Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

From top: Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin (centre) on the first day back to the Dáil following General Elec tion 2020; Derek Mooney

This time last week I expected the only issue that would be resolved at Thursday’s opening Dáil session was the identity of the next Ceann Comhairle.

To no one’s great surprise that turned out to be the outgoing one, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, TD., though the scale of his win, 130:28 was impressive. The dark mid-week mutterings that Fianna Fáil colleagues would abandon the avuncular Ó Fearghaíl to keep his vote for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach later that day proved baseless.

I hadn’t expecting the series of votes on electing a Taoiseach to produce any significant or notable movement on the shape of the next government, so I was pleasantly surprised when we did get some, albeit infinitesimally small.

The decision of the left-wing Independent TDs and Solidarity/People Before Profile to back Mary Lou McDonald (though with a strong caveat of ruling out Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and four independents to back Micheál Martin left both challengers with over 40 votes.

This left the other two challengers, Leo Varadkar with 36 votes and Eamon Ryan with 12 in the second division.

The positioning remains the same when you just rank them by the numbers opposing their nomination. From lowest to highest, in Division 1: McDonald on 84 and Martin on 97 and in Division 2: Varadkar 107 and Ryan on a whopping 115!

Though not earth shattering it does help clarify, perhaps even narrow the choices facing the TDs in forming a government and points to three clear options.

First: A left-wing government headed by Mary Lou McDonald. While Sinn Féin repeatedly declares this to be its preferred option, saying it opposes putting Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in office, its studied outrage at Fianna Fáil’s refusal to talk to it about forming a government does seem… well, odd. Mary Lou led the field on Thursday thanks to eight left wing votes that were all given on the basis that she does go into government with either of the two big parties.

Second: A government headed by Martin and led by Fianna Fáil. Such a government could take two forms: a simple trio of FF/FG/Greens (with the possible option of a rotisserie Taoiseach) or FF/Greens/SocDems and assorted middle ground Inds, all supported from the outside by a limited form of Fine Gael confidence and supply.

Third, another general election.

The ferocity of McDonald’s personal and political attack not just on Micheál Martin but on the wider Fianna Fáil party simply highlighted the fact that options one and two are now mutually exclusive and any kind of fourth option involving SF and FF is off the table.

All of this increases the pressure on Fine Gael. Varadkar’s impromptu strategy of taking his party entirely out of the process has badly misfired.

Fine Gael cannot sit idly by and hope the blame falls on others. No matter how much it wants to slink away into the shadows and lick its wounds, it must take a decision based on these three options.

Fine Gael either (a) sits on its hands and facilitates Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach; (b) opposes everyone and leads to a second election, or (c) comes to some sort of agreement with Martin’s Fianna Fáil on either going full-on into coalition or supporting it from the outside via a some less restrictive confidence and supply agreement.

Such an arrangement could require FG to back the government on key votes to prevent the government from collapsing but allow it to vote against and defeat it at other times.

While the odds on this process resulting in a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green party and independent government have increased ever so slightly, there is still a long way to go.

Some of that long way will likely include some fallout from within the Green party as it tires of its involvement in government being assumed to be automatic.

On RTÉ One’s The Week in Politics two Sundays ago the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested that Fianna Fáil should seek a coalition with Fine Gael, that it also include as many partners as possible to give the sense that the new government represented some real change.

He hinted that he could eventually see a government with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green, Social Democrat, independent and rural independent ministers.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together a government along these lines as the Social Democrats have made abundantly clear that they do not want to put Fine Gael ministers back in the office.

They are not the only ones.

The Fianna Fáil representatives I have spoken with over the past week are every bit as opposed to putting Varadkar, Murphy, Harris or Donohue back in office.

Former Fianna Fáil TDs – and it should be remembered that there are now eight of them thanks to Fianna Fáil’s lacklustre and uninspiring #GE2020 national campaign – and outgoing Senators are currently criss-crossing the country taking to party councillors and hearing just how unhappy they are with developments.

These 14 – 16 newly minted Senators will join the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in early April, fresh from a month of listening to dissatisfied grassroots. If a government including Fine Gael has not been formed by that point, then these Senators could be critical in blocking its formation from inside the parliamentary party.

Right now, as we approach the end of February, I still think a second election is the single most likely outcome. I say this as the only thing required for another election to happen is for TDs, primarily Fine Gael TDs, to do absolutely nothing.

Avoiding a second election requires action. It means having Fine Gael TDs break their own red lines and back a Fianna Fáil led government – from within or without.

If we are to face into another election, even if it is two or three months away, then parties need to start honing their core message and start addressing the wider public, not their own bubbles.

Sinn Féin appears to have realised this and has resumed campaign mode – as if it had ever turned it off. Last Monday we saw Mary Lou McDonald doing the Macarena with a group of school kids in Ringsend. It was a clever piece of political marketing.

Here was McDonald looking like an approachable leader without a care or a pressure in the world. Out among ordinary people, seeming confident and even self-deprecating, a trait that Irish voters like. This contrasted with the sense that both Varadkar and Martin were, though separately, withdrawn not just from public view, but from the public itself.

It was a masterclass in brazen misdirection. It is what Sinn Féin does best. They’ve had plenty of practise at it over the years.

When they came under huge pressure in early 2005 over the violent and brutal provo murder of Robert McCartney, Sinn Féin representatives, including one Mary Lou McDonald MEP and one Deirdre Hargey MLA, were dispatched to mouth concern for the McCartney family while opposing European Parliament support for the case and asserting that Sinn Féin was really the victim here, on foot of a conspiracy involving the main political parties, the police and the media.

Does this all sound familiar? Add in a few extra public rallies and it could be today.

This is not a distant history in time or place.  In a Dáil debate on May 27 2009 a Fianna Fáil back bench TD raised the intimidation of Esther Uzell, whose brother Joseph Rafferty had been killed by the provo-IRA in April 2005.

She had called on Sinn Féin to help identify her brother’s killer, not only did they not help, they did anything but. The TD was rightly incensed, calling those responsible for the intimidation “thugs” and “scum”.

That Fianna Fáil TD later became a Sinn Féin Councillor and, in February, a TD., Chris Andrews. Seems that the change in party heralded a major change in outlook. Come to think of it, didn’t that happen to Mary Lou too?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top:  Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and Deputy Party leader Michelle O Neill speaking to the media on the Plinth at Leinster House last week; Derek Mooney

Mandate, mandate, mandate. You couldn’t switch on a radio or open a webpage last week without someone talking at you about their mandate.

You had this one talking about the size and significance of their mandate and that one saying how much they respected and acknowledged other people’s, though usually just before they explained why they were going to ignore it.

Mandate has become the most abused word of the post #GE2020 era. So, what is a mandate? Well, put simply, it is just the authority given by voters to each elected TD.

Sinn Féin’s mandate is the collective total of its 37 TD’s individual mandates, just in the same way as Fianna Fáil’s is based on its 38 TDs and Aontu’s is due to its one.

No TDs mandate is inferior or superior, a point that seems lost in many of Sinn Féin’s pronouncements. It uses the word mandate as if it was a synonym for majority. It isn’t.

Over the past week we have heard SF talk about how Fine Gael and especially Fianna Fáil needs to heed Sinn Féin’s mandate as if this was a winner-takes-all where the one with the highest votes ignores all the others.

