10 things you need to know about the elections

More than 2,000 candidates are competing for 949 local council seats across the State

The local and European elections are often used as a stick with which to beat the government of the day as Fianna Fáil and the Green Party learned in 2009. Will three years of austerity policies see Labour and Fine Gael face a similar fate? Photograph: Getty Images

The local and European elections are often used as a stick with which to beat the government of the day as Fianna Fáil and the Green Party learned in 2009. Will three years of austerity policies see Labour and Fine Gael face a similar fate? Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, May 24, 2014, 08:14

The posters are coming down already. The local and European election races have been run. At 9am today the counting of votes was to begin at dozens of centres across the State and more than 2,000 county and city council hopefuls will begin to learn if all the canvassing, leaflet drops and campaign rhetoric has earned them one of the 949 seats on offer.

The 41 European election candidates seeking to be on the Irish team of 11 dispatched to Brussels and Strasbourg over the next five years will have to wait a little longer, with official results not announced until 10pm on Sunday night. However, we should have a good idea as to the winners and losers from tallies and exit polls before then.

The local and European elections are often used as a stick with which to beat the government of the day as Fianna Fáil and the Green Party learned in 2009. Will three years of austerity policies see Labour and Fine Gael face a similar fate?

Can Sinn Fein, Independents and left-leaning parties reach the heights predicted in the pre-election polls? Is this a big chance for Fianna Fáil and the Greens to rebuild lost trust?

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on:

1. Sinn Féin’s big day?

If opinion polls won prizes Sinn Féin would feel like Michael Phelps on his way back from an Olympic Games. The party will undoubtedly make gains but has been careful not to seem too jubilant about projections that it could take three European seats and potentially treble its number of councillors to more than 150.

After recovering from a disappointing local election in 2009, Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity and anti-government messages appear to be resonating with voters straying from other parties frustrated over policies such as water charges and property tax.

The arrest and detention of party president Gerry Adams in connection with the Jean McConville abduction and murder investigation during the campaign prompted allegations of “political policing” but party discipline has been watertight. The matter may have raised questions for some floating voters but the development was said to have galvanised supporters.

Sinn Féin has a long-term strategy to become a significant political power, which is being implemented with great care and much planning. These elections could be an important stepping stone towards that goal.

2. We need to talk about Eamon:

When a senior candidate says during an election campaign that it’s time for her party leader to step aside, it is fair to suspect that something isn’t right. Eamon Gilmore was answering questions about the security of his position at the top of the Labour Party long before MEP Phil Prendergast’s intervention, but these elections represent the first chance for most voters to either back or abandon the party that romped to a record election performance and into coalition government back in 2011.

Subsequent victories of Patrick Nulty and Michael D Higgins as Labour candidates in the Dublin West and presidential elections respectively in 2011 seem a long time ago now. A series of tough budgets, a Meath East byelection drubbing, defections from across the party ranks and questions about Gilmore’s roving Foreign Affairs ministry leaving the party weak at home have come and gone since.

Gilmore insists he’s going nowhere, and party members have backed him and criticised the comments made by Prendergast, but will an expected return of zero MEPs be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Labour was on 7 per cent support in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos Mrbi poll, just half the vote of 2009 when it had 116 councillors elected. Gilmore has said the only polls that matter are those on election day. How bad do things have to get for this to be his last as party leader?

3. Reseeding the Greens:

Labour need look no further than the Green Party as a case study in difficult elections. They were hammered in the 2009 local and European polls and as good as obliterated in the 2011 general. The Greens were the junior coalition party back then but the party is currently without a representative in the Oireachtas, has no State funding and is defending less than a handful of county council seats.

Having been tarnished as one of the parties that brought us the bailout, the Greens had to go back to basics - core loyalists, long-term diehards, ideological matches and young activists have kept the thing alive.

The result of their efforts is streamlined party with 47 local election candidates, a few familiar faces but more not so, and three European election candidates, including party leader and former minister Eamon Ryan who is in with a shout in the Dublin constituency. Grace O’Sullivan has also performed well in polls in Ireland South.

A good day for the Greens would be the party pushing near or into double figures when it comes to councillors and being in contention for the last seat in one (or even two) European constituencies.

4. Family affair in Longford Westmeath:

The death of Fine Gael TD Nicky McFadden in March brought about the Longford-Westmeath byelection and the word from the constituency is that the seat is her sister Cllr Gabrielle McFadden’s to lose.

Eight other candidates are in the running but the Fianna Fáil challenger Aengus O’Rourke, son of the former TD and minister Mary, is seen as the biggest threat to McFadden. Also in the race are Paul Hogan (SF); Dennis Leonard (Lab); and Independents Kevin “Boxer’’ Moran, Donal Jackson, John McNamara, Brian Fagan and James Morgan.

Local observers suggest that the sympathy factor for McFadden and O’Rourke’s family links will only carry weight to a point in a byelection which is being held in an era of austerity that both of their parties have played a role in overseeing. Which political dynasty will emerge victorious?

5. Will Dublin West go socialist?

Many people will go through life without voting in a byelection, the people of Dublin West are faced with a second in less than three years. The death of Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan brought about the first, which was won by Labour candidate Patrick Nulty. He resigned the seat in March after newspaper reports about him sending “inappropriate” messages to a constituent.

Socialist Party councillor Ruth Coppinger is the bookie’s favourite to take the seat, which would see her join party and constituency colleague Joe Higgins, who will not contest the next election, on the opposition benches.

Fianna Fáil’s David McGuinness, who finished second behind Nulty in the 2011 byelection, is very much in the race again as are Independent David Hall, who has done much work on behalf of people in mortgage distress, and Fine Gael senator and former Olympian Eamonn Coghlan.

