Local elections this year could prove to be a good day out for Sinn Féin
Opinion: Independents also likely to do well in many constituencies
Posters in Clonsilla, west Dublin, during the 2009 local election campaign. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The last city and county elections were shaped more by national issues. The electorate went to polling stations in June 2009 in a mood of real anger towards the then government. The economic collapse was the central issues in the locals and heralded the transformation in the Irish political landscape which came in the 2011 general election.
In 2009 Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 25 per cent, they lost 84 seats, and this came after particularly bad local elections in 2004.
Fine Gael was the main beneficiary: its vote surged from 27 per cent to 32 per cent. It won 340 seats on the day: 122 seats more than Fianna Fail, thereby becoming unquestionably the strongest party in local government.
Labour’s vote grew by just over 3 per cent and the party gained 31 seats. The geographic concentration of its support meant it was best placed to gain from Fianna Fáil losses in parts of Dublin in particular.
Sinn Féin’s vote actually decreased by just over a half of a per cent but the party won the same number of seats, 54, as in 2004. Independents and other smaller parties got 136 seats.
It is worth reminding ourselves of these 2009 results before trying to assess how this year’s local elections might play out and what, if any, implications they will have for national political patterns.
It is likely that the level of public engagement in this year’s local elections will be less and that local issues will dominate: or least national issues with localised dimensions such as water services and water charges and electrical pylons. To some extent the powers, functions and financing of local authorities may also feature, particularly in the context of the abolition of town councils.
There are a number of key factors to be conscious of when listening to party spokespersons seeking to manage expectations about these elections.
There were 883 seats in the relevant county and city councils in 2009; there will be 949 in May. If we hear parties shouting about whether they are going to win extra seats we should first remember there are 66 extra seats up for grabs.
In 2009 Fine Gael got 39 per cent of the seats, Fianna Fáil a quarter , Labour 5 per cent, Sinn Féin 6 per cent and 15 per cent went to independents or smaller parties. If we were to assume that the breakdown would be the same in May then allowing for the extra seats Fine Gael should get 370 seats, Fianna Fáil 237, Labour 142, Sinn Féin 57 and others 143. It is best to speak of whether parties retain their share of the available seats rather than whether they have gained or lost seat.