Sinn Féin may not take its seats in Westminster, but all that time hanging about the palace of first-past-the-post while avoiding the chamber, seems to have had an influence.

Yes, Sinn Féin won most votes and yes, the electoral strategy they adopted has left them one seat behind Fianna Fáil, but that does not mean Fianna Fáil TDs, to borrow a phrase I used last week, must embrace it or swear an oath to implement it.

Every TD and every party has a mandate, the issue is that no one party, or group of parties, received a clear or overwhelming mandate. There are several distinct sets of mandates that are individually clear, but collectively ambiguous and even contradictory.

What matters is which party or group of parties and others can put together a program for government that has the allegiance and support of 80 TDs.

In less fraught and complex times that was a relatively straightforward process. One side would be closer to having half of the seats. All it had to do was approach smaller parties to agree a platform and together get to the magic 50% figure, be that 72, 74, 82 seats etc.

But these are different times. The electorate gave a sign through its swing to both Sinn Féin and the Greens and its continued support of Fianna Fáil (as I outlined last week) that it wants change. The problem comes when you try to discern just how far that change should go.

It’s a confusion that exists even within Sinn Féin, though you never hear it mentioned by its spokespeople. One of the more curious of the RTE/Irish Times exit poll findings was that Sinn Féin voters were less in favour of increasing public spending than even Fine Gael’s [1].

The fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together have fewer than half the seats, removes the biggest traditional obstacle to the formation of a coalition of the left and far left, led by Sinn Féin. (Correction, it removes the second biggest traditional obstacle, the biggest being the left’s lack of votes).

Accord to yesterday’s Rec C poll, this is the preferred choice of 61% of Sinn Féin’s voters (and 45% of Soc Dems), yet Sinn Féin appears to have given up on such a prospect and is insisting that Fianna Fáil, who it said it never wanted to see back in government, must ignore the wishes of its voters and prop it up – though only 20% of Sinn Fein voters back this option.

The fact that SF and FF combined only has 75 seats means it needs a mudguard…. Sorry, I mean it needs another party. Step forward the Greens.

But why would or should the Greens be a mudguard for Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil – or even for Fianna Fáil and FG?

While I can possibly see Green delegates seeing some merit in serving in an FF/SF government, I just cannot see them agreeing to put FG ministers back in office.

Perhaps they will conclude that the government will last for five years and their voters will forgive them in time. I am sure Dick Spring thought the same thing in 1992 when he put Albert Reynolds back as Taoiseach.

He may even have thought that again in late 1994 when he backed bringing John Bruton across the floor and making him Taoiseach, but the voters of 1997 had a different idea.

Though diminished, Fianna Fáil’s mandate on government formation has two clear elements. It told voters that it would not put Sinn Féin into government. A position it reaffirmed at its party meeting last Thursday.

It also said that it wanted change and that change for Fianna Fáil meant putting Fine Gael out of government. Though these positions were unambiguous and consistent in advance of polling day, the parliamentary party meeting seems less sure now on this point than it is on the Sinn Féin question.

Does Micheál Martin rule out the prospect of having Fine Gael ministers serve in a Fianna Fáil led coalition? Does he envisage Fine Gael offering a minority Fianna Fáil/Green/Social Democrat government the same Confidence and Supply arrangement that he offered Enda Kenny and then extended to Leo Varadkar?

Does he anticipate Fine Gael honouring such an arrangement with the same fidelity and adherence as him? I doubt we will get answers to these questions before Thursday’s first meeting of the 33rd Dáil.

What we will see is who is elected, by secret ballot, as Ceann Comhairle. While many of his colleagues would be happy to see outgoing one, Fianna Fáil’s Sean Ó Fearghaill, returned to the post, that would cost Martin a vote in the later vote on Taoiseach. At a time when every vote counts, the decision may be less about merit and more an early indicator of what way the wind is blowing.

Will Sinn Féin and Fine Gael TDs together take the opportunity to reduce Martin’s vote by one or will they think they may need that vote for a future partnership?

Will Fianna Fáil TDs abandon their colleague in a secret ballot to keep the vote for Martin?

While on the topic of Fine Gael, the most extraordinary thing about the last few days is just how little focus there has been on what is happening in Fine Gael. It has just suffered its second worst result and yet there has been little to no focus on how it responds.

Though there have been questions raised about Varadkar’s leadership from outside the Oireachtas party, from ex-Senator Paudie Coffey, former deputy leader James Reilly and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who tweeted a blistering attack on him yesterday, there has been an eerie silence from within the upper echelons – for now.

Varadkar’s fate as leader lay less in his own hands and more in the hands of Micheál Martin, whose own political fate is uncertain, and those of Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe.

Not a happy prospect, especially as only one of these has any reason to hope he stays on – and he’s not the one who is in Leo’s party.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

[1] The Poll asked: If the Next Government Has Resources to Spare, Should More of the Money Be Used to Reduce Taxes or Should More Be Used to Increase Spending on Public Services? People who voted SF #1 went 57% in favour of public spending and 43% in favour of Tax cuts. Fine Gael voters went 59% spending 41% tax cuts, FF voters: 63% spending 37% tax cuts, Soc Dems 71%/27% and S-PBP 81%/19% 

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald (centre) celebrates her party’s results  at the Generel Election 2020 count centre in the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4; Derek Mooney

These comments are thrown together very late at night after over 16 hours of intense election count watching. They should, therefore, be taken more as just initial ramblings, than as a thoughtful analysis.

So here are the key things that stand out to me from the result.

First, the are two election winners. One is Sinn Féin – who saw its vote increase by 11% and second is the Green party which has seen its vote increase by 5%.

Between them they have gained a 15% swing, roughly equivalent to three quarters of Fine Gael’s total vote.

On the other side there are several losers, including Ruth Coppinger, Lisa Chambers, Shane Ross, Katherine Zappone. All of these hard working and courteous representatives are looking at seeing their political careers end.

The two biggest losers however, in reverse order were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

As both have lost, the idea that the two together have a mandate to form a grand coalition is a nonsense. So let’s get that off the list.

While Fianna Fáil did, as I discussed last week and the week before, offer modest and cautious change, the voters rejected that – in favour of the more radical option.

The harsh reality of yesterday’s result is that Fianna Fáil has just secured it’s second worse electoral result ever.

That is not the type of result from which you pivot into office and carry on as if the voters have not spoken. That is true whether the potential coalition partner is Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. .

While Sinn Féin did not receive an seismic overwhelming vote and is still essentially in a three way tie with the two defeated parties, it still had the momentum on the day and is the direction in which the biggest chunk of voters moved.

To simply acknowledge this reality. To respect the will of those people who moved to back Sinn Féin is not to suddenly become an advocate of having a coalition with Sinn Féin.

I can acknowledge SF’s mandate without have to embrace it or swear an oath to implement it.

The suggestion that Fianna Fáil now has an obligation endorse that mandate is to ignore what its leader and leadership have told it’s reduced segment of voters over the past weeks, months and years.

This is the point that Jim O’Callaghan, Darragh O’Brien Michael McGrath and others made strongly yesterday.

Not only is there neither the appetite nor the demand for such an arrangement, it would fly in the face of what Fianna Fáil has been promising its own cohort of 22.5%.

