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Two simple truths have been forgotten in the rush to write Sinn Féin off

Local elections are about local issues. In the next election, housing will continue to be the defining issue

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald. Since the 2019 local elections, Sinn Féin has increased its pool of councillors by 21, bringing its total up to 102. Photograph: Damien Storan/PA

From the moment that the results from the recent local election started to emerge, the dominant narrative across the political commentary has been simple: Sinn Féin has done badly.

The Irish media’s hourly reports, followed by lengthier analyses, abounded with references to the failure of the party to capitalise on its 2020 general election high-water mark, when Sinn Féin won 37 seats in the Dáil – one less than Fianna Fáil and two more than Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin’s historical achievement, breaking open Ireland’s two-party system, was even more remarkable when considering its share of first-preference votes, which was the highest of any party in 2020. Had it run more candidates and captured their surplus vote, Sinn Féin would have been the largest party by far, adding another seven or eight seats easily to its already-impressive tally.

Given the unheralded success of that election, its current situation, by comparison, seems undoubtedly worse – Sinn Féin has fewer than half of the local councillors of either of its fellow “big beasts”.


The party itself seems to be in disarray, struggling with its loss of momentum, and pundits both inside and outside the tent have been openly questioning the viability of Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership. The question underlying the post-election commentary is: after such an abysmal vote, what, if anything, can Sinn Féin do to turn the ship around?

This is the picture that dominates the media, sketched by journalists and politicians alike, on both sides of the spectrum. This picture, however, is flawed. As entertaining as it may be to avail of shorthand assessments about frustrated ambition, two points, as obvious as they are neglected, have to be taken into account.

The first is that the local election is not the general election. This point is often raised as a proviso, warning against casual comparisons, only to be promptly forgotten in the pressures of daily news journalism. Nonetheless, the role of local politicians is vastly different from their counterparts in the Dáil, and voters know this.

By and large, Irish people choose their councillors on the understanding that they will manage local affairs, overseeing their area’s road maintenance, business grants, planning permissions and parking fines. National party politics is, almost by definition, beside the point at the level of the local election. This is a definitive difference: local candidates can succeed even as their parliamentary colleagues fall away, and vice versa. Labour is a good example: although in 2020′s general election it lost a TD (voters unimpressed by the party’s national strategy), it performed well in 2019′s local elections, building on the personal reputations of individual councillors.

The effort to draw meaningful lessons from Sinn Féin’s local election results in 2024 against the backdrop of the 2020 general election is, therefore, methodologically suspect. Local and general elections may share a genus, but they are different species – why pretend otherwise?

This means that the only apt comparison, of course, is with the last local election. Since 2019, Sinn Féin has increased its pool of councillors by 21, bringing its total up to 102. This is the second-best result Sinn Féin has won at the local level since it rebranded into a modern political party. Is that result worthy of being described as a “Sinn Féin collapse”? Probably not.

The second point that unsettles the political picture above is housing. Immigration may be getting a lot of airtime in our media, but the shortage of affordable housing remains the country’s most critical issue. Indeed, the housing crisis is the underlying condition for heightened tensions around immigration, not to mention homelessness. Take the findings of any report on the housing situation, and all indicators point to systemic failure by the Coalition parties. The latest CSO Residential Property Price Index shows that annual house prices rose by 7.3 per cent across the country, while the latest Daft report shows that nationwide rental prices continue to increase. These contribute to trends that have been largely uninterrupted for more than a decade, and are tearing our social fabric apart. The Government’s own Housing Commission report, published at the end of May, is scathing about the State’s “lack of consistency in housing policy”. The consequence of this slow-moving catastrophe is that Ireland has, by comparison to our fellow Europeans, “one of the highest levels of public expenditure for housing, yet one of the poorest outcomes” and a housing deficit “of between 212,500 and 256,000 homes”.

Housing, which is not in the purview of local councillors to fix, was not a factor in the ballot. At the last general election, however, the crisis in housing catapulted Sinn Féin into first place. Housing remains as much of an issue in 2024 as it was in 2020, and consequently, there is no reason to expect the outcome of our next general election to be different from the last. All that has changed in the interim is that Sinn Féin has increased its number of local councillors.

Of course, the dwindling support for Sinn Féin in the polls can’t be overlooked, but I believe polls are only minimally significant. When the date for a general election is far away or uncertain, polls tend to act as snapshots of the public’s enthusiasm for their political parties in their current configuration. However, circumstances change radically when the electorate know their ballot will actually translate into seats for party politicians, or, to put it differently, when they know their vote will result in either a change of government or a prolonging of the status quo.

We are told that the electorate are volatile, and forecasts about their behaviour are futile. In the Irish context, this interpretation seems quixotic. Opinions about the individual merits of Simon Harris, Micheál Martin and McDonald may wax and wane, but the structure of our political economy remains perfectly consistent. When faced with the choice between a) the current managers of Ireland’s deteriorating housing market or b) the only other viable option, the outcome is all too predictable.

Tom Lordan is a journalist and art critic