The battle for the by election seat in south Dublin between two former RTÉ employees an Anglo-Irish bank official and a plumber is already over. Since his later entry into the race the broadcaster’s former economics editor George Lee has been on a roll that will, barring disaster, sweep him into Leinster House after June 5th. Although his patience has been tested in some television and radio appearances – most notably after Sean O’Rourke came close to calling him a traitor over the circumstances surrounding his sudden exit from RTÉ – Lee has proved to be a hit for Fine Gael on the doorsteps. The Lee factor almost certainly helped the party hit a high of 38% in the most recent opinion polls a development which spooked Labour leader Eamon Gilmore into a commitment not to enter into coalition with Fianna Fáil after the next general election.
Lee’s expertise on economic issues and his profile as harbinger of the hard times has meant that he is the right man in the right place at the right time. Even if he sometimes shoots from the hip and does not always sing from the same policy hymn sheet as his new party colleagues – most recently when he called for the nationalisation of the remaining good banks – Lee is an undoubted asset for Enda Kenny. There could be trouble ahead when the former broadcaster seeks to call in his chips when the seats around a future cabinet table are up for grabs but for now all is sweet and rosy in the blueshirt camp. There will also, no doubt, be speculation about the future of the two sitting FG TDs Olivia Mitchell and Alan Shatter one of whom, at least, will have to be sacrificed for the new golden boy.
Labour’s Alex White, for many months the front runner to take the seat left vacant by the premature death of Seamus Brennan, has a reason to feel sore and disappointed even if he is putting a brave face on it for now. The best he can hope for is a solid vote which puts him in pole position to regain a seat for the party in the next election. White topped the poll on the Cultural and Educational panel for the Seanad elections in 2007 and is seen as a bright prospect for advancement in the party and possible future leadership material. The barrister is a former student activist who joined RTÉ after college before heading to the Law Library. In one of the country’s most middle class constituencies White was winning support as the normally conservative electorate turned to Labour for solutions to the deep recession and after years of Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat economic mismanagement. Notwithstanding his former radicalism, White has come across as more pragmatic in recent interviews and, peculiarly, on one occasion accused his former RTÉ colleague of not understanding the realities of political life when Lee said that bad banks should be let go under.
It may now be largely forgotten but White’s success in winning election to the Seanad was in no small way due to a pact between Labour and Sinn Fein councillors across the country that also brought Donegal republican, Pearse Doherty, to the upper house. That dual success sparked predictions of future co-operation between the two left wing parties although it is unlikely that this historical pact figured largely on the doorsteps canvassed by White in Dublin South in recent weeks.
Instead it has all been about the economy, stupid and the dire prospects facing the present and future generation of voters. In this regard, Shay Brennan – son of Seamus – faces the unenviable task of convincing angry punters that Fianna Fáil can find a way out of the financial and economic mess they largely created. His late father was central to the political decision making over the past thirty years and was also privy to many of the deeply dubious financial practices of former leaders, Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern.
During Ahern’s trials and tribulations at the planning tribunal the ailing Seamus Brennan maintained a steady loyalty to his political boss. The fact that Shay Brennan has worked for many years with the most discredited financial institution in the country if not the whole of Europe, Anglo-Irish Bank, has not helped his prospects either. In his ministerial capacity Seamus Brennan oversaw the appointment of former Anglo executive Tiarnan O’ Mahoney as chair of the Pensions Board.
Over the decades Seamus Brennan fought bitterly with his constituency and party colleague Tom Kitt whose resources will hardly be stretched in support of the young Brennan. In winning the nomination for FF Shay Brennan also stood on the formidable toes of another Senator, Maria Corrigan, whose association with Bertie Ahern’s close friend, Joe Burke, may not have helped her prospects.
All the young Brennan can hope for is that he gets a respectable vote that allows him to grow political roots in the constituency as Fianna Fáil heads inexorably into political opposition.
Shaun Tracey is from the new generation of Sinn Fein candidates who only recently joined the party. A plumber by trade Tracey now works as a press officer in its Leinster House offices where he has been learning the skills of his new career. A native of Ballyogan Tracey will be aiming to attract votes from a sizeable portion of Dublin South’s working class communities around Ballyboden, Rathfarnham, Stillorgan and Firhouse where unemployment figures have jumped dramatically over the past year. Again Tracey sees the exercise as one of building the party vote from its current low base and of creating a personal profile for future electoral contests.
Similarly, Elizabeth Davidson of the Green Party will be hoping that she can still attract some of the vote that went to her constituency colleague and minister Eamon Ryan just two years ago. Independent candidate, Ross O’ Mullane is another young man hoping to make his mark and he has launched his own website unitedminds.ie to promote more transparency in Irish politics. For all their talents there is no-one in this campaign who can stop the fast talking Lee from coming out on top.