Like it or not Fianna Fáil has a contract/obligation not to turn its back on those who only voted for it 24 hours early. They devised to back Fianna Fáil with the clear understanding that Fianna Fáil would not put that Sinn Fein into office.

Not that Sinn Féin feels that it needs to wait for Fianna Fáil to facilitate it. Sinn Féin fate lays within Sinn Féiner’s own hands.

In last week’s column I argued that there were four possible options/permutations. They are now down to three. Those three are:

Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael grand coalition. Not only is this a non runner, in terms of mandates, if may well be that the two parties will not have the seats to deliver this when all the counts are concluded, or when it comes to selecting a Ceann Comhairle.

Option two is the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil coalition. Once again, I explained last week why this was not a runner, but the arguments against this became stronger when the size of the respective l mandates were confirmed in the counts.

The third option is another election. This does not come into play for a few weeks yet.

First the strengths and mettle of all three parties will be tested in a series of votes when the Dáil reconvenes in about 10 days.

Each of the parties nominees for Taoiseach – and right now I am careful to say parties nominees, not party leaders, will be voted on in turns.

There will be a full vote on each candidate where the number of TDs voting and against each nominee is recorded.

Right now it is virtual racing certainty that all three will be rejected, though by varying margins.

It is most assuredly not beyond the rounds of possibility that Mary Lou McDonald might, over the next few days, be able to convince other like-minded left-wing parties to support her nomination thereby leaving her as the most supported of the three defeated potential Taoisigh.

We will probably have a few rounds of these votes are a period of weeks to see who blinks, yields or changes position.

But, at some point, there will have to be an endpoint set if all these rounds of votes end in a perpetual stalemate where no candidate can secure more votes in favour than against – either by voting for or abstaining.

It is hard to see how this third option – the second election – will not become increasingly attractive to Sinn Féin over the weeks, especially if it is seem to exhaust all its other options, on their own terms.

If they play it right, Sinn Féin would not be seen as pulling down the shutters. Instead it would have a chance to correct the strategic candidate election errors it made and run sufficient candidates to give it another 10 or 12 seats.

As I said last week, let us be clear that each of these three surviving options are particularly attractive, in various degrees, to Sinn Féin.

Right now I think another election is the most likely outcome. It is not my preferred option, very far from it, but the longer the impasse continues with no significant movement from the parties, then it’s likelihood continues.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top left to right: Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney  and Paschal Donohoe at the launch of Fine Gael’s General Election 2020 manifesto; Derek Mooney

Success has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. As true as this is in sports, it is an absolute certainty in political campaigning.

Have no doubt that all those fine young marketing executives who told their colleagues over Christmas how remarkably close they were to the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, now struggle to remember just who Leo, Paschal or Simon might be.

In the words of the great yellow rose of Finglas, Jim Tunney, there are too many folks around politics who opt to buy their colours coming out of the match, rather than going in.

So, before I look at the events of the last few days and attempt a feeble look forward to what may be to come, let me raise a glass to toast those in all parties and none who are sticking by their party and candidates, despite the polls.

I may have mentioned this story before, but during the 2013 Seanad abolition referendum I read an opinion piece in one of the national newspapers by a PR person, who I hadn’t heard of then and I haven’t heard of since.

He was critiquing our vote No to abolition campaign. Though he took over 750 words to do it, his analysis basically said: these people are going to lose because they never asked him what to do. Though I was confident of our campaign and messaging, his article really got under my skin. So much so that over six years later I am still moaning about it!

So, remembering how I felt then, I will not try to criticise or second-guess the strategies and decisions of those running the major campaigns. I am sure that none of them sat down a few months back and thought: how can I design a campaign that turns away our potential voters.

The von Moltke maxim applies as much to political as military campaigning: no battleplan survives with any certainty beyond the first direct engagement with the enemy.

The world is full of backseat drivers, hurlers on the ditch, Monday morning quarterbacks and various assortments of folks none of who have never lost a game because not a single one of them has ever played one.

What I will do instead today is to look back at how I thought the campaign would go – and see (a) what I got wrong, and (b). consider how that impacts on the way(s) I see things playing out from next Monday or Tuesday onwards.

For most of the last 18 months to 2 years I have been talking about the opinion poll trend showing the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael support running at anywhere between the mid 50s or sometimes even heading as high as 60%.

As the two parties had a combined total support of just under 50% in 2016, I took the trend to the mid 50s as a sign of a modest growth in the centre ground of Irish politics – indeed you could broaden that definition of the centre ground by adding in the Greens and Labour.

I had thought that a big part of this election would be about how about how that 55% divided between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – and I felt reasonably confident that this would see Fianna Fáil hitting 30% or even a point or two higher.

That prediction was based on my long held and expressed belief that the Leo bounce of late 2017/2018 and early 2019 was more down to Brexit than any public faith or confidence in his leadership. I further felt sure that Fine Gael would approach this election with overconfidence and run a campaign that misread the public mood.

On these latter points I think I was proven right. On the capacity of the two main parties to rebuild the centre ground of politics to a modest level of 55%, I was wrong.

In my defence, I was not the only getting that bit wrong.

It seems Sinn Féin broadly agreed with me. Though they had confidence in their capacity to hold on to their 2016 vote share, despite the hammering they received at the 2019 local and European elections, their decision to run just 42 candidates in this election suggests a party strategy more focused on consolidation and modest growth, rather than one predicated on big breakthroughs and surges.

It could well be that they are right and the polls are still over-estimating their possible performance on the day but, even so, there is something happening at this election.

Thee question therefore is: how many seats will Sinn Féin add to its 2016 total? Will it be in single digits, or is a double digit seat increase on the cards? I have one spreadsheet prediction that has them on 34 seats.

As I discussed last week , the mood for change is real and palpable. Sinn Féin speaks directly to that mood while Fianna Fáil struggles to do so with clarity. What is beyond doubt is that Fine Gael cannot represent that change. So, any chance of a last minute Fine Gael resurgence is ruled out, meaning that the most likely micro-outcome of the election is a depleted Fine Gael heading to the opposition benches.

So who ends up in government, assuming the polls are broadly right?

There is no appetite in Fianna Fáil for a grand coalition. Fianna Fáil is having a tough enough time convincing a significant cohort of voters aged 25+ that it represents change, how much worse would its task be at the next election if the outcome of this one was Mícheál Martin aiding and abetting the return of rejected Fine Gael ministers to Cabinet.

Similarly, a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition is a non-runner. Martin has been absolutely clear that he would not agree to such a coalition.

Whatever level of support Fianna Fáil secures next weekend, be it 25%, 26%, 27% or higher (full disclosure I think it will be around 26/27%)… will have been won, in part, on the basis that Fianna Fáil will not go into government with Sinn Féin.

It is absolutely not impossible for Fianna Fáil to do a volte-face. After all, politics and government formation is all about numbers, but the price it would pay at any following election would be significant.

Wiser, calmer heads in Fianna Fáil know that the life span of any FF/SF government would be determined solely by Sinn Féin. At the first sign of trouble or of difficult decisions Sinn Féin would have no compunction about cutting and running.

This is not just a theoretical concern, bear in mind that it is likely there will be some form of economic downturn due soon, be it Brexit related or global.

If you think I am just being cynical or blinkered by my acknowledged dislike of Sinn Féin, see how Sinn Féin handled the welfare crisis in the North.

