Local election aftermath a wake-up call for Fine Gael
Parties coalescing around Fianna Fáil the most likely outcome after general election
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD with local election candidates at the launch of the Green Party’s local election manifesto in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/ The Irish Times
The political manoeuvring after the local elections that enabled an alliance of Fianna Fáil, Greens and Labour take control of three of the four Dublin councils looks like a harbinger of things to come.
It is a salutary warning to Fine Gael that even if the party gains seats in the next general election, as it did in Dún Laoghaire after the locals, it could still lose power if other parties combine around Fianna Fáil to put an administration together.
Dublin city, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal now have Fianna Fáil mayors for the coming year thanks to pacts with the smaller parties. Back in 2011 when Fianna Fáil could only win one Dáil seat in the entire Dublin region such a dramatic recovery would have seemed like a pipe dream.
To put icing on the cake the mayors of Dublin city and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown are also likely to be Dáil candidates in the general election which will almost certainly take place during their terms of office. There could be no better platform for a tilt at a Dáil seat.
Fine Gael has reacted angrily to the way it was outmanoeuvred in Dublin with Cllr Barry Ward, a Dáil candidate for Dun Laoghaire, summing up the party’s frustration: “On the eve of voting, the Green Party’s line was Vote Green, Get Green. It turns out what they meant was Vote Green, Get Fianna Fáil.”
Fine Gael now has a big decision to make about whether it follows up on that message by attacking the Greens and Labour in an effort to maximise its number of seats in a general election, or whether it should try woo them with an eye to post-election negotiations.
Labour and the Greens have also some thinking to do, not simply about which of the bigger parties they would prefer to go into government with, but whether they want to go there at all. Both suffered near political-death experiences after their last stints in office and are still getting over the shock.
The Greens lost all their Dáil seats in 2011. They were reduced to just three county councillors after their previous experience of being in coalition with Fianna Fáil while Labour is still trying to recover from the hammering it took from the electorate in 2016 after its coalition with Fine Gael.
The irony is that both parties served the country well in government in very difficult circumstances. Faced with the appalling consequences of a financial crisis, not of their making, the Greens held their nerve and backed the difficult measures which ensured that the country did not sink into the abyss.
Labour too acted responsibly in office and shaped the policies that allowed the country drag itself out of the mess and return to strong economic growth far earlier than most economic experts had predicted. Yet the reward both parties received from an unimpressed electorate was a trouncing that pushed them to the edge of extinction.
So will they try it again? The answer is almost certainly yes. Both parties have always been interested in getting into power to implement their policies, in stark contrast to a variety of other Opposition sources which are great at expressing outrage in the Dáil but have no viable alternatives to offer.
The Greens, in particular, have always managed to attract transfers from across the political spectrum
One positive sign for the Greens and Labour is that Sinn Féin and the various hard left groups who specialise in the politics of anger did poorly in the local elections. That will create an opportunity for both to make gains in the general election if their candidates can rack up enough first preferences to stay in the race long enough to benefit from transfers.
The Greens, in particular, have always managed to attract transfers from across the political spectrum, so if they can keep their momentum going they could win new Dáil seats. Labour has managed to put its transfer toxic experience of 2016 behind it and that should help the party to recover some ground next time out.
Both parties need to think long and hard about how to avoid the vicious circle of building up support in opposition, going into government and then suffering a meltdown from an angry electorate. One thing they have to do is to be totally honest with voters and not get sucked into making unrealistic pre-election promises for short-term electoral gain.
The main reason for the savaging Labour received in 2016 was that it did nothing to prepare its voters for the things it would have to do in office. It wasn’t simply a matter of not being able to implement some election pledges but the whole tone of its 2011 campaign which told voters that Labour’s way would prevail against EU austerity policies.
Next time around the party will have to be straight with voters about what it will be able to do given the budgetary constraints it will face in office. The Greens have been up-front about their commitment to a carbon tax, but they will have to spell out the full implications of their climate change policy so that voters don’t get a shock when they are presented with the bill.