Eye-catching election results mark another dramatic shift
Fianna Fáil’s recovery and dramatic rise of Sinn Féin and Independents came at expense of Coalition parties
Lynn Boylan at the RDS on Sunday night after being elected an MEP. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
The results of last Friday’s elections marked another dramatic shift in Irish politics. Fine Gael unexpectedly lost the dominant position it first achieved in the last local and European elections in 2009 while Labour suffered a drubbing that has led to the quick resignation of Eamon Gilmore as leader and raises questions about the long-term future of the party.
The big winners were Sinn Féin as well as the smaller parties and Independents who made huge gains at the expense of the Coalition parties and are now the biggest grouping on the councils in the cities of Dublin and Cork.
The real surprise, though, was that Fianna Fáil has edged its way back into first place in local government just three years after the catastrophic general election defeat that raised questions about the party’s ability to survive as a political force.
The Greens also had a revival of sorts, emerging from the ashes of 2009 to win a number of council seats, although the failure of Eamon Ryan to win a seat in the European elections will be a huge disappointment, particularly as he came so tantalisingly close.
The collapse of the Labour vote was one of the eye-catching results, with the party slipping to just 7.2 per cent of the vote in the local elections, compared to the 14.5 per cent the party achieved in 2009. Its number of seats has been slashed from more than 130 last time around to just over 50.
The party did particularly badly in urban working-class areas. In Dublin, it is now without representation in a number of local election districts and it has been entirely wiped out in Cork city, where it now has no representation on the council.
One of the few parts of the country where it had an acceptable result was in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, home base of Mr Gilmore, where it retained seven out of eight seats.
The loss of all three European Parliament seats and a truly dismal performance in the Dublin West and Longford-Westmeath byelections only reinforced the scale of the defeat.
The dismal Labour performance didn’t come as a huge surprise, given a succession of poor opinion poll results over the past year, but the slump in the Fine Gael vote came as a shock to that party’s leadership.
The party became the biggest political force in the country in the 2009 local and European elections when it pulled ahead of Fianna Fáil in terms of votes and seats. That trend accelerated in the general election when Fine Gael became the dominant party in the Oireachtas for the first time.
Three years later, the party is back to its traditional role as the second largest party in the State, its vote having dropped to 24 per cent from 32.5 per cent in the 2009 local elections and down from the 36 per cent it achieved in the general election. It has lost about 100 councillors and will end up with about 240 when all the recounts are complete.
The party’s share of the vote dropped all across the country, with a particularly big drop in working-class areas of Dublin where it is now close to the share of the vote it got in the disastrous 2002 general election. The party won just 14 per cent of the vote in Dublin city and only eight seats out of 63. Middle-class suburbs Fine Gael did much better in the middle-class suburbs where its message about the need for economic stability did have some traction. In Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, it remained the biggest party with 28 per cent of the vote but it still only won 11 out of the 40 seats.
The party’s vote in rural areas proved more stable. For instance, in Longford it won 42 per cent, precisely the same share of the vote it obtained in 2009 although the Taoiseach’s own heartland of Mayo did not prove nearly as loyal with the vote dropping from 44 per cent five years ago to 34 per cent this time around.
The Fianna Fáil share of the vote at 25.3 per cent was almost identical to its performance in 2009 but given what happened to the party in the last general election, it appears to herald a revival in its fortunes.
The party is now back in prime position as the biggest in local government with close to 270 seats and while it has a long way to go to recover its dominant role in Irish politics it is in a healthy position to face the future.
Fianna Fáil now has a councillor in nearly every electoral division in the country and crucially it has made a comeback in Dublin where it is now represented in all but two wards. A number of able young councillors are now positioned to become viable Dáil candidates next time around.
The Fianna Fáil recovery came in tandem with a dramatic increase in the Sinn Féin vote which jumped from just under 8 per cent in 2009 to 15.2 per cent this time around. Its number of councillors has trebled to more than 150 and the party is now the biggest on Dublin and Cork city councils. Stunning performance The biggest Sinn Féin gains came in working-class areas and the party is now the dominant force in many urban areas. With more than 150 seats, the party now has a base on which to build for the next general election.
A stunning performance in the European elections was the icing on the cake. Three candidates not widely known outside the party when the campaign began put in storming performances, demonstrating that the Sinn Féin brand is now something to be reckoned with in Irish politics.
The showing of Independents and smaller parties was another stunning aspect of the result. The 28 per cent of the vote that went to a variety of parties, groups and individuals exceeded the support given to any of the political parties.
In urban areas, extreme left-wing groups like People Before Profit and anti-austerity campaigners did well and they will be a significant force in Dublin and Cork city, particularly if they combine with Sinn Féin.
In other parts of the country, various breakaway Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Independents did well. The Healy-Rae family in Kerry and the Michael Lowry group in Tipperary are the best-known examples of this.
Overall, the results demonstrated an increasing fragmentation of politics which could have huge implications for the future.
Back in the local elections of 1985, the two big parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, won 75 per cent of the vote between them. This dropped to 67 per cent in the local elections of 1999, to 80 per cent in 2009 and it is now down to 48 per cent.