Faced with deeply unpopular decisions on welfare cuts, Sinn Féin, the ultra-republican party that rejects British rule and finds any form of presence at Westminster an anathema, voted along with the DUP to hand the welfare powers that had been devolved to it, back to Westminster. Not just to Westminster, but to one dominated by a Tory government that would impose swingeing cuts. This is before you even look at the three year government hiatus it triggered.

So, having ruled out a grand coalition of FF and FG or a coalition of FF and SF, what remains?

I think it is a Fianna Fáil/Green government with outside Fine Gael support via a less restrictive C&S than Fianna Fáil had to endure.

The Greens and Fianna Fáil may want others involved, such as Labour, Soc Dems or even some independents but that looks unlikely right now. Even so, the core of such a minority government would be Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

This would be Sinn Féin’s least preferred option.

It would be very satisfied with a FF/FG grand coalition that made it the main opposition party, just as it would be happy with a FF/SF coalition. It would also be happy with stalemate and a second general election. This is not an option that can be ruled out, either.

Sinn Féin has almost nothing to lose in any three of these four scenarios. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you have ruled out all the impossible option, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the solution.

It may take a few weeks, but watch that space.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top: Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (left) and his front bench launch the Fine Gael general Election 2020 manifesto at the party’s HQ in Dublin last week; Derek Mooney

With eleven days of this general election campaign to go, the one clear message emerging from the national polls is that it is time to stick a fork in Fine Gael. It is not just done, it is done to a crisp. The only thing rare about Fine Gael in two weeks’ time will be the number of constituencies where it holds more than one seat.

“Hold on there, Mooney” I hear you shout, “…on what are you basing this prediction of doom? You’re the one who’s repeatedly told us that national newspaper polls are not good indicators of how seats will go.”

Yes, I reply. That is true – and extremely well put, I might add. I am also deeply moved that you have been paying such attention to my ramblings here… but, this prediction is not just based on the headline figures on party support, it is based on a series of important findings within those polls.

These findings come from separate polls, but they sit remarkably well together and underpin the trend that has been repeated in the four polls published over the past two weeks.

They are, listing them chronologically:

  • The Sunday Times/B&A poll published on January recorded the government as having a satisfaction rating of just 30%, its lowest level since Varadkar replaced Kenny. It was 39% last July and was in the mid-40s for most of 2018.
  • Even more significant, and also more devastating for Varadkar, Coveney and Co., was the finding in last week’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll, that 75% of voters want to see a change of government. That 75% divided almost evenly on the extent of that change, from changing the leading party to something more radical, but agreed that Fine Gael is not it. Indeed just 20% agreed with the statement: The Government has made progress in important areas and deserves to be allowed get on the with the job of securing a better future.

Fast forward to yesterday’s two polls.

  • First, the Red C/Sunday Business Post. Its headline figures for the main parties are broadly in line with the other three polls, but it also looked at how voters viewed the main parties in terms of the key policy issues. On housing/rental market it found that 24% of voters trusted Fianna Fáil most, followed by 20% for Sinn Féin and a meagre 12% for Fine Gael.

The figures on health were only marginally better for the outgoing party of government. There Fianna Fáil scored 24% (again) with Sinn Féin faring worse on 16% and Fine Gael again in third place with just 14%.

The only positive in this is the 2% bragging rights it gives Simon Harris over Eoghan Murphy, though I am not sure any of that will matter much when ministers come to wonder which of them will have the Portillo moment on the night of the count.

  • The fourth finding is along the same lines as the RedC one. The Ireland Thinks/Irish Mail on Sunday poll took the interesting approach of looking at party voting intentions by housing status. That found only 7% of the people they polled, and are living in private rented accommodation, would vote Fine Gael. This compares with 16% of renters who would back the Greens, 19% for Fianna Fáil and a solid 30%, for Sinn Féin.

The breakdown for those in council rented was a mammoth 43% for Sinn Féin, 15% for independents, 14% for Labour, 11% for Fianna Fáil, 9% for the greens and a paltry 2% for Fine Gael. At 25% Fianna Fáil leads in terms of those with mortgages, compared with 19% each for Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.

These last two sets of data, from RedC and Ireland Thinks, along with the evenly split breakdown of the 75% wanting change via the Irish Times, may also help explain why Sinn Féin recovered so much ground in the past few weeks.

This, after all, was the organisation that lost almost half its councillors just eight months back and suffered some hefty losses to the SDLP at the Westminster elections, particularly in Derry.

As the Irish Times report, there is a sizeable chunk of voters who want more significant and radical change than appears to be coming right now from Fianna Fáil and they are ready and willing to listen to Sinn Féin especially when it is being explained by that nice Mr Doherty or that nice Mr Ó Broin.

Fianna Fáil says it is offering change, and it is – but, it has yet to get that message across to a wider audience, especially the many younger voters who are struggling to cope with the cost of living in today’s Ireland.

These are voters with aspirations.

They did everything they were asked to do. They went gone to college, they studied hard, they saw the global crash lower their expectations, yet they went out, got decent jobs with good wages.

Now they want to plan to settle down but find, despite those decent wages, soaring rents and lack of affordable housing leave them struggling to get on the first rung of the ladder, a ladder their parents had climbed when much younger than they are now.

At its heart, Fianna Fáil is about aspiration, both personal and national.

People want to hear its political leaders talk about how they will get the system to address their needs, not adjust their needs to fit the system.

There are moments, when I am listening to statements from some Fianna Fáil spokespeople, that I think I am back in a government department trying to decipher civil servant-ese. Fianna Fáil’s job is not to explain government’s problems to us, it is to put in place the programmes to enable it address them in government.

* * * *

 I usually write a rough draft of these pieces late on a Sunday night and revise them on Monday morning, while listening to Morning Ireland. Not today, though.

As you read this, I will be heading with many hundreds of others to the small parish church at Mullaghbrack, Armagh for the funeral of one of the greatest Irishmen of the past sixty years: Séamus Mallon.

While I met the man many times over the past two decades, I did not know him well enough to attempt to pay a personal tribute here.

What I can say is that Seamus’s courage in the face of both loyalist violence and provo vilification, as recently as May 2018 was a beacon to many, including a good friend of mine who offered this heartfelt tribute. He puts it better than I ever could: Goodbye and thank you Séamus. You saved lives and changed mine.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam dílis.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  campaigning at the Rediscovery Centre, The Boiler House, Ballymun Road, Dublin on Saturday; Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll; Derek Mooney

Of all the possible ways he could have responded to yesterday’s bad poll numbers, the Taoiseach went and picked the worst. OK, it was not quite the worst. He could have nutted a journo and told the rest of the media entourage assigned to go to hell, so at least he didn’t do that.

Where most other leaders would have taken the: well, it’s just a poll, a snapshot in time, there are three weeks of campaigning to go, the Taoiseach decided to shun humility, restraint or conciliation and went on the attack instead. He warned voters

“I think the opinion poll demonstrates that there is a real risk, a real danger that we’ll have a Fianna Fáil-led government”.

It is an approach we have seen before from this Taoiseach, when things are not going his way: the double down.

We saw it at the Frances Fitzgerald/Sgt Maurice McCabe crisis of late 2017. At a time when even his own backbencher TDs could see that the political crisis was demanding the resignation of his beleaguered Tánaiste and Justice Minister, the Taoiseach decided to double down. All he succeeded in doing was leaving himself with no alternative but to back down when the inevitable happened.

