The two big beasts of Irish politics have adopted different approaches in the unpredictable Dublin constituency of the European Parliament elections.

Candidates

19 candidates in total:

Barry Andrews (Fianna Fáil); Lynn Boylan (Sinn Féin); Gillian Brien (People Before Profit); Ciarán Cuffe (Green Party); Clare Daly (Independents4Change); Mark Durkan (Fine Gael); Frances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael); Gary Gannon (Social Democrats); Ben Gilroy (Independent); Rita Harrold (Solidarity); Alice-Mary Higgins (Independent); Hermann Kelly (Independent); Tony Bosco Lowth (Independent); Aisling McNiffe (Independent); Mark Mullan (Independent); Eamonn Murphy (Independent); Gemma O'Doherty (Independent); Éilis Ryan (The Workers' Party); Alex White (Labour).

Seats

Definitely three, but four if/when the UK leaves the European Union.

Outgoing MEPs

Sinn Féin's Lynn Boylan; Independent Nessa Childers; and Fine Gael's Brian Hayes completed a five-year term.

Lie of the land

Uncertainty abounds. Nineteen candidates - ten men and nine women - are vying to become an MEP. That is seven candidates more than in 2014 and nine more than in 2009. 

Two of the three sitting MEPs, Brian Hayes and Nessa Childers, are retiring. An extra seat is up for grabs, if Brexit actually happens. 

But voter turnout is falling: 52.9% in 2004; 50.8% in 2009; and just 43.7% in 2014. It is also unclear what impact, if any, the Divorce Referendum will have on the European Parliament election turnout. Both are taking place on the same day.

Dublin is now a four-seater constituency, having gained an additional seat since 2014. Its boundary remains unchanged and comprises the counties of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal and South Dublin, as well as the city of Dublin.

Analysis

The only MEP seeking to retain their seat is Sinn Féin's Lynn Boylan. She stormed to success back in 2014, securing 23% of the first preference vote - 28,000 ballots more than her nearest rival, Fine Gael's Brian Hayes. 

Known for being a hard worker in Europe, Boylan has also managed to maintain a relatively high profile back home. Issues she has championed - the Ibrahim Halawa case, climate change, and Irish neutrality - have assisted her in retaining that all-important asset in a European election: name recognition.

However, winning the first seat in the 2014 European election doesn't guarantee anything in 2019. That's particularly relevant now that the Independents4Change candidate, Clare Daly, has entered the fray.

The Dublin Fingal TD has a very well-recognised brand due to some stellar Dáil performances. In her campaign video, Daly defines herself as someone who would stand-up for ordinary people against a broken EU.

She says: "Brexit hasn't caused the crisis, it's a consequence of it. Like the rise of the far-right, it's a direct result of a European Union set-up to promote the interests of the corporations rather than those of the citizens."

This is crucial for Boylan - Clare Daly will be fishing in the same electoral pond. To complicate matters further, so too will the numerous other left-of-centre candidates. And this at a time when broader policy issues such as housing, the provision of public services and climate change have replaced the focus on water charges during the 2014 campaign.

So the question arises: can those on the left optimise their chances by transferring votes to each other? Boylan says she hopes "...voters won't transfer to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil" because returning three MEPs from those parties would be "... disastrous for Dublin".

Green Party candidate Ciarán Cuffe thinks some form of a transfer pact "makes sense". The councillor, and former junior minister, has described this contest as "the climate election", but he has a battle on his hands given that the party's message is no longer unique. The Greens hope they will be transfer-friendly. No surprise therefore that he is broadly supportive of a progressive voting pact - saying the absence of one would benefit only the establishment parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.


Those two big beasts of Irish politics have adopted different approaches to the Dublin constituency. Fine Gael has opted to run two candidates - Frances Fitzgerald and Mark Durkan. Fianna Fáil has decided to give its candidate, Barry Andrews, a clear run.

At the party's launch, Fitzgerald was described by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as a woman who had "helped transform Ireland into the modern country it is today". The former tánaiste and justice minister spoke in broader geopolitical terms about how she would defend the European ideal which was "under attack". 