Dublin West looks set to be one of many tales of woe for Labour, with party chair Lorraine Mulligan seen as a rank outsider despite the fact her party’s candidate Nulty won the last byelection and deputy leader and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton topped the poll in the 2011 General Election.

6. The battle for Blackrock:

The Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown electoral area of Blackrock probably won more headlines than any other during the campaign and is likely to do so again when the votes are counted this weekend.

Fianna Fáil’s decision to run (and then not run) former minister Mary Hanafin alongside Ógra Fianna Fáil president Kate Feeney backfired when Hanafin refused to step back from the race despite a number of requests from the party leader Micheal Martin, who Hanafin later endorsed as “not an unpleasant person”.

Long fancied to make a political return having lost her Dáil seat in 2011, Hanafin had the party nomination papers and refused to budge, saying data suggested the two candidates could be returned. Fianna Fáil has not counted the former TD on its official candidate list.

Feeney, who has handled herself well in the debacle, was reported to be opposed to Hanafin contesting but has gone out of her way not to be too critical of her unofficial running mate.

“I know it’s a talking point, but I’m not concentrating on it,” she told a woman on a doorstep in Carysfort Avenue who said she recognised her from “the controversy” while canvassing recently.

The result will make the news regardless - Feeney in, Hanafin still out; Hanafin in, Feeney out; Hanafin helps FF take two seats; Hanafin helps FF take no seats. A defeat will likely mean it’s the last time we see Hanafin contest an election for Fianna Fáil (even if she’s not officially doing so). Win or lose Micheal Martin will still face questions about how the party is being run.

7. The rise of the Independents/Others:

More than one in four of those contesting the local elections are non-party candidates and the last Irish Times/Ipsos Mrbi poll put support for Independent/others at 28 per cent, up 10 points on 2009 and higher than any party.

Independents won 139 seats in the 2009 local elections. Disillusionment with the established parties has drifted further since then and it would send out a powerful message if Independents managed to turn that support spurt into 200 seats or thereabouts. If smaller socialist groupings such as the Anti Austerity Alliance were to win a few dozen seats, it could mean significant change for local politics.

Independents/Others are also in with a shout in the European elections, with TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and MEP Marian Harkin very much in the running in the Midlands Northwest constituency and Nessa Childers, Brid Smith (PBP) and Paul Murphy (SP) in the running for the last seat in Dublin.

8. Some musts for Micheál:

It may have seemed like a poor showing at the time, but Fianna Fáil would be more than happy with a repeat of the 2009 local election result this weekend. The last Irish Times/Ipsos Mrbi poll put Micheál Martin’s party on 23 per cent, which is two points down on 2009 when it won 213 seats, but six points up on when it tasted general election embarrassment in 2011.

The party has made no excuses about the fact that Dublin was a focus in these campaigns. Brian Lenihan was the only Fianna Fáil TD elected in the capital in 2011 but the party couldn’t defend his seat in the byelecton brought about by his death. David McGuinness is in the running in the latest Dublin West byelection but the party is hoping a good showing on the councils by its new candidates could be a springboard to wider success in the next general election.

The aforementioned debacle in Blackrock made the party look silly before a vote was cast and the Hanafin approach and subsequent pull-back shows an element of indecisiveness among and disrespect for the party leadership.

On an especially good day Fianna Fáil could win three European seats, two byelections and hold its own on the councils. On the other hand, it could be left with just one MEP (Brian Crowley) if Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher and Senator Thomas Byrne fail to come through heavy traffic in the Midlands Northwest constituency, and Mary Fitzpatrick loses out in Dublin.

9. Gender agenda:

A new law introduced by Minister for the Environment and Local Government Phil Hogan will result in parties losing a portion of their State funding if they fail to meet a 30 per cent threshold of female candidates in the next general election.

Some parties attempted to use these elections as a dry run and the number of women appearing on ballot papers rose from 317 in 2009 to 441 this time around, according to NUI Maynooth political analyst Adrian Kavanagh.

Fianna Fáil (17.1 per cent) and Fine Gael (22.8 per cent) had the lowest percentage of female candidates. Labour fell just shy of the 30 per cent mark while Sinn Fein, the Greens, People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity alliance were among those who exceeded the target. Just 15.7 per cent of independents were women.

A total of 25 women were elected to the 31st Dáil. This represented the highest number ever but still comprises only 15 per cent of the 166 seat chamber. Good results for female candidates this time out could highlight to the parties that a better gender blend has benefits beyond meeting targets and avoiding fines.

10. Fine fine?:

Being part of a Government that has had to sign-off on a series of austerity budgets has hit the fortunes of both coalition parties. Even though the focus has been on Labour facing an electoral humbling, Fine Gael has fallen in the polls to the tune of 9 points when compared to local and European election time in 2009.

Having won 342 council seats in 2009, Fine Gael has a battle on its hands to win more than 300 this time but its vote appears to be holding up in Dublin, which has significantly more seats on offer this time. Fine Gael is also strong among middle class voters and farmers who traditionally turn out in big numbers.

The party is likely to win at least three European election seats, and that could rise as high as five in a best case scenario if multi-candidate strategies pay off in Ireland South and Midlands Northwest.

Gabrielle McFadden is favourite in the Longford-Westmeath byelection but Eamonn Coghlan appeared to fall behind the pack in Dublin West.

Controversies involving Alan Shatter and anger towards Phil Hogan over property and water charges have done some damage, but Fine Gael seems insulated from the worst of voter anger.