Local elections will test party support and may indicate shape of next government
Opinion: Shift towards reflecting urban population growth could benefit Sinn Féin
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.
Another important change is that electoral areas are now much bigger, with a minimum of six seats and a maximum of 10. This will give smaller parties and Independents a great chance of winning seats.
Fine Gael will struggle to hold its current level of representation in many councils, although if it can hold 30 per cent or more of the vote it should easily retain its position as the largest party in local government.
The political rumour mill has it that the impetus for the larger electoral areas came from Labour, which saw it as the best means of weathering a significant drop in the party’s first-preference vote.
The real beneficiary, though, is likely to be Sinn Féin. The combination of bigger electoral areas and the shift to more urban representation gives the party a great chance of more than doubling its number of councillors, if the polls are right.
Challenge for Fianna Fáil
For the other main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil, the local elections pose a huge challenge. The party needs to do much better than the 17 per cent it won in 2011 but getting back to the 25 per cent level obtained in the 2009 local elections will not be easy.
The real challenge is to get a significant infusion of new blood so the party can present a range of fresh candidates to the public in the next general election. In particular it needs to win seats in the four Dublin local authorities, in whose areas it currently does not have a single TD.
The local election result will show whether the party’s recovery in the opinion polls is translating into real support on the ground.
For the Greens it is do or die in the local elections. The six- to 10-seat electoral areas have opened the door for a recovery and if the party cannot avail of such an opportunity it is probably doomed. The performance of party leader Eamon Ryan in the Dublin Euro constituency will also have a huge bearing on its future.
The electoral boundaries give Independents and smaller parties a golden opportunity to make an impact. Independents of all hues are likely to have a field day.
If the Socialists and the People Before Profit TDs had come together, as promised, to form a coherent left-wing alliance in the Dáil, the local elections could have given them a chance to really challenge the Labour Party. The fact that they failed to avail of that opportunity will probably limit their potential gains at local level.
One way or another, the outcome in May will be a significant pointer to the political road ahead.