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Sunday 11 December 2016

By-election could sound death knell for Martin's tenure

Phil Hogan has left Ireland one last present. Now that the ex-minister who gave us Irish Water has headed off to Brussels as our EU Commissioner, a by-election is due to be held in Carlow-Kilkenny next Friday.

It may not have generated as much heat as the referendum on same-sex marriage, but the result will be watched in Leinster House just as keenly - because it could have major implications for the general election that is getting closer all the time.

Will Micheal Martin face a leadership heave if Fianna Fail go down to yet another defeat? Can Fine Gael prove that they have turned the tide just like David Cameron's Tories did so spectacularly in Britain?

After months of hype, is Lucinda Creighton's Renua Ireland likely to pass or flunk its first electoral test?

With so many pressing questions to be answered, the stakes for this by-election are unusually high. Kilkenny may be famous for its quarrelsome cats, but so far the contest here has looked more like a vicious dogfight.

The thirteen candidates met for a hilariously bad-tempered debate on Tonight With Vincent Browne last Thursday, during which the host pleaded "Stop interrupting!" roughly once every 30 seconds before eventually muttering "Jesus Christ!"

On paper, Fianna Fail should be in pole position. This fairly conservative constituency has always been fertile territory for them.

Even the Soldiers of Destiny's election meltdown in 2011 saw them win 28pc of the Carlow-Kilkenny vote, way above their national average of 17pc.

True to form, however, Fianna Fail are going about things the hard way. Their chosen candidate is ex-TD Bobby Aylward, an old-school farmer who could hardly be accused of giving the party a fresh new image.

defected

After Aylward's selection, the party's 26-year-old councillor Patrick McKee dramatically defected to Renua Ireland - declaring that the Fianna Fail hierarchy had failed to reform and he wasn't prepared to hang around any longer.

McKee is now the wild card. Winning outright would be a big ask, but he might well take enough traditional Fianna Fail votes to leave Aylward in serious trouble.

Just to add a bit of spice, the sitting Fianna Fail TD, John McGuinness, is one of Micheal's Martin's biggest critics - and he raised eyebrows by jetting off on holidays as the campaign was getting under way.

With the Fianna Fail family at war, Fine Gael insiders are privately claiming that they could be "in with a sniff". Government parties rarely win by-elections, but former Kilkenny mayor David Fitzgerald is a solid candidate who fancies his chances of bucking the trend.

The other name to watch out for is Sinn Fein councillor Kathleen Funchion, since her transfers might well end up pushing Aylward or Fitzgerald over the line.

All this must be making Micheal Martin a very nervous man indeed. Right now the Fianna Fail leader's by-election record reads: played six, lost six.

If that streak continues next week, his TDs might start asking the question that British Labour MPs are only getting around to now - why go into a general election with such an obvious loser at the helm?

Martin knows this all too well himself. By the time the polls open, he will have visited Carlow-Kilkenny eleven times in eighteen days.

Enda Kenny has also become a familiar face in the constituency, perhaps sensing a huge opportunity to deal his rival a knock-out blow.

Paddy Power bookmakers see this as a two-horse race, with Fianna Fail narrow 4/7 favourites and Fine Gael snapping at their heels on 5/2. Sinn Fein (7/1), Renua Ireland (8/1) and Labour (66/1) are probably just playing for pride.

Micheal Martin, on the other hand, is playing for his political life - because months of dire opinion polls have left his terrified TDs on the brink of mutiny.

Big Phil Hogan has always been a bitter opponent of Fianna Fail. If the by-election he has caused kills off their leader, it should be possible to hear him laughing all the way from Belgium.

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