Elections 2019: Green wave sees tide go out for Varadkar and Sinn Féin

Analysis: FG and FF have been spinning furiously but there’s no spinning out of this

For some time now, it has been one of the obvious questions about Irish politics: why, at a time of unprecedented public concern about the environment and awareness about the threat posed by global warming, has political support for the Green Party not been stronger?

After all, the Greens are the party most clearly associated with environmental and climate issues, so why haven't voters made the connection?

These elections suggest the public has just joined the dots. If the surge in support for the party in the European elections predicted by last night's RTÉ/Red C exit poll is borne out by the results, then the Greens will beat the opposition out of sight in Dublin and should also take seats in both Ireland South and Midlands North West.

The poll also suggests the Greens will win nine per cent of the vote in the local elections, a result which if borne out by the count, would elect Green candidates in unprecedented numbers across the country.

This would provide the party with a slate of strong candidates, familiar to voters, who would challenge for seats in the next general election. Significantly, the party leader Eamon Ryan immediately interpreted the result in terms of future participation in Government.

Given it is very likely the big two parties will be looking for dance partners after the general election, the odds on the Greens being part of the next Government have just rocketed.

Some caution at this stage is wise.

Sweeping predictions about the outcomes of elections, and of their significance, have a habit of looking silly when made on the basis of limited information.

But it is clear that the Greens are the big story of these elections.

Bad day for the big two

It is equally clear who are the losers. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been spinning furiously in recent days to manage expectations ahead of these elections. But there's no spinning their way out of this.

It is going to be bad day for Fine Gael in Leo Varadkar's first outing in a national election as leader. While Maria Walsh may yet give the party something to cheer about by taking a second seat in Midlands North West - she'll be in a dogfight in the later counts - the second seat in Ireland South, held by Deirdre Clune, is in grave danger.

Frances Fitzgerald will take a seat in Dublin but on a much lower share of the vote than early campaign polls predicted, suggesting Fine Gael support fell away during the campaign. That is not, to put it mildly, a healthy trend for Varadkar.

But it is the local elections that will provide Fine Gael headquarters with its biggest headache. The vote seems to have weakened significantly in Dublin especially according to the early tallies - an indication, if borne out by the results, that the Varadkar effect in Dublin might not be all it has been cracked up to be.

As political strategists in all parties know, the locals are much more relevant to the next general election than European elections.

From Fianna Fáil’s perspective the European elections look like being a disaster, again.

There is no hope of a seat in Midlands North West, not much hope of two in Ireland South while Barry Andrews will struggle to regain a seat for the party in Dublin (though a strong Fianna Fáil vote in the local elections will help him).

But the picture for the locals may be better for the party, and possibly a lot better. While the exit poll suggests that Fianna Fáil will be tied with Fine Gael at 23 per cent nationally, early indications from the Dublin tallies suggest that the party is doing better than that, and we may see a repeat of five years ago when the exit poll significantly underestimated the Fianna Fáil share of the vote and the party went on to become the largest party of local government.

The European elections may be an embarrassment to Micheál Martin, but from the point of view of preparing for a general election, he would much rather a successful local elections.

Sinn Féin goes into reverse

For so long the narrative about Sinn Féin has been one of irresistible progress - a steady march forwards in terms of seats and share of the vote that had as its inevitable destination government simultaneously in both parts of the island. The final move to government in Dublin seemed to be the mission of Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership.

But that relentless march forward has stuttered today, and stuttered badly. More than that, it has gone abruptly into reverse. While the party may retain its three European Parliament seats - though Lynn Boylan will struggle to hold on in Dublin - its share of the vote has plummeted.

It looks set to lose councillors all over the country, and Dublin may be a particular problem where the exit poll suggests they will only win 11 per cent of the vote. Early tallies suggested that the Sinn Féin vote is cratering in many parts of the capital.

It’s true Sinn Féin has suffered bad electoral days before. McDonald herself lost her European Parliament seat in 2009. But that day the Sinn Féin share of the local elections vote declined only marginally.

Today, the poll suggests, it is falling away sharply. Just over a year since McDonald became leader, she has suffered a whopping rejection from voters.

And the others

It’s hard to get a handle at this early stage on the performances of the smaller parties and independents, but it does seem that the strong showing of the smaller left-wing parties, and of many independents, in 2014 will not be replicated today.

For the Labour Party, none of its candidates appear to be in the running for Europe - on five per cent, according to the poll, Alex White trails the Social Democrats' Gary Gannon by one - and the projected share of the local election vote in Dublin is just eight per cent.

We will have to wait until more detail is available from individual counts to see if there are bright spots which could turn into Dáil seats for Labour. But there is no big comeback to today. It is not even clear if there is a route for one.

READ MORE