We saw it again, just a few weeks ago when he decided to double down on Charlie Flanagan’s ill-judged and ill-considered plans for RIC commemorations.

Ironically, Flanagan is the justice minister Varadkar appointed to succeed Frances Fitzgerald. Frances had originally been appointed Justice Minister in succession to Alan Shatter, who yesterday launched this latest Twitter broadside at Varadkar’s Fine Gael.

Modern political history is full of leaders who discovered too late that doubling down doesn’t make them look strong, it makes them look detached, ineffectual and querulous. Doubling down to tell voters they have no choice can often result in them finding their own alternatives.

It happened to Ted Heath in 1974. In office since 1970 his Tory government had imposed a three-day working week to try to cope with rising oil prices, fuel shortages and power cuts.

The threat of a major national strike by mineworker’s union, supported by other big unions in early 1974, led Heath to call an election.  and seek a mandate to take a stronger line with the unions. His Tory government was so sure it was going to win that it ran under the slogan: Who Governs Britain?

Heath assumed there could only be one response. There was. Just not the one he expected. Not you Heath, they said as they turfed him out and backed Labour’s Harold Wilson.

Let me be clear – I do not think Fianna Fáil is 12pts ahead of Fine Gael or that yesterday’s Sunday Times poll numbers will be replicated when the votes are (almost) all counted by this day three weeks.

As anyone who has read my musings here will know I never tire of saying that political parties do not do their polling in the same way as newspapers.

I have made this point on almost every occasion where I have commented on the latest Business Post, B&A or MRBI national opinion poll – and we have two more polls due over the next week.

I do think is the Sunday Times/B&A poll highlights two key Fine Gael electoral vulnerabilities, especially outside Dublin.

The first is that Fine Gael is at risk of losing many of the second seats it holds in constituencies across the country.  The second is that its incumbency advantage has been lessened.

Having well-known sitting TDs with networks of contacts beyond their parties usual hinterland can often ease the impact of big negative swing.

Ten of the FG TDs elected in 2016 (20%) are not running again in 2020 (6 are retiring, Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick, Maria Bailey and Dara Murphy have departed for a range of reasons and Frances Fitzgerald was elected to the European Parliament).

What the Sunday Times poll also suggests is that the Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael contest is back where it was between March 2016 and July 2017.

During that time, which covers the first days of the 2016 government led by Enda Kenny through to the election of Leo Varadkar as Kenny’s successor, there were about 36 major national newspaper opinion polls.

Fianna Fáil was ahead in 24 of them, by margins as narrow as 1pt or as wide as 11pt (the average was 3.5pt) while Fine Gael was ahead in 10 and the two parties were tied in two.

So, was it for this that Fine Gael ditched Enda Kenny and installed Leo Varadkar?

Wasn’t Varadkar’s great selling point to Fine Gael TDs (though not so much to rank and file members) that he was the great campaigner who would give Fine Gael the political clarity and definition, not to mention long term electoral success that Enda Kenny wasn’t, and Simon Coveney couldn’t?

How ironic now to hear some folks around Fine Gael suggesting that the right response to this one poll is to get Leo to stand back a bit and get Coveney and Donohoe to front more of the campaign.

Writing here in July 2017 I suggested that there was “not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil”. What I did not foretell was the extent and degree to which the Leo bounce that seemed to return in the polls later that year and through 2018 would be due to the issue of Brexit – including adroit handling of a complex and tricky issue by both Varadkar and his government.

Fine Gael’s eagerness, or was it anxiety, to make Brexit an election issue, with the it is only half time in Brexit messaging, might suggest that Fine Gael’s own polling showed the Leo bounce was less attributable to him than to a policy issue on which there was a cross party consensus.

Nonetheless this is just one poll and it is one that largely predates the election campaign proper. Most Fianna Fáil colleagues I know tell me that they are viewing this poll as a very welcome morale booster, not a cause for celebrations.

In the zero-sum game of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rivalry, a morale booster for the soldiers of destiny is a morale slayer for the Blueshirts. Varadkar is now faced with two options: double down or change strategy.

The evidence points to him doubling down. Could that work for him this time? Probably not.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Derek Mooney

After listening to An Taoiseach on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme yesterday it is hard not to conclude that he is planning to head to the Áras on Thursday to seek a dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

Only he knows for sure, but his joint trip to Stormont today with the British Prime Minister does seem like the opening act of his pre-campaign lap of honour.

He is unlikely to head to the Park on Wednesday as the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is in town for a meeting at Government Buildings followed by a State dinner at Dublin Castle.

That leaves Thursday as the most likely day, though the Taoiseach could opt to delay even a little longer as the Greek President arrives in town for a State visit but, whether it is this week or next week, there are two weeks left, at most, where the timing of the election remains even vaguely within the Taoiseach’s control.

As he acknowledged on Sunday, while losing a vote of confidence in an individual minister does not necessitate an election, it would be politically unsustainable to stay in office after losing one. Especially when he has long said that his preference was for a Summer 2020 election.

So, his options are limited. Call the election in the next week, or so, or wait to have it foisted upon him.

Limited choice or no choice at all – was it for this that Fine Gael TDs dumped Enda Kenny and rejected Simon Coveney? There are echoes of Gordon Brown about how Leo Varadkar has handled this, a comparison I made in a column here shortly after Varadkar became Taoiseach.

Whatever about the Taoiseach’s handling of the election’s timing, his fate will be decided by how he does in the campaign, if voters have not already made their minds up on him.

A few weeks back a good friend of mine put forward the theory that the next election could be like the 2007 campaign.

To refresh your memory on the 2007 campaign, the Fianna Fáil led government went into it with most pundits thinking it would lose. To be fair the newspaper polls were pointing to such an outcome.

An Irish Times TNS/MRBI opinion poll published just weeks before the election was called, showed a swing to Fine Gael and corresponding fall in support for Fianna Fáil.

Fianna Fáil’s support had been dropping since late 2006, due in large measure to coverage of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s testimony to the Mahon Tribunal and a series of leaks from the Tribunal.

On the eve of the election the Fine Gael-Labour alternative was up to four points ahead Fianna Fáil and the PDs. Chuck the Green Party in with FG and Lab and a possible FG/Lab/Green alternative was 10pts ahead.

The Fianna Fáil campaign, of which I was a part, had a shaky first week followed by a slightly calmer second week, with the campaign continuing to be dominated by Tribunal leaks. When, in the third week, the campaign focussed back on bread and butter issues, Fianna Fáil turned it around.

It is an interesting analogy but, to paraphrase the late Brian Lenihan Snr, on mature reflection it is not one with which I agree. Let me explain why.

Clearly there are some comparisons. Just as Bertie Ahern faced the electorate in 2007 on the back of two full terms in government, Fine Gael has now been in office for nine years. It owns the achievements and failings of the last nine years, but it also has the problem of over familiarity. Any party in office for almost ten years can start to look jaded stale and out of ideas.

After almost 10 years of even the most benign administration, voters are tempted to have a look at the other lot has to offer and see if there are viable alternatives.

They did that all in 2007 and – despite all the damaging stuff from the Tribunal – found the Fine Gael led alternative seriously wanting.

