Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ended weeks of speculation on Tuesday as went to the President to ask him to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a general election on Saturday, February 8th. His Fine Gael-led minority government served in power for four years, with support from the main opposition party Fianna Fáil, through a ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement. With the immediate risk of a ‘no deal Brexit’ averted through the passing of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the government facing the risk of losing a motion of no-confidence in early spring, Varadkar chose to call the election on his own terms.
This election promises to be one of the tightest in recent decades; opinion polls show support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is neck and neck. By virtue of serving in government for close to a decade, the former will find it a harder task to build a coalition once the results emerge from ballot boxes on February 9th. Election 2020 is also set to be one of the most presidential in recent times with Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, the two candidates for Taoiseach, being strong media performers who can think on their feet.
The election occurs against the backdrop of full employment and strong economic growth. Furthermore, the government will point to its success in helping to broker the restoration of powersharing in Northern Ireland last week as well as its achievement in placing the interests of Ireland – North and South – at the heart of Phase I of the negotiations on Brexit. However, after nine years of Fine Gael-led government, all is not rosy.
Opposition parties smell blood, particularly on the issues of housing, health and the management of large-scale infrastructure projects. While the economy has been the fastest growing in the eurozone for five years in a row now, over 10,000 people are homeless, and there are record numbers of people on hospital waiting lists. The Green Party are hoping their electoral success in May’s local and European elections will be repeated in the national contest, while Labour will be hoping to recover some of its 30 seats which it lost in 2016.
The first official visit of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Dublin on Wednesday was a much-needed boost to Varadkar. Speaking in government buildings, von der Leyen noted that formal EU-UK trade talks would begin by early March and said; “There’s almost no other country in the European Union that is more affected by this decision than Ireland…that’s why Ireland and Northern Ireland were one of our top priorities during the withdrawal negotiations.”
While housing and health are the main issues in the general election, Fine Gael has been trying to keep the conversation focused on its solid track record in managing the economy and its deft handling of Brexit, portraying itself as a safe pair of hands. Opposition parties are doing just the opposite, blaming Fine Gael for the considerable failings in the system.
Vulcan will be providing daily updates on the election campaign over the coming weeks. Keep an eye on our website and social media @VulcanInsight to stay informed.