• Election 2020

Analysis: Fine Gael may struggle but can Adams-less Sinn Féin capitalise?

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We are a little over five days away from the polls opening in the general election. The Louth constituency is one of the most intriguing in the country. Home to two of the biggest towns in the country, on the border and with one of the most recognisable and polarising figures in Irish politics stepping down, many eyes will be fixed on how the count transpires in Louth next Sunday.

15 candidates vie for just five seats in the county. There’s interest across the board – Drogheda will go one way, Dundalk and the north of the county another. What way will mid-Louth sway? Will the status quo remain or is change upon us? Here, Editor-In-Chief Barry Landy offers his analysis.

/ Can O Murchu and Munster fill the Adams void?

Gerry Adams decision to retire leaves Ruairi O Murchu, a relative newcomer to politics with just over two years experience on Louth County Council, attempting to retain his seat.

O Murchu has risen quickly up within the party and has developed somewhat of a catchphrase in the last two weeks – he doesn’t want to be the candidate who loses Gerry Adams seat.

He has trotted that out on more than occasion and it’s obvious to see why – he doesn’t. North Louth is a Sinn Féin hotbed and a failure to retain the Adams’ seat would suggest the party’s popularity hinged more on the personality of the outgoing TD and former party leader than anything else.

Will O Murchu be able to hoover up the votes vacated by Adams or will Drogheda based Imelda Munster – elected in 2016 with 13% of first preference votes – be seen in the eyes of Sinn Féin supporters county-wide as the parties’ senior figure in Louth; the de facto number one?

A former councillor, Munster topped the polls in the local elections in 2014 and subsequently registered a very credible 13% first preference in the 2016 General Election, making Sinn Féin the big winners in Louth as they claimed a second seat to coincide with the constituency expanding from four to five seats.

Over the last four years, Munster has established herself as a strong and competent figure in Dáil Éireann, acting as the party’s spokesperson on Transport, Tourism and Sport and standing out last year during the Oireachtas committee hearings on the fallout regarding accounts at the Football Association of Ireland.

/ Unquestionably a man of the people, is an untethered ‘Fitzer’ the dark horse in this race?

Peter Fitzpatrick, arguably, is the most interesting figure of all. Looking to be re-elected for a third term, there’s a lot of water under Fitzpatrick’s particular bridge since he crept into the final seat back in 2016, pipping Ged Nash.

Notably, he’s running as an Independent now having left Fine Gael in 2018.

Fitzpatrick was vehemently opposed repealing the eighth amendment. Senior members of Fine Gael, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris, had supported the change in the law. Fitzpatrick felt his affiliation with the party was no longer tenable and resigned months after the vote.

After first stating he would not stand in the next election, he then decided to stand as an Independent. A former Louth senior football manager, Fitzpatrick was named the new County Board chairman late last year.

Will he suffer without the support of Fine Gael to fall back on? Not necessarily. ‘Fitzer’ as he is known, affectionately and not, may do just as well if not better all on his own. While he doesn’t have the resources of one of the country’s biggest parties on his side, he does possess an everyman quality.

He doesn’t necessarily act like your average politician and he certainly doesn’t sound like one – and that is no bad thing as disenchantment with the status quo takes hold.

As demonstrated by walking out on Fine Gael during the Repeal campaign, Fitzpatrick can point to the fact he does not or will now kowtow to a party line. That will work in his favour with voters.

His performances when in direct comparison with his rivals be it on LMFM last week or on RTE Six One News on Friday evening aren’t the type to inspire confidence. He can stutter, babble and general struggle to put forward arguments with any cohesion.

That, however, is nothing new. He’s lasted nine years so far so there’s little to suggest his struggles in that department are likely to put voters out. And this is all before we talk about his standing within GAA circles. Fitzpatrick is well regarded across the county and known for his availability to help when it comes to clubs making Sports Capital Grant applications. That’s considered Fitzer’s domain.

Do not discount either the potentially high number of people who worked with Fitzpatrick in some capacity through the GAA – but did not vote for him due to his Fine Gael affiliation. With that a thing of the past, opportunity may knock in a community within a community.

/ Will Nash and Dearey split a left-leaning vote? And will that be enough for either?

For Ged Nash, hopes are high. The Drogheda-based Labour candidate has spent the last four years in the Seanad and suffered during the Labour collapse last time out. Highly regarded in his hometown, that result is seen as not necessarily reflecting Nash’s standing locally but a result of the electorate turning their backs on Labour.

Bear in mind, the intervening local election in 2019 saw Drogheda Borough Council increase its Labour membership by one, to three. The passage of time, and the party’s traditional stronghold in the town, is on his side. It appears Nash is having a moment.

The former Minister of State for Business and Employment is a savvy operator and one of the candidates who may be able to appeal to those across the generational spectrum.

Louth, and it’s north south divide, is fascinating. Seeing what kind of inroads candidates from one half of the county can make in another is all part of the intrigue. Especially for someone like Nash, who this time around is Labour’s sole candidate in the constituency. Dundalk’s Mary Moran shared the ticket in 2016 and 2011. How will Nash fare north of Collon?

