Calling election at wrong time could be 'political death warrant' for Coalition

James Cox

There is "danger" in calling an early election, but timing will be key amid talks of the current Government finishing early, according to a politics professor.

Last week, the Irish Examiner reported Government is considering calling an early general election with November 24th mooted as a possible date.

Several senior coalition sources and ministers told the newspaper that an election could follow quickly after a 'giveaway budget' in October.

DCU professor and political commentator Gary Murphy told "There are two issues. One of them is that there is a danger with all governments in waiting until the very end, we saw in 2020 that the government could have gone longer but somehow felt bounced into calling an early election after the no confidence motions in Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy.

"Governments really prefer to go to the country on their own terms and if you leave it too long there comes a sort of inevitability that it has to happen, and they lose control of the narrative. There is something in a government to go early but on its terms, Leo Varadkar went in 2020 but didn't have to go for another year.

"I don't think he'll want to repeat that mistake when he felt bounced into it when Fianna Fáil made it clear they had enough of confidence-and-supply."

Prof Murphy added: "What's different this time is the Government, notwithstanding some real wobbles, have a majority and will have a steady enough majority even if there are defections because people like the Healy-Raes aren't going to vote against the Government on a confidence motion or anything like that it seems to me."

The local and European elections set for the summer of 2024 will be a key indicator of the strength of the Government and Opposition, and Prof Murphy said this should factor into decision-making on the next general election.

The problem is a big Sinn Féin win in these elections would provide a narrative that the Government is on its last legs and that's a big danger.

"The problem with calling an early election, either around the time of the local elections or in November 2024, is if the poll numbers are the same as they are now, why wouldn't you put it off until the last moment if the result seems to be sort of pre-ordained.

"The thing about the summer of 2024 is we have local and European elections, Sinn Féin are automatically going to do really well there as they did so poorly in 2019, they're almost guaranteed even on a bad day to do much better than they did in 2019.

"The big danger is that a big Sinn Féin vote in the European and local elections in May 2024 would almost be a narrative for big Sinn Féin gains in the general election and the Government has to think about that when it's calling its election. Logistically general, local and European on the same day would be a mammoth task. They could go beforehand in April or in September, but the problem is a big Sinn Féin win in these elections would provide a narrative that the Government is on its last legs and that's a big danger."

Poll numbers

Despite consistent rumours of discontent in the Coalition, with backbench TDs said to be frustrated and a number of Green TDs considering voting against the ending of the eviction ban, Prof Murphy believes "there is no great danger in the Government falling".

"With Fianna Fáil, we have been talking about Micheál Martin's leadership for so long now, but I don't see any challengers coming. I wouldn't be too worried if I was in Government that one of the parties will pull out. I don't think the danger is there, and the poll numbers are so stuck in the mud for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, they are stuck in and around where they were at the 2020 election. Sinn Féin, despite slight declines, are over 30 per cent. That's the problem of leaving government early, it's kind of signing your own political death warrant."

He added: "There are serious decisions to be made, you want to call an election on your own terms, if you go too long you lose that ability but if you go too early in terms of the poll numbers it kind of becomes 'why didn't we just see it out?'

"There has been an anti-government feeling in the last three elections, 2011, 2016, 2020, I think that will last into the next election no matter when it is called."

Prof Murphy, whose biography of Charlie Haughey was published in 2021, said "Irish history is littered with bad mistakes in calling elections".

"Charlie Haughey called a disastrous election in June 1981, people were begging him not to, but he wanted a majority which he didn't get. John Bruton in 1997... he lost power in an election he didn't have to call for another few months. Liam Cosgrave in 1977 went early and that backfired spectacularly, so Irish history is littered with bad mistakes in calling elections.

"It is tricky getting election times right, Bertie Ahern got it right in 2002 by going right to the end and he nearly won an overall majority. He also went close in 2007, some thought that was a mistake, but he did well in that election against all the odds.

"There's a little bit of luck involved in these things, sometimes we forget about luck with elections. The narratives that will develop will be 're-elect us' from the Government, from the other side it's 'kick them out'."

Prof Murphy said there is a "volatility in Irish politics at the moment", citing the Social Democrats' five-point jump in the polls after Holly Cairns was recently named as their new leader.

Constituency revisions in July will see 18-20 additional seats in the Dáil and Prof Murphy feels this could be a benefit to Sinn Féin, who are likely to run two candidates in each constituency in the next general election.

While current poll numbers suggest Sinn Féin will win the most seats in the next election, Prof Murphy feels government formation will be tricky for Mary Lou McDonald's party.

People Before Profit recently published a document entitled 'The case for a left-wing government: Getting rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’, and Prof Murphy said it shows the difficulties Sinn Féin would have in forming an alliance with the left wing party.

"They will have to look for partners on the left... the Social Democrats, Labour, maybe even the Greens, left wing independents. If you look at that People Before Profit document, Richard Boyd Barrett called for Sinn Féin to say 'we want to get rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and form a left wing government', in the next line they said something along the lines of 'we accept Sinn Féin will sell out to the capitalist class'.

"Eoin Ó Broin [Sinn Féin's housing spokesperson] has been on record saying he'll talk to housing developers, builders, so you can see the tensions there already. I'm of the view that People Before Profit will never go into government because they couldn't get everything they wanted done, they are so ideologically pure in their detestation of capitalism that I couldn't see it.

"A big issue for Sinn Féin will be trying to cobble together a majority, the Social Democrats didn't go into government in 2016 or 2020, Holly Cairns has said she is keen to go into government. I'm sure Ivana Bacik will want to, but whether they will with Sinn Féin is another question, it all depends on how close Sinn Féin are and how many seats they need.

"If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do well but don't have the numbers, they may well say 'the electorate has spoken... it's up to you Sinn Féin to go and form a government'. Whether they can do that will be a big test.

"Let's say Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats have enough seats for a majority, you could say that makes sense, but my sense is the volatility in the electorate will make post election bargaining very difficult. I see no appetite amongst Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to go into power with Sinn Féin and that will be a challenge for Sinn Féin in the election aftermath."

Prof Murphy said Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party will have to sell their record in government, something he feels is even more important to the Coalition than the timing of the next election.

"One way of looking at it would be it doesn't really matter when the election is called, it's whether this government can sell its record.

"They will have to say 'vote for us because we provided good leadership through Covid and tough economic times, people will be better off with us, and you can't trust Sinn Féin or the left because they'll bankrupt the country'. The response will be 'well you bankrupted the country in 2008'.

"But that has to be the narrative for them, it has to be about re-election, so it might not even be about when the election is called."

Prof Murphy said November would also be a difficult election month because of the weather, pointing to past governments who chose to go to the polls in summer months.

'Government in waiting'

He said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan will have a lot of thinking to do before coming to a final decision.

"The personalities involved will come to an arrangement I would think, but it is a danger. Fianna Fáil are in dangerous territory, a leadership change could change everything, I wouldn't underestimate the difficulties they face.

"Fine Gael will be relying on an old type of middle class vote, but that's been decreasing since 2016, so there are big challenges for all three leaders... so it suggests they will agree on a beneficial time.

"I thought for a long time this government would go the full way to 2025 on the grounds there was nothing in it for them to go early, but the more I think about it the danger is if Sinn Féin do really well in local and European elections that narrative of government in waiting would gather momentum. That's a real danger for government."