Despite having had all that time to prepare itself, Fine Gael went into the 2007 election offering a mish mash of half-baked micro-policies including proposals to have boot camps for miscreants, a ban on hoodies, late-night drunk-tanks, legalising “small” brothels and placing bins in youth clubs and churches where illegally held guns could be dumped anonymously.

It is as if wasn’t really prepared for a win. That is not something you can say about Fianna Fáil now.

So, if it is to have any chance to survive Fine Gael will have to do more than simply blame the current health and housing crises on what Fianna Fáil did or did not do over ten years ago.

Doubtless Fine Gael’s polling is telling it that this plays well with core voters, but that is a dwindling cohort. All this kind of response does for undecided voters is to tell them that Fine Gael have been powerless and ineffective for nine years – in office, but not in power.

Telling voters that Fine Gael has only been running housing policy for the past three plus years is not going to cut the mustard with voters either. Just as promising, if re-elected, to increase pensions by €5 per week, while promising tax cuts, stretches credulity.

In promising to both spend more and tax less Fine Gael is at both showing that it has not learned the lessons of the economic crash, while also jettisoning its potential claim to be the party of fiscal prudence. With just one remark the Taoiseach junked his Finance Minister’s careful posturing of recent years.

Never mind the attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of all those pensioners who have been following the pre-budget machinations of every Budget since 2016 and recall the running battles between Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea and successive Fine Gael ministers over past pension increases.

Without doubt the coming election campaign is going to be most nasty, vicious and personalised we have witnessed. This is set to be a battle to the political death between the two main protagonists with Micheál Martin having the advantage of having seen action as leader in past battles.

Varadkar comes into it not just as the neophyte, but one who faces into the worst of all possible worlds.

This is the campaign and the contest for which he has been preparing himself since defeating Simon Coveney. It is the election for which every action, inaction and reaction of his time as Taoiseach has been calibrated and measured.

Yet it is not at the time and political place of his choosing. He knows having the nightly news filled with reports of hospital trolley crises and problems in emergency department across the state is no backdrop against which to have an election, never mind a deferred RIC event.

The macro economy is doing well. There should be a discernible feel good factor, but voters do not give Varadkar or Fine Gael the credit it thinks it deserves, as they are more focused on the daily impacts of the long running crises in health and housing and a range of public services collapsing.

While the outcome is obviously unknown and the campaign will matter, right now, looking at the polls and seeing how the election may play out in each constituency, my view right now is that this is not just Varadkar’s election to lose, but that he is already very close to doing just that.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his office at Government Buildings in Dublin last December’ Derek Mooney

This may come as a shock to some, but it is entirely possible to want a united Ireland and not favour holding a unity poll within the next five years.

Indeed, I would suggest that it is axiomatic that wanting to see Ireland successfully reunited means having reservations about holding a referendum in the next five or even ten years.

The sensible position for anyone who thinks unity is more than just a political slogan is to not consider holding a unity poll until there is a more than a reasonable chance of it being passed.

Surely this is evident? Is this not a lesson we have taken from the whole Brexit vote fiasco?

For clarity: when I say “passed” I mean backed by a simple majority: 50% plus one. Just as retention of Northern Ireland’s existing status as a part of the United Kingdom requires a simple majority, then so does any process leading to unity require a simple majority.

This is not just a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement it is the fundamental basis of democratic process: every vote is equal.

An individual unionist’s determination to remain in the Union is as legitimate and valid as any republican’s desire to see a United Ireland. The idea of weighted majorities requiring a 55 or 60% threshold for change, as some have suggested, is not just denying parity of esteem it also denies parity of representation.

While making unity work in practical terms would doubtless require a greater public buy-in than just a bare 50% plus 1, the principle of one person, one vote – of equal value, cannot be up for grabs.

While we should avoid talk of holding unity polls now, the idea that we should stop talking about unity is a nonsense.

Not only is the suggestion wrong heading, it is simply an impossibility. For good or ill, Brexit has changed the relationships on and between these islands.

Brexit does not lead to unity, but by unilaterally removing the EU citizenship of people in Northern Ireland based on the will of a majority of English voters and against the freely expressed will of NI voters, (not to mention Scottish voters) the British government has undermined its own “precious” union and made discussion of unity not just possible, but sensible.

Almost every third level institution on this island now has a think-tank, institute or other policy group looking at how unity might work and operate. This is to be welcomed and will hopefully help inform calm and considered public debate over the coming years.

What is already clear is that there is not just one single model of unity, but a myriad of them – each with their own merits and downsides and each requiring various degrees of compromise from both sides.

This last point is crucial. While the unity debate will be a one-sided conversation among republicans, nationalists and non-aligned for the moment, the debate has to make itself both open and accommodating to Unionism.

Any viable model of unity cannot simply stem from what we might think unionists might want, but has be based on direct engagement with unionism, of all hues.

That is not something we can expect to see happen anytime soon. Before Unionism is ready to engage with us, it must first start to engage with itself. As the former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has repeatedly observed, Brexit is unionism’s “biggest own goal” over the last century.

Unionism needs to process that reality, including seeing the ramifications of Brexit for unionism, particularly how the Boris Johnson form of Brexit – a Brexit made to suit England – plays out for it.

Not that we should expect, or want, to see this result in a defeatist unionism. As any negotiator will attest, the negotiated agreements that flourish best are those made between parties who have both confidence in their own positions and a real understanding of what the other side needs and can deliver.

But these debates among republicanism and unionism are not the only conversations on major political change happening on these islands, post Brexit.

The irony cannot be lost on constitutional republicanism here that Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party may well achieve its goal of full independence, within the EU, before we are ready to move to reunification.

Scottish nationalism is on the cusp of realising its dream without resorting to violence, terrorism or, as the 1916 proclamation puts it, dishonouring its cause with “inhumanity, or rapine”.

The SNP realised that a key first step to gaining Scottish independence was showing that Scotland could govern itself. It seems it has only now dawned on some folks here that this is also true for Northern Ireland. Having a stable Northern Ireland that works and can govern itself is a prerequisite for a successful unity campaign.

It is why the Good Friday Agreement is still a critical roadmap to how we proceed. A speedy return of the Agreement’s institutions: the NI Assembly and Executive (in the coming days) is vital for republicans who want to see unity.

As I have repeatedly said, including in this piece from this time last year, Scotland is not just a crucial and important ally, but what happens in Scotland is vitally important for what happens here.

All this talk of unity and reconciliation does seem very far off however as we watch the emerging fiasco over upcoming commemorations of events 100 years ago.

The announcement of State commemorations to acknowledge those who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) prior to independence has understandably raised concerns. The tragedy is that this was all avoidable.

In 2006, shortly after we marked the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, discussions started within government on how we should prepare for the centenary commemoration not just of 1916, but also of the whole decade of pivotal but complex events leading up to Independence from the lock out of 1913, through the War of Independence and beyond to the Civil War.

Those discussions, which including an all-party working group, focused less on the mechanics of how the ceremonies would be organised and more how we could address the complexities of commemorating these key events when people on this island have a common history but still do not have a common memory.

Many of the positive fruits of those discussions can be seen in Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s landmark May 2010 speech on marking this decade of commemorations. The text of speech is worth reading in full, however as it is no longer on the Dept of the Taoiseach’s website I cannot post a link here. You can however get a flavour of its contents here on the UCD website.

