When is the next General Election?

Will we see a new rainbow Government romance or an electoral massacre on Valentine’s Day 2020?

You heard it here first…

While the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin have control over the decision there a number of factors that could influence their thinking that are starting to become clearer.

Firstly, to the future of the Confidence and Supply Agreement which underpins this Fine Gael minority Government. The conduct of the review negotiations last November was very low key by agreement. The outcome was a verbal commitment from Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin that they would guarantee the Government would be able to operate throughout 2019, including passing legislation to implement the 2020 Budget.

The interpretation from Fine Gael has been less definitive as they’ve repeatedly stated there is “no guarantee that a General Election won’t happen.” That wriggle room and the window to call an early election by Fine Gael is rapidly closing as Brexit approaches on October 31st. There is simply not enough time to call an election and form a functioning Government which is up to speed before the October 31st deadline. The results of the Local and European elections, in addition to recent polling, has seen the gap close between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil which has probably also lessened the appetite to call a snap election.

Brexit itself has been the reason given by Fianna Fáil to extend the Confidence and Supply Agreement for another year and it remains the single biggest influencing factor on the timing of the next Irish General Election.

There are only three scenarios that will unfold as October 31st approaches, (1) the UK leaves the EU in a managed process under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, (2) The UK leaves with no deal, or (3) Brexit is further delayed by agreement due to a UK General Election or to allow for further ‘clarifications’ on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Under scenario 1 it is likely that the Irish Government has enough time to respond to the challenges of an agreed Brexit including mitigating policy measures in Budget 2020 before an election is called in early 2020.

In scenario 2, in the event of a no deal Brexit, all bets are off as the entire State and political apparatus responds to the economic and social fallout. When the dust settles from the election of PM Johnson on Wednesday, we’ll have a better sense of the path ahead, but the odds are more in favour of a managed exit or another delay. If there is a No Deal Brexit it is likely the Confidence and Supply Agreement will be extended again. However, Fianna Fáil will be wary as in crisis there will also be opportunity for the Government to show how well it responds to this national challenge. That also works both ways and any perceived failure by the Government to deal adequately with Brexit could be fatal to its re-election prospects.

In scenario 3 where another extension is agreed, for example 6 months into end April 2020, it will be difficult for Fianna Fáil to point to Brexit to support another Confidence and Supply extension. To do so would also close its probable preferred timing for a General Election in the dark days of winter which has traditionally proved difficult for the incumbent Government.

Another timing issue weighing on all political parties is the not insignificant issue of four bye-elections. Four TD’s were elected as MEPs: Frances Fitzgerald from Dublin Mid-West, Clare Daly from Dublin Fingal, Billy Kelleher from Cork North-Central and Mick Wallace from Wexford. They didn’t formally resign as TD’s until July 2nd so after taking into account the 6 month deadline the writ for these bye-elections need to be moved around the New Year at the latest unless the writ is moved for the full General Election.

Taking all this into account the most likely scenario unfolding is that Fianna Fáil will stay true to its word and support the Government until the Finance Act is enacted in December 2019. Last year it was signed by the President in the run into Christmas week. The Dáil will most likely return on January Tuesday 14th at which point Fianna Fáil could declare that it has acted in the national interest by providing stability these past four years but now is the time for a new Government for the challenges ahead and pull their support for the minority Government.

If the Taoiseach asks the President to dissolve the Dáil on that same day the polling day for a General Election must be between the 18th and 25th day (excluding Good Friday, Sundays and public holidays) after the writ has been issued.

A short campaign would put the polling day at Friday 7th February. A long campaign would put it on Valentine’s Day, Friday 14th February. Would that be a sign of a new rainbow Government romance or indeed a massacre for some unfortunate party?

Admittedly, this is pure speculation, but the stakes are high on the timing of the next election. The political bubble can forget the impact a General Election can have. As we stated before companies will be on the lookout for a change in Government parties, new policies that can have a profound impact on them, or the possibility of a prolonged period of instability. Different sectors, charities and States agencies will be wondering if there will be a change in Ministers. The civil service will make judgements on whether to make a big push on a new initiative or wait until an election is out of the way.

Whatever happens, the timing of the next General Election will be one of the biggest political decisions in recent times which will have a profound impact on us all.