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The timing of a general election - what options does Simon Harris have for going to the people?

An election in October or November looks most likely but there are other possibilities and many factors to consider

There is hardly a person in Irish politics who doesn’t think a 2024 general election is now inevitable.

Taoiseach Simon Harris and Tánaiste Micheál Martin have continued to insist in recent days that the Government will go “its full term”.

Speaking at the RDS in Dublin on Monday, Martin was asked if there were any circumstances in which he would agree to a general election this year.

“Look, we have agreed to go the full term,” Martin replied. “The Taoiseach and I and Eamon Ryan have agreed that.”

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There is nothing to stop the three Coalition leaders having another discussion about the subject, of course. The three men have a rolling conversation which forms the heart of the political decision-making process at the highest level. It’s fair to say it would be a bit odd if they didn’t discuss how much the political context has changed as a result of the local elections. And what they should do about it.

Even people close to Harris and Martin concede that the case for an election in the autumn or early winter looks overwhelming. This is not just because of a much better-than-expected day for the Government parties, but because of the collapse in the Sinn Féin vote. It is, says one Government figure, an open goal of epic proportions.

But another senior insider warns that setting the date for an election is not just a matter of looking at the calendar. A general election campaign is a huge undertaking that requires detailed political, policy and logistical preparations. This is why if a 2024 election is going to happen, the decision needs to be made soon. We can expect those discussions to take place shortly.

So what are the options facing the Taoiseach, whose ultimate responsibility it is, notwithstanding his obligation to consult his partners? There are four options.

Go now

This would perhaps be the boldest move of all for Harris. He could ask the President to dissolve the Dáil and schedule an election for early-to-mid July, when the weather for campaigning tends to be better. A new Government could be in place for September, depending on the result and accelerated negotiations between the parties on a coalition. It would capitalise on Sinn Féin’s disarray and utilise the momentum the Government parties have generated in recent days.

But it would be seen as a transparently opportunistic move, and Fianna Fáil and the Greens are likely to strongly oppose it. So the Government would start the campaign in disunity. The parties are nowhere near ready. And there is no guarantee that a new Government would be formed in time to agree the budget in October – meaning that the budget would be the responsibility of the caretaker government still in office. This makes this option messy.

Chances: Slim

Go in September

This is the date on the lips of many TDs. Dissolve the Dáil in late August or early September. Three- or four-week campaign to conclude at the end of the month, all in good weather (they hope), with a new government in place quickly, or at least before Christmas.

The problem again is the budget, which has to be completed by mid-October. So there’s no way around having the old Government agree the Budget, but the finance and social welfare bills that give force to budget measures have to be passed by the new Dáil. This option is even messier.

Chances: Very slim

Go in October or November

This is the expectation of several Government insiders. It could happen in one of two ways. First, the Government could bring forward the budget from October 8th to the middle of September, as it did two years ago to meet concerns about the cost of living. We can be assured that it will contain hefty giveaways. The process of giving effect to the budget in the finance and social welfare bills could be accelerated in the Oireachtas – a “bikini” Finance Bill, covering just the bare essentials, is the term used by Finance mandarins – to clear the way for a dissolution at the start of October. The election could take place in late October or early November, either before, during or just after the midterm break.

The disadvantage is that it if you are bringing forward the budget, you have to signal that when the summer economic statement is published in early July. So the element of surprise is gone.

Otherwise, the Government could leave the budget where it is, accelerate the budget legislation and go to the country a few weeks later – in the second half of November. But that’s really heading into the winter.

Chances: Good

Go in February or March next year

This is the do-nothing option: stick to your guns, and wait until the last minute. Technically the last date that a general election can be held is March 22nd, but a date before the Taoiseach heads to Washington – and Ministers scatter to the four corners of the globe – seems more likely. So early March is a better timed option.

That means the campaign takes place in February. And Fine Gael’s experience with the last two February campaigns was not congenial, to put it mildly. Another disadvantage is that you are at the mercy of events in January and February – usually times of great stress in the health service. Plus, the Government would be allowing Sinn Féin the maximum time to recover from its electoral disaster. On the other hand, they would be doing what they said they would do.

Chances: Fair

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