More than 500 million people in all 27 countries of the EU are entitled to vote in the European Parliament (EP) elections, which are to take place during the first week of June.
As Europe's nations have traditionally different days of the week for elections, the voting process will be spread over four days, from Thursday, June 4th to Sunday, June 7th.
Britain and the Netherlands hold elections traditionally on a Thursday, and thus they will be the first two countries to go to the European polls on June 4th.
Ireland and the Czech Republic follow on Friday, June 5th (with the Czechs extending their vote to a second day, June 6th).
Saturday, June 6th will be election day in Cyprus, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, as well as the first of the two days set aside for the polls in Italy.
All the other 18 EU countries - two thirds of the member states with the majority of Europe's population - hold elections traditionally on Sundays. They will vote on June 7th, which is also the second polling day for Italy.
The nine 'early bird' nations - including Ireland - will have to wait until Sunday night before exit polls can be published. Then follows the counting of votes, and the results will be known during the early hours of Monday, June 8th.
Candidate nominations for the European Parliament elections closed at 12 o'clock noon today, and after the deadline had passed, it emerged that a total of 44 individuals will contest the (now) twelve EP seats allocated to the Republic of Ireland.
There are seven political parties contesting the 2009 European elections in the Republic of Ireland: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, Libertas and the Socialist Party. Together they are fielding 30 party candidates in the four constituencies, and there are also 14 independent candidates. (For a complete list of all 44 Irish candidates see below, at the end of this article.)
The most remarkable among the Independents are three women: Outgoing North-West MEP Marian Harkin (left), outgoing South MEP Kathy Sinnott (centre), and the political activist and environmentalist Patricia McKenna (right), who has been a Green Party MEP for Dublin from 1994 to 2004. An outspoken campaigner for human rights, the environment and many other issues, McKenna strongly opposed her party's coalition with Fianna Fáil in 2007. For the past two years she was more and more marginalised by the new Green Party leadership and has now left the party to stand in Dublin as an independent candidate for the European Parliament.
In the outgoing European Parliament we had 13 (of the 785) seats, but since the parliamentary reform reduced the overall number of MEPs to 736 for the new five-year session, Ireland lost one seat and retains only twelve, the same amount as Lithuania (and one less than Denmark, Finland and Slovakia). With 99 MEPs Germany has the largest national contingent, and Malta - with only five MEPs - the smallest.
The Irish reduction from 13 to 12 European Parliament seats affects most strongly the Dublin constituency, which is losing one of their currently four MEPs. Like the other three European constituencies in Ireland, Dublin will from now on be a 'three-seater'.
Since the last elections to the European Parliament in 2004 there have also been significant boundary revisions which affect predominantly the North-West constituency. Once covering the province of Connaught and the three Ulster counties in the Republic, this constituency has been enlarged and now also includes counties Clare, Longford, Roscommon and Westmeath. (Thus it is the only of the four constituencies that covers territory in all four Irish provinces.)
Of the 13 outgoing Irish MEPs all but two seek re-election. The retirees are Fine Gael's veteran MEP Avril Doyle (East) and Fianna Fáil's Seán Ó Neachtáin (North-West).
The latter had originally intended to stand again and received the nomination of his party. But then, rather surprisingly, Ó Neachtáin announced only last month that he would not be seeking re-election, apparently on the basis of medical advice he received.
This puts Fianna Fáil in some unexpected extra trouble. After a frantic and secretive consultation process between the party HQ in Dublin and local activists in the constituency, the former Minister of State Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher (left) was hastily appointed as Seán Ó Neachtáin's replacement. Gallagher, currently a Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal South-West, confirmed only this morning - 15 minutes before the deadline for nominations - that he will stand for his party in the North-West, seeking election to the European Parliament.
That the party has chosen him for this task is not a complete surprise, as Gallagher had been an MEP (for the then Connaught-Ulster constituency) from 1994 to 2002 and thus knows the ropes in Brussels. (Between 1981 and 1992 he was a Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal South-West, the same constituency he represents again in Dáil Éireann since 2002.)
