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Battlelines drawn up as new election map sends political parties into planning mode

Review by Electoral Commission fires starter gun for next general election

At 8am on Wednesday the Electoral Commission published its constituency review, putting legions of TDs and Dáil hopefuls out of their misery. The uncertainty was over. Fourteen new Dáil seats are to be created, and the electoral map – now containing 43 constituencies – is redrawn.

Politicians can now plan the campaign ahead, and the new constituencies and boundaries will help make or break the political fortunes of individual candidates and parties.

It appears the larger parties – Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – will either be helped or at the very least not damaged by the proposed changes. Smaller parties such as the Greens, Labour and Social Democrats – as well as some Independents – may suffer from the increase in the number of three-seat constituencies that could see them squeezed out by the big three.

Now that the proposed Dáil constituencies are known there will be a scramble by the parties to find candidates. The first step is to finish selecting candidates for next year’s local elections.

Grapic: Paul Scott

The implications of the constituency review by the commission, or An Coimisiún Toghcháin, will be studied in detail by politicians and strategists in this regard. Many of those chosen to run for county and city council seats will ultimately end up as Dáil candidates just months later, so the local election will be an important trial run.

Sinn Féin is understood to have the majority of its local election selection conventions completed as it seeks to win multiples of the 81 seats it was left with in its disastrous 2019 campaign when its council representation halved. Fianna Fáil has around 70 per cent of its selection conventions held, while Fine Gael is expected to have more than half done by the end of October.

All three main parties have for the most part been holding back on Dáil selection conventions as they awaited the constituency review.

Sinn Féin – consistently flying high in the polls and already expected to do well – is unsurprisingly viewed by many observers as the main beneficiary of the constituency review.

Mary Lou McDonald’s party will not repeat its 2020 general election blunder by not having enough candidates next time around. Sinn Féin won 37 seats. but is down one having parted ways with Clare TD Violet-Anne Wynne. It could have taken a lot more seats with more candidates. The party’s goal now will be to win at least one seat in every constituency and multiple seats in many constituencies.

There are some places where the party will likely be targeting three seats such as Dublin Mid-West, Donegal, Cavan-Monaghan and Louth. Some of the party’s TDs, such as Brian Stanley in Laois or Louise O’Reilly in Dublin Fingal West, may face difficultly bringing in running mates in newly-created three-seaters.

A source said the party was “glad the review is done, and we know the lay of the land”. Sinn Féin is studying the new map “to make sure we maximise the number of candidates”.

In response to commentary suggesting Sinn Féin will encounter difficulties finding enough suitable candidates, the party said: “It’s a big challenge for every party to find candidates… politics is tough, it’s ‘roll your sleeves up’ trying to help people. It’s not for everybody.”

Sinn Féin is highly unlikely to get to the 88 seats that will be required for a Dáil majority in the new 174-seat chamber on its own, and its preference is to lead a government with the support of smaller left-wing parties. “Our pitch will be to bring in a government of change, one that doesn’t include Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and to have enough candidates to make that happen,” said the Sinn Féin source.

However, a Sinn Féin-led coalition with Fianna Fáil is widely seen in political circles as the most straightforward way to form a government after the next election. The constituency review does nothing to change this.

Such a coalition – provided Fianna Fáil is not the only other party to join it – is seen by many in the Sinn Féin base as the “next most palatable” option if the smaller left-wing parties alone do not provide the numbers. This option is considered more viable for Sinn Féin members if a smaller party joins a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin ruled out going into coalition with Sinn Féin ahead of the 2020 general election and even in recent months has said he does not see his party going into government with Sinn Féin after the next election.

One Fianna Fáil politician says the party is “very divided” on the issue, but that those who oppose a coalition deal with Sinn Féin still form the majority. There is also a view among some in the party that ruling out Sinn Féin did not help Fianna Fáil’s own election chances in 2020, and the position should be softened next time around.

Fianna Fáil’s goal in the wake of the constituency review, according to another source, will be to “hold what we have” while being “ambitious” in identifying where gains can be made. It will “fight for every possible seat we can”, says the source.

Fianna Fáil won 38 seats in 2020, though its numbers dropped to 37 after Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry departed the party.

The new Wicklow-Wexford constituency is seen as a good prospect for Fianna Fáil, with Senator Malcom Byrne the only current Oireachtas member based in the area. The party will spy other opportunities in the Kildare constituencies and Mayo.

Former TD Lisa Chambers is planning a European Parliament run so it is as yet unclear who will be the Dáil running mate of sitting TD Dara Calleary in Mayo. Elsewhere, Cork North-West TD Aindrias Moynihan may face a greater battle than expected with the loss of Ballincollig – where he picked up support last time – to Cork North-Central.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s party Fine Gael won 35 seats in 2020 but its Dáil numbers stand at 34 due to Donegal TD Joe McHugh leaving the party over the issue around mica building defects in houses in his constituency.

On the outcome of the constituency review for Fine Gael, a source said: “I don’t think there’s much bad news in it.” The party is targeting 20 seat gains, with at least half of these seen as strong possibilities.

While Sligo-Leitrim TD Frank Feighan lost around 1,200 votes from his former north Roscommon base he has been living in Sligo town for a decade and has a good chance of being re-elected.

Wexford’s Paul Kehoe may have a decision to make in terms of where he will run as the northern hinterland around his Enniscorthy heartland will now be in the new Wicklow-Wexford constituency. The creation of a new three-seat Dublin Fingal West creates an opportunity for Senator Regina Doherty to return to the Dáil, while Senator Garrett Ahearn could pick up a seat in Tipperary South.

Fine Gael is ramping up its local election selection conventions but may hold off on Dáil selection conventions for now, with the source saying: “We might prefer to see what happens in the locals before making decisions.”

As for the smaller parties, the redrawing of Dublin Fingal from five seats to two three-seaters is a good example of the challenge they have in the next election. Sitting Labour TD Duncan Smith will face the threat of an as yet unnamed Sinn Féin candidate in Dublin Fingal East. The other incumbents will be Fianna Fáil Minister Darragh O’Brien and Fine Gael’s Alan Farrell.

Smith said: “I’ve always had a battle” but he is happy with the redraw. He is glad the town of Swords was not split – as it had been previously – and insisted he is “energised” for the general election campaign.

Green Party Minister of State Joe O’Brien also finds himself in the new Dublin Fingal West three-seater, though he is aided somewhat in that there is just one other sitting TD in the area, Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Féin. Mr O’Brien said he had been expecting the constituency to split and was preparing for it. “Generally, across the country, the three larger parties will have the advantage anyway, regardless of constituency size. When you’re in a smaller party like mine you know that you always have to fight harder for your position.”

The next general election must take place by March 2025, but the exact timing is not certain. Much speculation has focused on autumn of next year. The 2024 local elections look set to be an initial skirmish ahead of the real contest to win Dáil seats on the new battlefield set out by the Electoral Commission.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times