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Tom Kelly

Mood for change seems so strong that Leo Varadkar may have to dust off his CV

Tom Kelly


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

As voters in the Irish Republic go to the polls, there is much at stake for all the party leaders.

In the last election in 2016, just over 1% separated Fine Gael from Fianna Fail, but crucially the former had six more parliamentary seats.

This allowed for the formation of a Fine Gael-led coalition government, albeit via a confidence and supply agreement with chief rivals Fianna Fail.

Across the country there is now an appetite for change. A change of Taoiseach, a change government and change of direction.

Leo Varadkar has none of the bonhomie of his campaigning predecessor Enda Kenny, who was a master of backslapping, handshaking and small talk. By contrast, Varadkar held a baby at his campaign launch and it was difficult to distinguish for whom the experience was more painful.


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael candidates Joe Carey (left) and Pat Breen (right), holding his grandaughter
Aoibhin Breen

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael candidates Joe Carey (left) and Pat Breen (right), holding his grandaughter Aoibhin Breen


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael candidates Joe Carey (left) and Pat Breen (right), holding his grandaughter Aoibhin Breen

After 10 years in government Fine Gael is running on empty. It is a government being defined by its failures in housing, homelessness and health.

The inability to manage the financials on large infrastructural projects has cast doubt on its reputation for economic prudence.

But most of all - this is an urbanite, chic, Dublin-centric Taoiseach who is not much loved in the rest of the country.

The Fine Gael parliamentarians should have listened to their grassroots and chosen the proven if dull Simon Coveney as Fine Gael leader.

The Taoiseach has made a lacklustre job of this election campaign.

Fianna Fail, on the other hand, are enjoying a revival after a long spell of Opposition.

Micheal Martin has proven to be an effective poker player. In a world of political spin, he is the grown-up in the room. He listens to people and they appear to be listening to him. If polls are to believed - and they come with a heavy caution mark - Mr Martin will be the next Taoiseach with his party likely to win between 55-58 seats.

A government will be formed and it will be another coalition.

If, as expected, Mr Martin's first calls are to Labour and the Greens, then on the lower figure that could take him to between 70-73 seats. At least four independent candidates are of the Fianna Fail gene pool. This takes the Taoiseach closer to the magical number of 80.

One outgoing minister has already indicated she would have no problem working with Mr Martin.

If Mr Martin wins the largest number of seats but fails to form a government with his preferred mix of parties and independents, either he reconsiders his prohibition of Sinn Fein in government or resigns as leader of Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein is the unknown quantity in this election. Political fortunes have fluctuated under Mary Lou McDonald, but with Pearse Doherty and Eoin O'Broin, Sinn Fein has some star players and the party coffers are now full. If the polls are correct they would elect twice the number they have standing.

Currently they have 22 seats in the Dail but had 23 elected in 2016. They will improve on that figure to perhaps 26, maybe 28. To exceed 30 would require a complete collapse in both Fianna Fail's and Fine Gael's vote, which will not happen.

Remember in the aftermath of the economic collapse a diminished Fianna Fail still managed to be the second largest party in the State.

Sinn Fein took a hammering in the recent Irish local government elections, so unless Fine Gael go into an electoral meltdown, it is likely Sinn Fein will remain third.

Mr Martin has proven himself to be a cautious leader. Unionists will see him as pragmatic. In some ways Leo was too flamboyant for the conservative DUP.

Martin sees Fianna Fail as the embodiment of the republican tradition and has used this to good effect in preventing Sinn Fein stealing what Martin regards as Fianna Fail's birthright.

After all it was Fianna Fail founder Eamonn De Valera who led Sinn Fein in 1918.

If Mary Lou fails to make a breakthrough into government or as leader of the Opposition, she is likely to face an internal challenge. On the other hand, if she succeeds in either goal she will have strengthened her grip.

Going out on a limb - this writer thinks she will fail in both - despite getting uplift in percentage of the vote and seats.

Leo, it would appear, may have to dust off his CV. But Sunday will tell a tale.

Dr Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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