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What you need to know ahead of tonight’s debate

Ahead of the Prime Time European Parliament election debate on tonight’s Prime Time, Conor McMorrow has a primer on what you need to know about the consistituency.

Tell me about Ireland South?

From Bray in the Dublin commuter belt, to Bere Island in West Cork and from the Cliffs of Moher on the Atlantic all the way across to Rosslare Harbour by the Irish Sea in Wexford – Ireland South is a sprawling constituency.

It takes in the province of Munster along with four counties in south and east Leinster – Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford and Wicklow.

This time around, following a boundary review, Laois and Offaly have been returned to Midlands-North-West constituency, where they had been situated prior to the last European parliament election in 2019.

According to the 2022 Census, the mammoth constituency has a population of 1.85m people. Much of Ireland South is rural but it also takes in several large towns and the cities of Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny and Waterford.

How many seats are in Ireland South?

This is a five-seat constituency.

Who are the outgoing MEPs?

Deirdre Clune (Fine Gael), Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil), Seán Kelly (Fine Gael), Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party), Mick Wallace (Independent).

Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune, who has served as an MEP since 2014, has retired from politics and is not contesting this election. All four of the other incumbents are contesting.

What are the issues?

Like many European election constituencies, it is difficult to pin-point specific issues that are salient to voters across the whole region.

Large swathes of it are rural, so agriculture and how the European Parliament affects that industry is a significant issue. Farmers are concerned about issues such as the future of the nitrates derogation, which allows 7,000 Irish dairy and beef farmers operate at higher stocking densities.

Broader climate issues are a feature of this election too, with the Nature Restoration Law. It means EU member states have two years to plan how they will restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems by 2050. Many voters want to know how that will impact their lives.

Matters such as health and housing are big issues across the island, although the argument is made that it is largely up to individual EU member states to map out their own housing policy.

Recent opinion polls indicate immigration has risen to be become one of the biggest issues among voters in 2024. Ireland South, like constituencies across Ireland and the EU, has candidates with strong views on migration contesting this election. When the counting of votes begins on 9 June, people will be interested to see how candidates campaigning prominently on those issues will perform.

During the campaign, candidates are being asked for their views on international protection policy and their position on the EU migration pact, which sets out changes to how asylum seekers are processed, including new border procedures.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2021 and the Israel-Hamas war have spurned questions about Ireland’s place in the world and its security policy. Candidates have also been asked to outline their position on issues such as Ireland’s neutrality and the Triple Lock process on the deployment of Defence Forces’ personnel overseas; as well as their stance on Palestine and Ukraine.

Which candidates will we see in tonight’s Prime Time debate?

Eight of the 23 candidates in Ireland South are taking part in tonight’s debate.

They are Lorna Bogue (Rábharta), Paul Gavan (Sinn Féin), Niamh Hourigan (Labour), Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil), Michael McNamara (Independent), John Mullins (Fine Gael), Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party), and Mick Wallace (Independents 4 Change).

How were the candidates selected for tonight’s debate?

The criteria used by RTÉ to decide who participates in debates is as follows:

(A) If the candidate is currently an elected MEP, TD, Senator or Councillor.

(B) If the candidate didn’t get elected but achieved 5% or more of the vote in their constituency in the most recent European, Local, General or Seanad election.

(C) If the party for which the candidate is standing won a least one seat in the last European election, at least two seats in the last General Election or at least five seats in the last local elections or achieved 5% of the national vote in any of these elections.

(D) In circumstances where there are remaining places after places arising from A, B and C have been determined, allocation is decided on the basis of the party with the greatest current number of elected TDs, senators and councillors.

(E) Notwithstanding the above, a party cannot have two representatives in the same debate. Where a party has more than one candidate who qualifies for a debate, it will be for the party to nominate the candidate who will participate in the debate.

RTÉ’s Election Steering Group – a group of senior RTÉ editorial staff – has published details of the factors that guide the broadcaster’s overall approach to covering elections. Past court and regulatory decisions are taken into account, along with guidance issued by Coimisiún na Méan.

That document can be viewed here.

Who are the other candidates?

As well as the eight candidates participating in tonight’s debate, there are 15 others in the race for the five seats in Ireland South. They are Derek Blighe (Ireland First), Graham de Barra (Independent) Christopher Doyle (Independent), Susan Doyle (Social Democrats), Mary Fitzgibbon (Independent), Kathleen Funchion (Sinn Féin), Seán Kelly (Fine Gael), Ross Lahive (The Irish People), Michael Leahy (Irish Freedom Party), Una McGurk (Independent), Patrick Murphy (Aontú), Cynthia Ní Mhurchú (Fianna Fáil), Ciaran O’Riordan (Independent), Cian Prendiville (People Before Profit-Solidarity) and Eddie Punch (Independent Ireland).

What happened in Ireland South last time around in 2019?

Five years ago, there was 53.4% turnout for the election in Ireland South. Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly and Deirdre Clune were elected on the back of a 30.8% share of the of vote. Fianna Fáil got 21.3% of the vote, which was enough to elect Billy Kelleher. The Green party’s Grace O’Sullivan won a seat with 10% of the vote and an 11% share of the vote was enough to secure a seat for Independents 4 Change candidate Mick Wallace.

Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada lost her seat in 2019.

Who will chair the Prime Time debate?

Tonight’s Ireland South debate will be co-chaired by Miriam O’Callaghan and Fran McNulty.

The debate is on Prime Time at 9.35pm on RTÉ One television, the RTÉ News channel and the RTÉ Player. RTÉ.ie will also be running a live text and image tracker throughout the debate.

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