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Party Selection Conventions Give Rise to Drama of Election to Come

Wicklow2002aThe slow summer months have seen the Irish political main stage fall quiet, with little entertainment emerging from the corridors of the Oireachtas. The real political drama has been taking place across the country from constituency to constituency, at each party’s selection convention. The contests for a place on the ballot have given rise to tensions and heated drama within all the main parties.

Labour’s selection conventions seemingly ring a death knell for the out of favour coalition partner. Only one out of their twenty-six selection conventions so far has even been contested; Senators John Whelan and Loraine Higgins, TDs Emmet Stag, Jan O’Sullivan and Anne Ferris, and Councillors Pamela Kearns and Mick Duffy have all been put on the ticket unopposed. The party have only completed 26 out of 40 conventions, in what could be ascribed to an absence of willing runners. In Cork North Central no candidates managed to put their name forward before the nomination deadline, a curious circumstance given Labour’s having a sitting TD in the constituency. This gave rise to the rumour that Kathleen Lynch would not attempt a return to Dáil, though this was quashed with her late nomination and subsequent selection.

The perceived lack of local activism and competition among Labour’s constituency bases is a troubling sign for what is a party in crisis. A party press officer maintained when broached on the matter that-

“In a lot of cases only one candidate put their name forward… [and] all of the seats we’re contesting we have a chance of winning, there’s no doubt about that.”

Labour also have the highest number of out-going TD’s who will not be running for the Dail again; Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Sean Kenny, and Ruairi Quinn are among the seven exiting representatives. The exodus of these veteran members will leave a vacuum of seats, primarily in Dublin, which the party will find difficult to retain. The replacement candidates come from a crop of senators and county councillors who will have to overcome their own lack of experience and their party’s damning public opinion ratings. Cllr Carrie Smith’s attempted uphill battle to wrest back Eamon Gilmore’s seat in Dun Laoghaire is just one example of the challenge the party face. If the political tea leaves of the selection conventions are telling of a party’s future, Labour will have much to fear from the coming election.

Fianna Fail from the outside appear to have moved forward from their electoral mauling in 2011, and Michael Martin has steered the party back to a polling position of around 20%. Yet a closer look into the dynamics of their selection conventions would suggest that old ways die-hard. The party’s conventions show a revival of the old boys club networks and a comeback of some familiar faces thought since gone in Fianna Fail. Sean Haughey has been contentiously chosen to run by party HQ in Dublin Bay North, despite losing the convention vote to Deirdre Heaney. The returning brigade also includes ex-junior minister Conor Lenihan, who claims to have been approached to run in Roscommon-Galway. Mary Hanafin is the third former minister to come out of the woodwork by contesting the Dun Laoghaire convention – to the agitation of the younger Cumman candidate Kate Feeney.

The fallback to Fianna Fail’s old names could certainly have been a catalyst in the recent departures of emerging politicians Averil Power and Patrick McKee. The party also trail furthest behind in securing their gender quota of 30pc female candidates, and seemingly have tried to alleviate this by cynically tagging women onto the end of their tickets. Cllr Sinead Guckian was approached to run in Sligo-Leitrim, as was Cllr Siobhan Ambrose in Tipperary, but both as the party’s third candidates on the ballot. Fianna Fail’s problems down the road will therefore be that their in-party politics are working too much like they used to, and not enough lessons have been learnt.

Sinn Fein are a party busily preparing for the next election; buoyant from a popular term in opposition, they have the most conventions completed of any party. Their active local branches have been greatly mobilized over the past year through the water charges opposition and anti-austerity movements. But these independently minded local Sinn Fein organisations have come into conflict at times with the more authoritative styled Party Head Office. None more controversially than in the Cork East selection convention, where Cllrs Kieran McCarthy and Melissa Mullane were removed and suspended from the party. The two councillors had touted they would be contesting the Cork selection convention, to the ire of sitting SF TD Sandra McLellan. In protest over 70 Sinn Fein branch members resigned in solidarity with the popular councillors. The exact reason for their removal and suspension was not revealed, though Kieran McCarthy tied it to the political dynamics of the selection convention. The damaging episode provided Sinn Fein with an unwanted scandal, and will be a question for them going into the campaign cycle, which is how to best manage their particularly active local members from above.

Enda Kenny will lead Fine Gael into the next election on a mandate to renew the party’s term in government on the message of “recovery”, but the party is still be expected to lose up to 25 seats on their 2011 election results. This constriction has lead to a building in-party tension at their selection conventions. Fine Gael tickets have been heatedly contested, as sitting TDs and ambitious councillors jostle for positions. Minister Richard Bruton failed to be chosen in his Dublin convention, with Stephanie Regan and Naoisi O’Muiri beating him, forcing Bruton to be added onto the ticket later. The result of this convention will mean Regan and O’Muiri will likely split the Fine Gael 2nd vote after Bruton gets in – a dangerous outcome potentially to be replicated in other constituencies. The Fine Gael press office responded plainly that –

“Fine Gael is the largest political party in the country with over 30,000 members. The majority of conventions are contested, as is healthy for any democratic organisation.”

Fine Gael’s electoral strategy will no doubt be meticulously planned out. But if they cannot effectively co-ordinate their constituency conventions, they may encumber the field with too many of their own candidates.

The political analysis of each party’s selection conventions is telling of the challenges they will each face going into the coming election, and provides a telling reminder that all politics is indeed local.

Words by Jack Power, Politics Editor

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