O’Connor seats were lost here in 2011, when the party’s share of the vote fell by close to thirty percent of the first preference vote. While the party fared better here in the May local elections and did not do as badly as in other, more working class, Dublin constituencies such as Dublin Central and Dublin South-Central, this still amounted to one of the weakest Fianna Fáil performances by Dáil constituency area in those elections with the party winning under fifteen percent of the vote. Fianna Fáil are unlikely to challenge strongly for victory in the upcoming by-election, especially as the Rathfarnham base of their candidate, John Lahart, is not part of the old Dublin South-West constituency. But the Rathfarnham area will be part of the enlarged five seat constituency at the next general election and this suggests Fianna Fáil have a good chance of regaining one of their lost seats. But that will probably amount to the sum of their ambitions in this constituency.
- Kildare North and Wicklow: Fianna Fáil won just under 25% of the vote in this constituency in the May local elections and should regain one of the two seats lost by the party in 2011 when it comes to the next general election. But on present national poll levels, a seat gains is likely to amount to the sum of the party’s ambitions at this contest and this could well prove to be one of the party’s weaker constituencies (in terms of vote share) at this election. In a similar vein to Kildare North, the party should be able to command more than a quota in Wicklow at the next general election, after having won just over twenty percent of the vote at the May local elections, but a second seat gain is unlikely. Candidate selection will also have a significant bearing on party prospects here; if the party gets this wrong then they may face a struggle to even make that one seat gain.
Top Ten (or rather Eleven) Promising Constituencies
- Sligo-Leitrim: The old Sligo-North Leitrim constituency gained a seat (and territory in south Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan) in the 2012 Constituency Commission boundary amendments. Had these changes been in place at the 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil would almost certainly have won one seat here. As it stands, Fianna Fáil should regain one seat in this constituency at the next general election and their results in this area at the May local elections suggest that they could be in contention to take a second seat here.
- Cork South-Central: One of the party seats could be 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 within Cork City specifically. But the local strength of Fianna Fáil in the home constituency of that party’s leader, as also evidenced in May’s local elections, suggests that Fianna Fáil are less likely to lose a seat than Labour or Fine Gael here. Winning two out of five seats at the 2011 contest was a very good result here for Fianna Fáil, but taking two out of four here at the next general election will amount to another good result.
- Dún Laoghaire: Even though this constituency effectively loses a seat due to Sean Barrett currently holding the position of Ceann Comhairle, Fianna Fáil can entertain real prospects of regaining a seat here. Despite – or maybe because of – the internal conflict in the Blackrock electoral area, the party fared well in this area in the local elections, taking roughly twenty percent of the vote and four Council seats. A similar result at the general election would probably see Fianna Fáil take one of the three seats (excluding the Barrett seat) being contested here.
- Offaly: Offaly was one of only a few counties in the state at the 2011 election in which the Fianna Fáil share of the vote rivalled that of Fine Gael. With the party taking more than a third of all the votes cast in the area covered by this new stand-alone constituency (which also includes the northern part of Tipperary) at the May local elections, they are more than well placed to retain the Barry Cowan seat here and also to challenge for a second seat. A seat gain here might be prevented by the strength of independents such as (former party member) John Foley and John Leahy and the rapid growth in Sinn Féin support levels, but the vulnerability of Fine Gael here means that Fianna Fáil could yet take two seats even if one is won by a Sinn Féin or independent candidate.
- Roscommon-Galway: One of the weakest performances by Fianna Fáil in a rural constituency came in Roscommon-South Leitrim in the 2011 General Election. Solely on the basis of that performance – and with Fianna Fáil support levels hovering around the twenty percent level in recent national opinion polls – it might appear that the party would face a struggle to regain a seat in this constituency. However, a strong performance in Roscommon in the local elections, counterpointed by a weak Fine Gael performance there, suggests that the party should be able to win more than a quota comfortably here at the next general election.
- Carlow-Kilkenny: This was one of Fianna Fáil’s stronger constituencies in 2011 in terms of percentage vote share won, but Fianna Fáil still lost two of their three seats here. Fianna Fáil’s improving (albeit not dramatic) fortunes in opinion polls suggest they should regain one of these seats at the next general election (especially given that Phil Hogan will not be contesting this constituency). But strong performances in the local election – especially in Kilkenny – suggest that two gains might be an outside possibility here, especially if the party gets their decisions right as to their Carlow and South Kilkenny candidates. A win in next Spring’s by-election could set them up for a strong challenge here at a general election that is likely to take place some months after that contest.
- Dublin West: This was one of a very small number of constituencies that Fianna Fáil did not lose seats in at the 2011 General Election. Results in the two by-elections held in this constituency over the past three years, as well as in the local election contests in this area (especially the Castleknock electoral area) in May 2014, strongly suggest that the party is well placed to regain the seat lost hear with the death of Brian Lenihan. Prospects will be further helped by the transfer in of the Ashtown/Navan Road area into this constituency.
- Clare: Traditionally this has been one of Fianna Fáil’s stronger constituencies. Fianna Fáil lost a seat here in 2011, but the party share of the vote in the May local elections was not far off the level required to attain two quotas in a general election contest. The party seems well placed to regain the seat lost here in 2011 on the basis of this.
- Laois: At present it looks as if the current status quo of one Laois seat each for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will be the result at the next general election contest. But – even with their strong performance in national polls – it is by no means guaranteed that Sinn Féin can retain the seat they won in the five-seat Laois-Offaly in this new three-seat constituency, even though the party vote was notably higher in Laois at the February 2011 contest. If Sinn Féin fail to retain their seat, then there is a good chance that this might fall to Fianna Fáil.
- Meath East and Meath West: Fianna Fáil held four seats in the Meath constituencies prior to the February 2011 elections, but lost all of these at those elections. The party local election performance in the Meath electoral areas in the May 2014 contest (winning just under 28% of the vote across the county), in addition to a strong performance at the 2013 Meath East by-election, suggest that Fianna Fáil are well placed to make a gain in both of these constituencies at the next general election.
- Dublin Bay North: Fianna Fail currently have no seats in Dublin – and hence none in any of the North City constituencies, where the party held 8 out of 14 seats back at the 2002 General Election. The party had a mixed result at the local elections, faring well in the Clontarf electoral area, with over 24 percent of the vote and taking 2 of the 6 seats, but less well in Beaumont-Donaghmede (just over 14 percent of the vote) while the Howth/Sutton-based candidate, Aileen Woods, fared poorly in the Howth-Malahide electoral area. But the party does have a selection of strong and high profilecandidates to choose from here – Senator Averil Power, former Dail deputy Sean Haughey and Cllr. Deirdre Heney. The potential strength of the Fianna Fail ticket should ensure one seat gain here. Could competition between the candidates potentially spark a second seat here, along the lines of the Kate Feeney-Mary Hanafin contest in Blackrock in the May 2014 local elections and the Avril Doyle-Mairead McGuinness contest in the East constituency at the 2004 European Elections?