Three high-stakes elections

They may seem like insignificant midterms, but the trio of ballots next Friday could have far-reaching consequences

Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Thinkstock

Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Thinkstock

Sat, May 17, 2014, 01:00

There’s a scene towards the end of All the President’s Men, the classic Watergate scandal investigation yarn, when the Washington Post is about to publish its revelations. Ben Bradlee, the editor, turns to his reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and, in a voice laced with irony, says: “Nothing’s riding on this except, em, the first amendment to the constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”

Next Friday Ireland goes to the polls to vote in three sets of contests: European elections, local elections and, in two constituencies, Dáil byelections. They may seem insignificant – they’re midterm elections, second-tier in nature – but they’re not.

Eleven people will be elected to the European Parliament, and 949 will be elected to county and city councils. One of the byelections, in Dublin West, is to replace the Independent TD Patrick Nulty, who stood down after sending inappropriate social-media messages. The other, in Longford-Westmeath, is to fill a seat left empty by the death of the Fine Gael deputy Nicky McFadden.

On the face of it not much is riding on them. The Government will remain in power. The Opposition will have no extra sway in the Dáil. Power will remain concentrated in the centre, and Brussels will absorb the MEPs as a glass of water does a homeopathic remedy.

A midterm ballot allows voters to register their disillusion with unpopular government policies or with a party that has failed to live up to its promises. Such events have no bearing on primary elections. Fianna Fáil’s poor local-election results in 2004, for example, had no effect on its performance in the 2007 general election.

Except . . . Second-tier elections have sometimes led to leadership heaves and hastened governments’ downfall, reshaping the destiny of the country. Byelections have had the greatest impact in these cases. Poor results for Fianna Fáil in the 1979 European elections created internal doubts about then taoiseach Jack Lynch, but his fate was sealed later that year when Fianna Fáil lost two byelections on the same day, in Cork. In 1994, four opposition wins in byelections contributed to the break-up of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. The Donegal South West byelection of October 2010 was another watershed, a harbinger of Sinn Féin’s rise and Fianna Fáil’s decline. That too drove an early election.

And at the Meath East byelection last year, Labour had to recognise from its trouncing in the poll that it was unlikely to emerge from office unscathed.

Local elections can be influential, too. The Greens were crushed in 2009 when they failed to win a European seat and lost all but three of their 18 council seats. Those elections also gave them fair warning of the annihilation that was to come in the 2011 general election.

So the three sets of ballots next Friday have potential repercussions for all political parties and Independents.

The number of EU constituencies has been reduced to three: Dublin, with three seats, and two hybrid constituencies, each with four seats: South, and Midlands North West.

True to the spirit of midterm elections, the main issues are predominantly Government ones: property taxes, water charges and social housing. In rural areas the common agriculture and fisheries policies have traction. The only other discernible European theme is growing antipathy to Brussels.

European elections tend to be beauty contests with superficial coverage and debate. There is a strong emphasis on opinion polls, although the relatively low numbers of people they poll make them inaccurate. They sometimes even become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In the locals elections, the abolition of town councils means the number of seats on county and city councils has risen, from 883. This will allow parties to cushion losses and inflate gains.

Fine Gael

Good result
The party wins five seats in the European elections, retains its 32 per cent share of the vote in the local elections, and wins both byelections.

Bad result
It wins two or three European seats, suffers a drop in council seats from the 342 it won in 2009, and loses both byelections.

Likely result
Fine Gael should return four MEPs and could win more than 300 council seats – a loss of seats and share but very much contained. In the byelections, Gabrielle McFadden should win Longford-Westmeath, and Eamonn Coghlan has a real chance in Dublin West.

What’s at stake
For an incumbent party, not very much. Controversies involving Alan Shatter and Phil Hogan have done some damage, as have the charges on property and water. But Fine Gael seems insulated from the worst of voter anger. There is no threat to Enda Kenny or to the party’s other senior officers.

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