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.
It is also important to note that the distribution of those additional seats is different and that a dramatic rebalancing and redrawing of the numbers on county and city councils come into place for this year’s local elections. This rebalancing has been towards more populated areas like Dublin and the commuter belt counties.
Dublin city and county will have more than 50 additional seats across its four councils. Kildare gets 15 more seats, Louth another 11. Large counties in the west, Galway, Kerry and Donegal will also have more get seats. By comparison places like Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan will have significantly reduced numbers. The electoral map for local government is also further altered because the city and county councils in Waterford and Limerick and the two county councils in Tipperary are being merged. The other key factor is that the local electoral areas under the new redraw are larger, with many six-, seven- and eight-seat local electoral areas.
Not only is the electoral map different, there have been significant shifts in party support since June 2009. Fianna Fáil in this week’s Red C poll is 3 per centage points shy of where it was in June 2009,. Fine Gael is down 4 per cent on where it was and Labour, at 10 per cent, is well down from the 15 it got in 2009. The biggest shift in support levels since June 2009 has been for Sinn Féin, which is at 18 per cent compared to 6 in 2009.
In his blog at adriankavanaghelections.org Dr Adrian Kananagh at NUI Maynooth has developed an area-by-area analysis of how national poll ratings might convert into local election seats. Using polling figures in July last year, when the party support levels resembled what they are now, Kavanagh suggested that Fine Gael would win about 310 of the 949 seats. He put Fianna Fáil winning just above 221 seats, also a considerable slippage. Kavanagh puts Labour in at about 94, down very dramatically on the 132 it won in 2009.
The biggest gains in seat share in Kavanagh’s area-by-area analysis are, as you would expect given their rise in the polls - for Independents and, spectacularly, for Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin looks set to at least double its seat share and independents and other smaller parties could increase their numbers by 50 per cent.
Such early analysis comes with health warnings of course. There are many candidates yet to be selected and many local details to be mined but already the 2014 local elections are shaping up to be a dramatic contest.