What may be against him is Mark Dearey, the Green Party’s experienced candidate who has returned to frontline politics having not contested the 2019 local elections. Dearey and Nash may be trying to woo many of the same voters – with issues of workers pay, workers rights and long commutes among the issues high on their personal manifestos.

Dearey was campaigning in Drogheda last Friday afternoon and brought party leader Eamon Ryan along with him for the canvass through town, Fresh from two TV debate appearances, he may have needed Ryan’s relative high profile to stand out.

Dearey, based in Omeath, is Dundalk through-and-through and the sense in his camp is that the Greens are enjoying real traction on the trail thus far. Dearey is a well known figure locally, having sat on Louth County Council for a decade. The Greens have never had an elected representative in Drogheda.

/ Will there be a ‘youth-quake’ in Louth?

Dearey may benefit from a ‘youthquake’ – should one arise. The issue of climate change and the environment is on the table, belatedly, and young people may be drawn to the Green Party candidate as one an agent of change.

Change is the word of this election. Parties are telling the electorate that if it is real change they want, the time is now to make it happen. Certainly, Red C polls and others suggest the winds of change are blowing.

As ever, the reality will likely depend on that youth vote. The social media sentiment is one thing. The disillusionment is real, no question. But will young voters come out and have their say?

If so, you could certainly see Dearey and Sinn Fein’s Munster and O Murchu benefit. Fine Gael’s John McGahon also hopes his name is in the conversation. At 29 years-of-age, he is the youngest of this year’s candidates in Louth.

‘Fresh Thinking’ is his motto. McGahon was first elected to Louth County Council in 2014, aged just 23. He speaks about people affecting young people and says he is the man to elect to tackle them because he lives them. That is true and maybe a new face will appeal to younger voters who regularly fail to see someone who reflects them on the ballot paper.

But running as a Fine Gael candidate, it remains to be seen whether an embittered and disillusioned youth vote will task him with helping to fix issues like rising rents, affordable housing and the lack thereof and the homelessness crisis.

/ Once a safe pair of hands, O’Dowd cannot afford a further slip

His running mate is Fergus O’Dowd, a TD for 18 years. It seems likely that Fine Gael will hold one seat in Louth. They won two last time out, but only just – O’Dowd and former party colleague Fitzpatrick scraped in well behind Adams, Declan Breathnach and Munster.

In 2011, O’Dowd earned just short of 14,000 votes. Five years later, he won a little over 6,800 first preferences. It was a steep fall and came at the end of a tumultuous period for O’Dowd in which he was dropped as Minister of State for the NewERA Project, with responsibility for among other things, Irish Water.

At a public meeting in Tallanstown last week, one resident among 600 properties living under a Boil Water Notice since last July, brought up O’Dowd’s part in the establishment of the body. People haven’t forgotten.

What may stand in O’Dowd’s favour in 2020 is McGahon’s inexperience. Fine Gael voters may opt for the tried and trusted when selecting their preference. Non-party voters may also side with conservatism and opt for maintaining the status quo in regards to the man with the best part of 50 years experience in politics.

What is certain is that O’Dowd cannot afford another precipitous fall as he did in 2016. If that fate befalls him, he won’t be in the conversation.

/ Fianna Fáil against the odds in race to win two-seats

Declan Breathnach, it appears, is a certainty for re-election. That is a general consensus from sources across party lines. Like Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil have ample support to return one candidate to the Dail. Breathnach replaced Seamus Kirk on the ticket in 2016 and retained his Dail seat with 9,099 first preferences.

It is not a stretch to suggest a similar tally may be within reach for the Knockbridge-based TD this time around. Party sources aren’t as optimistic for running James Byrne, who was only elected to Louth County Council in 2019.

A son of councillor Tommy Byrne and brother of Meath TD Thomas Byrne, James is a relative newcomer and has been busy on the campaign trail in the last three weeks as he battles against his lack of recognition countywide.

He is a contender and can’t be ruled out but competition is stiff in Drogheda were O’Dowd, Nash and Munster hold the cards.

/ And elsewhere, keep an eye on People Before Profit

People Before Profit fared reasonably well in Louth in 2016. Garrett Weldon, with transfers, registered 6,290 before being eliminated after the ninth count. This time around, Dundalk-based activist Audrey Fergus takes up the mantle and it will be interesting if they build, or at least maintain, their climb here.

Elsewhere, the field is made up of Eamon Sweeney of Renua who contested and lost out in the Drogheda Rural area of the Local Elections last year and Cathal O Murchu of the Irish Freedom Party.

Independents include newcomer Topanga Bird from Dundalk and Albert Byrne and David Bradley, from Ardee and Dundalk respectively. Byrne contested the Local Elections last year where he finished second bottom of the polls with 190 votes. Bradley received 319 votes in the last general election.

WHO IS RUNNING IN 2020?

Here’s a quick at-a-glance look at who you have to choose from in Election 2020.

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