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I’ve worked out when the general election is most likely to be

Two sets of political considerations will influence the decision: tactical and practical

Here are they key questions and some answers about the timing of the next general election in Ireland.

So when is the election going to be?

The timing of elections is a matter of politics but also of law – there are rules governing the lifespan of the Dáil, minimum and maximum periods for campaigns, and so on. Constitutionally, the dissolution of the Dáil is performed by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach; this means that it is – unless Michael D decides to invoke a never-used power to refuse a dissolution – Leo Varadkar’s decision. Varadkar’s decision will be bound by law, but directed by politics.

What does the law say?

The Constitution says that any Dáil shall not continue for a period longer than seven years, but also stipulates that a shorter period may be fixed by law. And so it has – electoral law (there have been many electoral acts passed by the Oireachtas to set the rules for elections) says that the Dáil must be dissolved within five years of its first meeting. The current Dáil met for the first time on February 20th, 2020. So it must come to an end by February 20th, 2025. The Constitution says that a general election must take place not later than 30 days after a dissolution of the Dáil, and that the Dáil shall meet within 30 days of polling day. The 1992 Electoral Act refines this – it says that the poll shall take place not earlier that the 17th day, nor later than the 25th day following the issue of the writs for an election (disregarding Sundays and bank holidays).

Decode all that for me, please.

The last possible polling day is Saturday, March 22nd, 2025, with the new Dáil meeting at the latest on April 22nd – the day after Easter Monday.


Right so. Now tell me about the politics

There are two sets of political considerations that will influence Varadkar’s decision – tactical and practical. First, the tactical – when is the best time for the Government, and for Fine Gael, to have the election? And are those two things even the same? There are essentially three windows for the election – this spring, next autumn or – as above – the last possible moment in the spring of 2025. A snap general election this spring would be (correctly) seen an as opportunist move by Varadkar and therefore extremely unlikely. It would be fiercely opposed by his Government partners, and imaginable only if there is a collapse of the Coalition – a disaster for all parties and therefore almost certain to be avoided.

So the real choice is between autumn and next year?

Correct. Which brings us to some practical considerations. The European Parliament elections in June may see one or more TDs elected. They are obliged to resign their membership of the Dáil when they sign the register of members for the European Parliament, most likely at the start of July. The by-elections to fill these seats must be called within six months, with polling within a further 30 days. So by-elections must be held by the end of January next year.

Great! I love by-elections.

Hold your horses. Governments have a terrible record in by-elections so will not want them so close to a general election. So either the election is called for the autumn or the Government could seek to avoid the by-elections – announcing in the autumn its intention to go to March and introducing a one-line bill to extend the allowable time before they must be held. It’s a bit fiddly, but it’s doable.

So which is better for the Government, next autumn or next year?

There are pros and cons for both. The leaders of Fianna Fáil and the Greens want to complete the full term, and while Varadkar doesn’t have to take account of their wishes, if he wants to present the argument that the Government has worked well together and has done the job it promised to, then calling the election when they don’t want it is not helpful. Another argument for waiting is that you would have however many thousand more houses built at that stage. Bertie Ahern always said he was going to the end and then did it, conscious that time spent publicly pondering election dates is time not spent talking about things people actually care about.

The argument against waiting is that you place yourself at the mercy of events early next year. Also, the last three elections have been held in the gloom of February and all have been disasters for the incumbent government. If he does decide to wait, that’s definitely an incentive to wait until the last minute.

So what about this autumn?

That’s where the momentum seems to be headed. A decision is unlikely until after the local and European elections, when key personnel decisions (the future of Micheál Martin, Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe) are also likely to be reached. But for now, the playbook that many Government insiders are thinking about is this: an early budget in mid-September, a quick Finance Bill through the Dáil by early October (along with some giveaways for voters), a dissolution in early October, and an election in late October/early November.

The Government is essentially over after the next budget, so you avoid the accusation of pulling a fast one for political advantage. You avoid by-elections. You let some time pass between expected Sinn Féin gains in the local and European elections. You avoid going until the very last minute. And you avoid the depths of winter. There is a lot to recommend it, and the downsides seem less obvious than the other choices.

Call it, so.

This autumn – late October/early November.

Good man.

That assessment is subject to change.

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