Notwithstanding the online expunging of this speech, I assumed the constructive and sensitive approach outlined by Brian Cowen was continuing to inform the current government’s attitude to these commemorations.

This seemed to be the case reading the 2018 report of the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations, headed up by Dr Maurice Manning and Dr Martin Mansergh. In that report they say:

The aim of commemoration should be to broaden sympathies without having to abandon loyalties and, in particular, to recognise the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost… The goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations which remember the past while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not re-ignite old tensions. [My emphasis]

Yet this is precisely what the Justice Minister has managed to achieve with his planned DMP/RIC event. The controversy comes not from the decision of senior public officials to refuse invitations, but rather in the way the government announced it.

Its own advisory committee proposed an inclusive event, namely: “a formal commemoration for all of those who lost their lives during the War of Independence be held in July 2021 [Again, my emphasis].

Those seeking this additional RIC and DMP event appear not to realise that the RIC, during the Irish War of Independence, included the Black and Tans, a force specially recruited to bolster an RIC that was losing members under pressure from the emerging Irish State.

The service and story of the RIC and DMP should not be air brushed from the events of the coming years, but there is a sensitivity around these State commemorations, not least those around the Civil War. T

he impression should not be given that these events can be revised to accommodate the outlook of whoever may be on the reviewing stand on the day.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at government buildings, Dublin during Brexit talks last September; Derek Mooney

Addressing the 1992 US Republican convention, the former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter and perennially unsuccessful right-wing challenger for the presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan, described that year’s Democrat convention as “…the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.”

Buchanan’s problem with the 1992 Democrat convention, and its selection of newcomer Bill Clinton as nominee, was that it wrecked Republican plans to paint them as liberal and disconnected.

Instead of going to the radical left as Buchanan and President Bush (1) had wanted Clinton moved quickly to the centre and reached out to the working-class voters who had backed Reagan at the two earlier elections.

Desperate to save the Bush strategy, Buchanan was now trying to claim that the Democrats were still fundamentally liberal (a dirty word in American politics) and were only “dressed up as moderates and centrists” to fool the voters.

Buchanan was wrong.

And not just in the past. Still writing and broadcasting, Buchanan continues to get it wrong in print and online.

Buchanan is a fan of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has likened BoJo to President Trump, so one wonders if Buchanan would level the same, crude, “cross dresser” accusation at Johnson’s Tory party for campaigning like an opposition, despite being in power for almost a decade.

Probably not. But he wouldn’t be the first man to attack others for practising what you preach.

Though I am appalled by the prospect of Johnson having his stubby little fingers on the levels of power for five years, part of me is still in awe of what he has done.

Not that Johnson can take all the credit. His victory is due as much to the unsuitability of Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as it is any great enthusiasm by the great British public to make Johnson PM.

A survey [by Opinium] of folks who voted Labour in 2017 but defected this time, found that 37% cited Corbyn’s leadership as the main reason for switching. 21% said they changed due to the Labour’s confused position on EU membership and only 6% said it was do with its economic policies.

This factor alone knocks on the head any idea that there was anything in the British campaigns that Irish parties should replicate here.

While Fine Gael and the Tories have some history of helping each other in the past, particularly on social media campaigning, there is not much in the Johnson playbook that Varadkar could try out here.

Unlike Johnson, who had only been prime minister for about 100 days when the election was triggered, Varadkar has spent two and half years as Taoiseach and 9 years, since March 2011, at the cabinet table.

Like it or not, he owns all the problems facing the country and – to judge from his somewhat tetchy and detached Saturday morning radio interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTE Radio One – this is something he is neither liking nor dealing with well.

While blaming health service problems on what Fianna Fáil did and did not do ten years ago may play well with the folks in Fine Gael as well as playing merry hell with my blood pressure, it can also been seen as a reminder that you’ve been powerless and ineffective for nine years.

The other Johnson trick that will not play here was his refusal to fully engage with either the opposition or with the media, particularly when it comes to debates and interviews.

Johnson’s Tories went into the campaign 10 points ahead of Corbyn. BoJo had nothing to fear from avoiding the tough scrutiny of Andrew Neil or others, apart from risking a chill on the kidneys hiding in a fridge to avoid the Good Morning Britain TV crew.

Varadkar is not in that position. He does not have a poll lead. Staying away from debates will not highlight his main rival’s weaknesses, if anything it will serve to emphasise his unwillingness to be challenged.

Varadkar’s team will instinctively strive to dictate how the media covers them, but it is not a one-way street. Their capacity to deliver that is more dictated by how the media, and the opposition parties, chose to respond.

OK, so those are the lessons we must ignore. But, what about the ones that should be learned?

There are three that immediately spring to mind.

The first is something I have talked about online here. We need to learn the lessons of online campaign abuse elsewhere and legislate now to ensure transparency in social media political advertising.

Fianna Fáil’s technology spokesperson James Lawless TD produced such a draft piece of legislation, the  Social Media (Transparency) Bill, over two years ago but this government has been stalling it since Dec 2017.

Second, if we really want to understand how to run a successful and engaged election campaign then do not look to the Tories, look up. Look to Glasgow and Edinburgh and take serious campaign notes from the SNP.

Sturgeon is easily the most effective political campaigner operating in any part of the neighbouring island. Her SNP started the night with 35 of the available 59 seats and finished up with 48.

All this apart from the fact that the SNP has been in office in Scotland for almost 12 years. That is how you successfully run as an incumbent with a record that you do not have to hide from.

Third, there are no such things as red green or blue walls, especially when the voters are volatile. These are blocks or groups of seats that a party traditional wins at an election.

At the 2016 US presidential election the Democrats thought their blue wall of democratic leaning districts across such old industrial states as Philadelphia, Ohio and Wisconsin would keep Trump out of the White House.

Jeremy Corbyn’s crew were convinced that a red wall clump of previously Labour supporting-constituencies across the North of England would stop, or at least reduce the chances of Johnson getting a majority.

Both were wrong. This is the simplest and most basic lesion of politics, take your voters for granted and they will have no compunction about switching sides.

The blue line of FG seats across the south and east of Dublin city are now far more vulnerable than they were. If the Taoiseach is hoping that traditional Fine Gael voters will stick with him no matter what, then he is in for a shock.

The same applies to Sinn Féin. Its view that once it takes a seat it never loses it. This was blown asunder by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP, after his stunning win in Derry. Just as with the Local Elections down here, Sinn Féin saw its vote halved in Derry.

While last week’s UK general election was a single election to a single chamber, in reality it was three very distinct elections, in three very different countries with three very dissimilar results.

While Johnson won the elections held in England and Wales quite easily, he lost the ones held in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The consequences of this dichotomy will dominate Johnson’s five years in government and have an increasing significance and importance here.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


Top: Fianna Fáil members canvassing in Derry, from left:  Mark Holt, Frank Kennedy, Briege MacOscar, Jim O’Callaghan TD, Colum Eastwood SDLP leader, Richard Comerford, Kathleen Hunt, Derek Mooney; Derek Mooney

Hot on the heels of my by-election punditry… well, three out of four is not bad… let me throw my not too jaundiced eye over the race for the 18 House of Commons seats in Northern Ireland. There went 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Féin and 1 Ind Unionist last time, in 2017.

Unlike the four by-elections here, which were run under PR (proportional representation) the seats in Northern Ireland seats will be allocated under the arcane and unfair first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Not that this system always disadvantages nationalists.

