If politics is the art of war, as is often suggested, elections are the battleground.

Ruthlessness is an essential part of the make-up of a successful political leader.

So should Simon Harris be playing down any prospect of a snap election? I’m unsure it’s the right call from his perspective.

There is no doubt that Sinn Féin are vulnerable right now, in the wake of what was an underwhelming local and European elections.

Yes, they increased their number of seats on local councils from 81 to 102 and their percentage of the first preference vote rose from 9.5% to 11.8%.

That doesn’t hide the fact that these numbers are miles below what they seemed set for only a couple of months ago.

To put it in context, Sinn Féin ran 335 candidates, compared with Fine Gael’s 339 and Fianna Fáil’s 366. They have ended up with 40% as many councillors as the other two parties.


However, if you look at the number of votes Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have picked up, they have reasons for concern. Their vote is down on the last local elections, which is why both parties have fewer county councillors than they gained in 2019.

And neither party saw much increase on that local election showing in their first preference vote at the 2020 general election seven months later.

Instead, they watched their percentage of votes and seats shrink, as the much higher turnout saw votes go to Sinn Féin, which saw their vote increase from 164,000 to 536,000. That’s more of a tripling of the vote, an astonishing turnaround.

And now, having been the government-in-waiting for four years, at times with a double-digit lead in opinion polls, Sinn Féin are at support levels that seemed unthinkable even a month ago.

Does there need to be a rethink of their candidate strategy in some constituencies?


The two main Government parties benefited from the fact that the electorate seemed not to hold local councillors or MEPs liable for the failings of Government.

We heard little of housing, health or education. Immigration was the lightning rod issue, but, overall, parties' ideology seemed more pertinent than their policies. This is likely to change quickly once attention returns to the day-to-day realities of Government.

I expect to see Sinn Féin quickly climb, perhaps not to the heights of 18 months ago, but certainly back to where they were only seven days before the local and Euro elections, duking it out with the two main Government parties to top the opinion polls and the general election poll.

It seems certain that the Government will turn down the opportunity of a summer election. Simon Harris has been saying that his mind has not changed on when an election should be, which seems to indicate he wants to go until next March.

Most people seem to think the election will be in October, with a giveaway budget as the prelude. There are few things about the concept of a giveaway budget that make me wonder if it's as good a strategy as might be believed.

Firstly, a lot of people believe that the things that most need fixing should get budgetary priority; health and housing in particular.

Secondly, Sinn Féin will present an alternative budget which will not be subject to the same scrutiny as the actual budget.

The election, in part, will be fought over the real and virtual budgets and that might actually work against the sitting Government.

Thirdly, the issues that haven’t been fixed over the lifetime of this Government still won't be fixed. The Children's Hospital still won't be ready to open - it will be further over budget and behind schedule.

And every opposition TD will be pointing out that BAM (already with large fines imposed) have just been appointed to build the bridge between Louth and Down.


The fourth reason is for me the most significant. No matter how much of a giveaway budget the Government delivers, it will fall foul of one old maxim.

They say you can please some of the people all the time or all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Actually, in politics you can't please all of the people any of the time.

My old economics teacher John O'Neill told us on our first day in Leaving Cert economics that there were only two things we needed to know.

Firstly, people have few needs, but infinite wants. Secondly, resources are scarce and finite.

The tension between scarce resources and infinite wants is one that the Government will face when they announce their pre-election budget. No matter how many sweets they give out, the Government won't please everybody.

It could be that Simon Harris is serious about the Government running to full term in March, but there may be regrets if the option of a summer election is turned down.

Ireland likely to be beggars round Commission table

It was reported during the week that the dairy industry is gearing up to lobby for Ireland to seek the environment commissionership for the next five years.

The logic is understandable, I suppose. The nitrates derogation, while a decision for the member states' governments, requires a negotiation with the Commission and a proposal from them to go to the ministerial council.

The logic starts to break down after that though. An Irish commissioner would be under unbelievable pressure to be seen as not favouring their own national narrow interest in advancing the case for Ireland to be the only country to have a derogation.

It would be harder for them to give the concessions that we might need to retain even the current arrangements, where some areas are at 220kg/ha of organic N and others remain at the older and higher limit of 250kg/ha.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the current requirement of “stable or improving water” will be extremely difficult to achieve by 2026. That is particularly when you drill into the defining criteria.

The Irish dairy sector can point out the vast investments that have been made to minimise nutrient loss, they can highlight the relatively good quality of Irish rivers compared with most European countries, but none of that will change the data.

And it might be reasonable to ask for time for the ongoing technical improvements to have their effect on water quality, particularly in light of our extremely complex soil types and the variance in travel times to water in parts of the country.

We are literally paying for the sins of the past in some cases. But in order for these logical requests to be acceded to by the next commissioner in framing the 2026 derogation, I think the goalposts will have to widened a little.


It's very hard to do that without it sounding like special pleading. That’s because, in essence, it is special pleading.

Pleading for time for develop sufficient slurry storage to allow us to refrain from spreading slurry when conditions are less than optimum, for all farmers to be trained and persuaded to adopt best practice and for us to tackle the thorniest issue - how to minimise runoff from the urine patches of grazing animals.

And I am convinced that having an Irish commissioner in the environment portfolio would actually make it harder to buy some time and/or leeway.

Have you ever refereed an underage sporting fixture in the absence of a qualified referee? Most people involved in sport will have had the experience at some stage.

A friendly match is all it can be without an official match official, but that doesn’t make it any less competitive. The kids on both sides want to win and you’re standing in the middle with a whistle in your hand.

What normally happens is, in order to be seen as impartial and fair-minded, you tend to side against your own team. Quite often one of your own children might be on “your” team and they won’t be talking to you on the way home.

I think it would be the same for an Irish commissioner, especially if Ireland is the only country looking for a derogation. It would be harder still to grant a derogation to Ireland if the Dutch have looked for, and failed to get, a renewed derogation, which is the other most likely scenario I can foresee.

To be seen as fair, they will have to be at least as unbending as any other nation’s commissioner would be. Because we’ve all experienced the other, a stand-in referee who is biased towards their own team.

And it does damage a person’s reputation. So the dairy industry may have to reconsider the strategy they intend to lobby Government over.

Shutting abattoir door after horse has bolted

Meanwhile, RTE’s Prime Time switched from the bloodsport that is Irish politics to bloodstock and abuses in the only equine abattoir in the country.

Like everyone else, I was disgusted watching. I was glad to see Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue move swiftly to close the establishment down.

The awful truth is that this means horses will now be exported for slaughter, as there is no outlet in the country. While many people may think any slaughter of horses is morally wrong, the reality is that horses are a common meat source across much of Europe.

The thought also struck me that if the mistreatment of animals was as visible as it seemed from what was broadcast, how did the Department of Agriculture officials miss it?

I spend time regularly talking to farmers who feel under pressure because they have fallen foul of farm inspections.

The sanctions may be small and the transgressions technical rather than relating to inadequate care of animals, but they are subject to guaranteed re-inspections. For older people, often isolated, sometimes less-well educated, it can be incredibly stressful.

Perhaps the risk assessment procedures within the Department need revisiting.