From 1987 to 1994 Gallagher was Minister of State for the Marine & the Gaeltacht, and between 2002 and 2004 the No. 2 (junior minister) in the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government.
His last government position was as junior minister in the Department of Health, where he was responsible for 'Health Promotion and Food Safety'. But when Brian Cowen became Taoiseach a year ago, Gallagher was one of the Ministers of State sacked by the new leader.
Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, former Senator (and Fianna Fáil candidate for the European Parliament) Paschal Mooney said that he was "angered by the nomination of Mr. Gallagher", his party comrade, "because both Fianna Fáil candidates are based in the northern part of the constituency".
Mooney explained that when he had been selected at a convention to stand in the north of the constituency, it was to balance the party ticket, with Seán Ó Neachtáin in the south.
Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher said he was standing "for the good of the constituency" and agreed that two weeks ago he had told (the Irish language TV channel) TG4 that if both he and Mr. Mooney were to stand for Fianna Fáil then there would be no balance.
The fact that the - rather popular - Seán Ó Neachtáin is not contesting the elections after all could provide an opening for Declan Ganley, founder and leader of the new Libertas party, who is standing in the North-West.
Based in Galway, Ganley might well be able to fill the political void left by Ó Neachtáin in the southern part of the constituency, while Gallagher and Mooney are chasing the same votes in the northern part. It will therefore be interesting to watch especially the North-West over the coming weeks.
Another hot-spot will be Dublin, where the one-seat-reduction makes this EP election literally a fight for survival for the capital's four outgoing MEPs Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin), Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael), Proinsias de Rossa (Labour Party) and Eoin Ryan (Fianna Fáil).
One of them will be sacrificed on the altar of parliamentary reform, but the quite tricky question is: which one?
I will follow the developments during the campaign and share my analysis and views with you here over the next three weeks. And even though I am based in the South, my consultancy work will lead me all around the country and give me a good overview of trends and tendencies.
Only one year after the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty and with the current Fianna Fáil-led government the most unpopular in the history of the state, this year's European elections promise to be among the most interesting and most unpredictable since 1973, when Ireland joined the EEC.
The Emerald Islander
Complete List of all Irish Candidates for
the European Parliament Election 2009
the European Parliament Election 2009
Senator Deirdre de Burca - Green Party
Councillor Eibhlin Byrne - Fianna Fáil
Joe Higgins - Socialist Party
Mary Lou McDonald, MEP - Sinn Féin
Patricia McKenna - Independent
Gay Mitchell, MEP - Fine Gael
Proinsias de Rossa, MEP - Labour Party
Eoin Ryan, MEP - Fianna Fáil
Caroline Simmons - Libertas
Emmanuel Sweeney - Independent
* * *
Liam Aylward, MEP - Fianna Fáil
Thomas Byrne, TD - Fianna Fáil
Nessa Childers - Labour Party
Kathleen Funchion - Sinn Féin
Paddy Garvey - Independent
Micheál E. Grealy - Independent
Mairéad McGuinness, MEP - Fine Gael
Raymond O'Malley - Libertas
Senator John Paul Phelan - Fine Gael
Tomás Sharkey - Sinn Féin
Jim Tallon - Independent
* * *
Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher, TD - Fianna Fáil
Declan Ganley - Libertas
Marian Harkin, MEP - Independent
Jim Higgins, MEP - Fine Gael
John Francis Higgins - Independent
Thomas King - Independent
Councillor Pádraig Mac Lochlainn - Sinn Féin
Noel McCullough - Independent
Michael McNamara - Independent
Paschal Mooney - Fianna Fáil
Susan O'Keefe - Labour Party
Fiachra Ó Luain - Independent
Senator Joe O'Reilly - Fine Gael
* * *
Senator Dan Boyle - Green Party
Colm Burke, MEP - Fine Gael
Brian Crowley, MEP - Fianna Fáil
Councillor Toiréasa Ferris - Sinn Féin
Senator Alan Kelly - Labour Party
Seán Kelly - Fine Gael
Ned O'Keeffe, TD - Fianna Fáil
Maurice Sexton - Independent
Kathy Sinnott, MEP - Independent
Alexander Stafford - Independent