Local elections will test party support and may indicate shape of next government
Opinion: Shift towards reflecting urban population growth could benefit Sinn Féin
The local elections, and the European ones, where party leader Eamon Ryan is a candidate, could provide a way back for the Greens. Photograph: Maxwells
An insight into the future direction of Irish politics should emerge from the local elections, which will take place in the fourth week of May. The result will give a rough guide to what is likely to happen in the next general election.
The European elections, which take place on the same day, will not provide a similar service, as that contest is usually determined by personality as much as by party and too much should not be read into the result.
Local elections were traditionally not regarded as reliable guides to subsequent general elections but the last contest, in June 2009, provided a foretaste of the dramatic reconfiguration of Irish politics that took place in February 2011.
The 2009 elections took place after the downturn in the economy had begun to make an impact and the banking crisis had erupted, but it was still more than a year before the dramatic events that led to the EU-IMF bailout.
In the 2009 local elections Fine Gael became the biggest party in the State for the first time in any electoral contest since it was founded in 1933, winning just over 32 per cent of the first-preference votes and 340 of the 883 seats on county and city councils. The Labour Party also upped its share of the vote to just under 15 per cent and gained 31 seats to 132, while Sinn Féin won 7.4 per cent and more than 50 council seats.
By contrast, Fianna Fáil slumped to 25.4 per cent of the vote and lost more than 80 seats, trailing in a poor second to Fine Gael with more than 100 seats fewer than its main rival.
Over the course of the following 18 months, the support levels of Fine Gael and Labour fluctuated significantly, according to the opinion polls, with Labour for a time becoming the biggest party.
However, in the run-up to the general election of February 2011 the pattern evidenced in the local elections reasserted itself. In the general election Fine Gael increased its local elections total by four points, ending up with 36 per cent of the vote, while Labour was also four points higher on 19 per cent.
The gains by the two parties that formed the Coalition came directly off Fianna Fáil, which slumped eight points from its local election performance to 17 per cent.
A significant drop in the vote of the Green Party and its near wipeout in terms of council seats also prefigured its general election performance, while Sinn Féin’s solid showing provided evidence of further gains to come. Almost 16 per cent of the vote went to a range of Independents, with small left-wing groupings getting a little more than 2 per cent between them. All in all, the result was a remarkable indication of things to come.
Significant changes in the structure of local authority representation have recently been introduced by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. Urban and district councils have been abolished and there has been a significant shift in county and city council representation from thinly populated rural areas to more heavily populated urban areas.