TO hold the two seats it has will be the objective for Fine Gael in this county in the next general election.
While Pat Breen and Joe Carey have worked the oracle three times in a row (2007, 2011 and 2016), there is no doubt that holding both seats will not be easy in 2020.
In 1992, 1997 and 2002, the party had to be content with just a single seat in Clare, during what was a fairly glum time for Fine Gael overall, as it held power for just two and a half years, after Labour ditched Fianna Fáil in the mid nineties. Following a mauling in the 2002 election the party’s long term existence was in doubt, before a dramatic resurgence.
Narrowly denied power in 2007, the party still won back a second seat in Clare, and avoiding going into government proved a blessing in disguise as the Irish economy was about to be cruelly exposed.
The Breen and Carey combination held their seats very handily in 2011, and the party’s third candidate, Tony Mulcahy, actually got more number ones than Timmy Dooley, the top Fianna Fáil performer.
It was a super election for Fine Gael in Clare, getting 24,524 first preferences, at what was a buoyant time for the party, as it swept to power.
Five years later it’s plea to voters to ‘Keep the recovery going’ was premature and widely derided.
In Clare, Breen and Carey both hung on, but the Clarecastle man’s seat was very much in doubt in the lead up to the election.
Vote management became a major Fine Gael concern and in the end that was what got them the two seats once more, despite receiving fewer first preferences than Fianna Fáil, which took just one seat.
Into the mix in Clare this time comes Senator Martin Conway, who has wanted a shot at the Dáil for some time.
He has certainly been prominent and active over the last few years, but his support for Joe Garrihy in the last local election, in which Bill Slattery was squeezed out, may not help him now. Plus, it is his first time looking for votes across the entire county, and as a first time candidate is starting at a disadvantage.
If the seats are to stay with Fine Gael, it is more likely that Breen and Carey will be sitting in them post election.
There have been tensions between the two over the last year, with Carey criticising the Junior Minister’s efforts to secure a buyer for Roche in Clarecastle.
The local elections were disappointing for the party in Clare, as it won eight seats to Fianna Fáil’s 13. At this stage Fine Gael have been in government for nine consecutive years, and it is possible that voters might have become weary of some of the same voices speaking to them, although there can be little doubt that the country is in a much healthier position than when they took power.
At this point it seems that Varadkar and co made the best of the hand they were dealt on Brexit, but the Taoiseach’s personal popularity has fallen very significantly.
Vote management will again be crucial if Fine Gael are to hold the two seats in Clare. However Fianna Fáil should have learned from the 2016 outcome and if the Soldiers of Destiny can get their house in order from a strategy perspective their chances improve dramatically.
It has been a somewhat strange time in Irish politics, with so much focus on what was happening in the UK, and the benign performance of the economy leading to far less engagement than was the case around the election of 2011 for example.
Given the prevailing mood it will take until the race is really underway in earnest to see what way things are going, but two things can be said with some certainty.
Two seats is the absolute limit of any party’s ambition in Clare and it will be very hard for Fine Gael to retain what they have held since 2007.