She says: "Irish people are engaged in Brexit. They realise the vulnerabilities for Ireland. Dubliners want it taken seriously. And so it's important to elect people who will defend the EU and its ethos."

Her running-mate, Mark Durkan, is a former Westminster MP and Northern Ireland finance minister. Fine Gael's message is that Dubliners have a chance to ensure that citizens in the North are not left without representation after Brexit by backing the former SDLP leader. 

Yet the two-candidate strategy risks splitting the party vote - something which could be further damaged by recent government controversies such as cost-overruns at the National Children's Hospital.

Fianna Fáil's candidate, Barry Andrews, does not have to bother with sharing the constituency. Instead, the focus of the former children's minister is on getting himself elected - something Fianna Fáil candidates have failed to do in the capital in the two previous campaigns. 

In recent years, Andrews has headed-up the Dublin based think-tank, the Institute of International and European Affairs, and so is up-to-date on EU policy. He has, however, to convince voters that he is the person with solutions. He believes "people are listening to Fianna Fáil again" and he has a "strong sense" that the party is transfer-friendly "for the first time in a long while".


Another former minister in the running is Labour Party's Alex White. Securing his party nomination back in January has given White something of a first-mover advantage. He's hoping Labour's slate of local election candidates can help get his campaign message across: as an MEP, he would build alliances and get things done.

Yet if White is to be in the final shake-up for a seat, his challenge is to reach beyond the Labour base which has significantly diminished since the time of their last MEP Proinsias De Rossa.

Accordingly, the entry into the race of Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins will have caused him concern. 

Higgins, the daughter of President Michael D Higgins, lists her policy priorities as "equality, environment, economy and peace". She's also put together an experienced electoral machine. Higgins' candidacy has the capacity to siphon first preference votes away from White - a critical issue in the PR electoral system.

Councillor Gary Gannon, a rising star of the Social Democrats, hopes to challenge the established parties. Low numbers in the national opinion polls belie a stronger party presence in the capital. 32-year-old Gannon, a slick social media mover on Twitter and Instagram, has the capacity to attract younger voters. He is trying to mobilise those politicised by recent referendums, to organise those volunteers into monster canvasses and to surprise the pundits on the day of the count.

Solidarity and People Before Profit are registered as one party in the Oireachtas but both groups will field their own candidate in the European Parliament election. PBP TD Richard Boyd Barrett explained their strategy by saying: "Elections are an opportunity to argue for radical change - we are not narrow in that." 

Both Rita Harrold of Solidarity and Gillian Brien of PBP are standing simultaneously as candidates in the European Parliament and Local Elections. That's also the strategy being adopted by both Councillor Éilis Ryan of The Workers' Party and Gary Gannon.


With so many candidates in the field, it's going to be difficult for everyone to get their message out. Those who have a social media profile will have an obvious advantage - such as Gemma O'Doherty, who heads-up Anti-Corruption Ireland. O'Doherty has a significant 25,000 followers on Twitter and also regularly posts videos on Facebook and YouTube. 

The message of Hermann Kelly, who advocates for Ireland to leave the EU, will be backed-up by his Irexit website and party supporters.

Other Independent candidates, like anti-eviction campaigner Ben Gilroy, will have to hope that their individual presence on social media can yield results. It's the same challenge for other Independent candidates - Tony Bosco Lowth, Eamonn Murphy, Mark Mullan and Aisling McNiffe. That's a tight spot to be in, when up against established political machines.

It's often said in politics that election campaigns matter. So far, all sides say the public has yet to really engage with the 2019 European Parliament elections. But when the campaign kicks off in earnest, it's likely there will be surprises aplenty in a constituency already dubbed the "Group of Death". So, get in the popcorn - the last week in May is set to be a thriller.

Prediction

There are no certainties in this unpredictable constituency. Observers think FG's Fitzgerald and FF's Andrews are well-placed to take a seat each, but nothing is guaranteed. Clare Daly seems likely to take a seat, which would put pressure on Sinn Féin's Boylan.

With a large centre-left block of voters in the capital, if the Green's Cuffe, Labour's White, or Social Democrats Gannon are very transfer friendly - then they could be in the shake-up for the final seat too.     


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