In 2015, then SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell held his South Belfast seat with 24.5% of the vote, just 900 votes (2.3%) ahead of the DUP candidate. This accomplishment left McDonnell with the dubious honour of being the MP with the smallest ever vote share.

Though he increased it at the 2017 election, McDonnell failed to hold on, losing out to the DUP who saw their vote jump by a whopping 8%. It is a feat they are unlikely to repeat this time around, but I will return to Belfast South in more detail later.

First let’s take a quick look at the 10 constituencies where there is no question about how they’ll end up, as the winning party in each case had majorities ranging from just under 8,000 votes to over 21,500. They are:


  • North Antrim – 20,643 majority
  • Lagan Valley – 19,229 majority
  • Strangford – 18,343 majority
  • East Antrim – 15,923 majority
  • East Londonderry – 8,842 majority
  • Upper Bann – 7,992 majority

Sinn Féin:

  • Belfast West – 21,652 majority
  • Mid Ulster – 12,890 majority
  • Newry and Armagh – 12,489 majority
  • West Tyrone – 7,956 majority

This is not to suggest that the remaining eight seats are all up for grabs. They are not. Two, or maybe three, look like changing. It is just that the winning margins the last time put these in the ones to watch pile.

So here, in reverse order, are my assessments of the remaining eight NI seats. First, let’s look at five seats where there could be some political shifts, though not enough to change the outcome.

South Antrim. The DUP took this seat from the UUP in 2017 by about 3200 votes. Though it is unlikely to swing back, the former UUP’s candidate, the ex-MP Danny Kinahan is well regarded. If the UUP is to have a future, then it really needs to start winning back support in seats like this. A DUP hold

South Down. For almost three decades this was solidly SDLP, but a big swing to SF’s Chris Hazzard saw him topple Margaret Ritchie, one of three former SDLP leaders to lose their seats in 2017. Hazzard’s majority is just under 2.500 and the SDLP’s candidate Michael Savage is running one of the strongest ground campaigns seen in the area since the days of the legendary SDLP MP Eddie McGrady. Probably a Sinn Féin hold, but it’s vulnerable.

North Down. Held for almost 18 years by independent unionist, Lady Sylvia Hermon, previously UUP, the strongly anti-Brexit MP is not standing again. The DUP vote in this affluent and solidly Unionist constituency jumped by 14% between 2015 and 2017 when its candidate Alex Easton finished up just 1208 votes behind Hermon.

Hermon announced her intention not to seek re-election after the SDLP, SF and the Greens had decided not to challenge her. While Alliance should be the beneficiary of their unintended largesse, its wilful refusal to strategically stand aside elsewhere to help remain candidates suggest it won’t.

Logic says that the DUP should win (it took 3 of the 6 Assembly seats here last time), though instinct says that voters in a seat that went 53% remain in 2016 will not be content to see a pro-Brexiteer replacing an anti-brexiteer. Oh, the joys of FPTP! Barring some seismic Alliance surge, this looks like a DUP gain.

East Belfast. In truth, this constituency should be in the list of 10 safe seats as the sitting DUP MP’s 2017 winning margin of 8,474 votes (a vote share of almost 56%) hardly puts it in the ones to watch column.

East Belfast is unionist heartland. It was represented by the former DUP leader Peter Robinson for 30 years, but it was his famous 2010 defeat by Alliance’s Naomi Long that puts East Belfast on this list.

The current MP Gavin Robinson (no relation) is seen as a moderate, in DUP terms. It is hard to see Long pulling off another 2010 win – notwithstanding her big success at the European Election. Long’s best chance of securing an Alliance seat may have been to move herself to the neighbouring North Down. This is a DUP hold.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone. One of the three seats on this list where the contest is between unionism and nationalism (see also Belfast North and South). Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew took the seat back from the UUP’s Tom Elliott by 875 votes in 2017. While this would be regarded as a slim majority elsewhere, in the history of Gildernew wins here since 2001 it ranks among one of the biggest.

While the DUP have again withdrawn to facilitate Elliott, and Sinn Féin is seeing some discontent among its own voters, it is difficult to see the hard-working and well liked Gildernew losing out this time. A Sinn Féin hold.

This brings us to the three critical seats:

North Belfast. The race here is between the DUP and Sinn Féin – no surrogates or proxies. It is a winner takes all contest under a winner takes all voting system. One of just two constituencies where there are only three candidates (East Belfast being the other).

The sitting MP, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds held on by just under 2100 votes in 2017. Sinn Féin’s John Finucane is hoping that a strong anti-Brexit message and the absence of SDLP and Green party candidates and will see their 2700 votes come his way. Taking the seat off arch brexiteer Dodds would be a huge win.

But, Dodds has been here before. Back in 2010 he saw his majority fall to 2200, only to almost triple it five years later. Also, the presence of an Alliance candidate risks siphoning off remain voters unwilling to commit to Finucane. While the odds favour Dodds on paper, a nasty postering and banner campaigns by loyalists in both North and South Belfast may backfire.

While last week’s not quite full Ulster Hall rally, with its strident pro-Brexit and unionist imagery, was intended to unite and invigorate unionism, it was also a signal to moderate nationalists and others that one way to rid Northern Ireland of that political extreme is to defeat Dodds. While I think Dodds will win, every election produces a surprise, and this could be it.

This brings us to the two seats which I expect to switch hands.

Foyle: The Derry city constituency of Foyle was once the seat of John Hume and later Mark Durkan. Durkan’s 2017 defeat by Sinn Féin came as a body blow, the tightness of the margin, 167 votes, making it feel even worse.

Winning this seat back is a key goal for the SDLP’s new leader, Colum Eastwood and all the signs are that he is set to do it. [I should declare an interest here: I know Colum well and have been a supporter of his for years, including canvassing for him last week in Derry.]

Where winning the seat back is important to the SDLP and its Fianna Fáil partner, not losing it is an absolute imperative for Sinn Féin. It has poured a lot of manpower and resources, over the past few weeks, into trying to cling on, but just a few hours knocking on doors in what should be strong SF areas tells you that it is too late. SDLP gain at SF expense.

South Belfast. The contest here is between sitting DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly and the SDLP’s Claire Hanna. This staunchly pro-remain constituency (70%:30%) is set to return one of the most articulate, vibrant and dynamic pro-remain voices on the Northern Ireland political scene, Claire Hanna.

The decision by both the Green and Sinn Féin parties to stand aside in Hanna’s favour all but makes her election inevitable, so you have to again wonder at the Alliance strategy to stay in a race where it can, at best, only be a spoiler who helps the pro leave DUP. SDLP gain from DUP

So, there you have it. Based on the assessments above I expect the final totals should look either like this:

  • 10 DUP – Unchanged. Loses 1 in S Belfast and gains 1 in N Down
  •   6 SF – Down one. Loses Foyle
  •   2 SDLP – Up 2, Foyle and S Belfast.

Or, this

  • 9 DUP – Loses 1 each in S Belfast and N Belfast, gains 1 in N Down
  • 7 SF – Unchanged. Loses Foyle but gains N Belfast.
  • 2 SDLP – Up 2, Foyle and S Belfast.

The significance of this second scenario is that it would mark parity between nationalist and unionist Westminster representation – 9 seats each.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney