Pat Leahy: election results could make or break Varadkar and Martin

There are precedents of results in local and European elections signalling a transformation in Irish politics

Next week’s elections carry a political significance beyond the candidates who will be elected or not. There is a lot riding on the outcome for everyone.

In a way this is counter-intuitive. They are, after all, “second order” elections. Elected councillors in this country are relatively powerless compared to their peers in most European countries; the lack of real power devolved from central government to local councils is a design flaw in our political system.

The European Parliament is by far the weakest of the EU’s institutions, and the voice of Ireland’s MEPs, 11 out of 751, is necessarily a small one.

Mid-term elections often change the political currents, altering everything that follows

People in all parties comment on disinterest at the doors. “Prosperity, I suppose,” shrugs one Cabinet Minister who has been disturbing the nation’s householders this week. Reports from the canvass trail also testify to the lack of engagement.


And yet despite all that the results of the elections will reverberate across the political landscape, potentially changing the course of politics and certainly leaving none of the parties unaffected.

Mid-term elections often change the political currents, altering everything that follows. There are recent precedents of the results in local and European elections signalling a transformational moment in Irish politics.

Take the local and European elections of 2004. Bertie Ahern was seven years in power. Voters were tiring of him, his administration was unpopular. Fianna Fáil slumped to its worst result in a local or general election in many decades.

Seriously spooked – especially by the rise of Sinn Féin across his north Dublin heartland – Ahern dispatched his minister for finance Charlie McCreevy to Brussels, a move that led to a sustained loosening of fiscal policy under his new minister for finance Brian Cowen, under the guise of a more “caring” government. That didn’t cause the financial crisis, but it made it a lot worse here than nearly anywhere else, and a lot worse than it needed to be.

Shaped politics

The 2004 elections also demonstrated to Fine Gael that there was a way back under Enda Kenny, and catapulted Mary Lou McDonald into the public consciousness – and into Sinn Féin’s front rank. In other words, the implications of those elections shaped politics in a particular way afterwards

Ten years later the 2014 local elections saw Fianna Fáil demonstrate that it would not fulfil the predictions of many who anticipated its withering and eventual demise after the general election obliteration of 2011.

In a result that was under-appreciated at the time, Micheál Martin led Fianna Fáil to become the largest party of local government, a result considered unimaginable even a short time beforehand.

It is Leo Varadkar's debut as Fine Gael leader in a national election. It will tell a lot about where he and his party stand with voters

Fine Gael and Labour, by contrast, were given a preview of the massacre that awaited their candidates at the general election in 2016.

Independents and small party candidates served notice that they would soon become too successful and too numerous to ignore.

True, Martin had poor European elections that day, not helped by flaky candidate selection. And, yes, he was helped by Fine Gael’s disastrous performance in the locals. But 2014 re-established Fianna Fáil as a central player in Irish politics. In that sense it has influenced everything that has happened since.

So what of next week’s elections?

Firstly, it is Leo Varadkar’s debut as Fine Gael leader in a national election. It will tell a lot about where he and his party stand, the public’s view of their performance in government and his ability to connect with voters.

Varadkar was elected leader partly because of the belief among Fine Gael TDs that he would be electoral dynamite, connecting with voters in a way that Kenny didn’t and Simon Coveney probably wouldn’t. Last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll suggests that if this moment was ever possible it has passed. Voters now seem to regard him as a regular politician.The trends have not been comfortable for the party or its leader in polls this year.

Strong candidates

And yet a combination of strong European candidates and a poor 2014 local elections – offering space to grow – means that Varadkar may be on the verge of a result he can fairly claim as an endorsement.

A good election could propel even him into a general election campaign if events in Westminster – say the resignation of Theresa May, pausing the politics there until a replacement is elected – allow for it.

A poor result would puncture Fine Gael’s belief in its leader, which has tottered of late, and confirm a narrative of decline. It would drain Varadkar of capital and confidence.

For Fianna Fáil, if it can bring forward candidates in Dublin and hold off Fine Gael’s challenge to overtake it in the local elections nationally it will bolster a growing sense in the party – absent a year ago – that it can beat Varadkar next time out.

Failure would do the opposite, and would certainly accelerate the next round of heebie-jeebies in the party, with all the attendant muttering about Martin’s leadership that always accompanies such outbreaks. This does not matter that much in itself, but it may limit Martin’s room for strategic manoeuvre as he approaches both the next election and the race to form a government that will follow it.

Of the parties outside the big two, Labour and the Greens are hoping for – and may well get – encouragement.

For Sinn Féin the portents are gloomier, and the fallout likely more severe. The inevitable postmortem will influence the party’s future choices on policy, coalition, Stormont and party management.

Politics, as the old adage goes, is often driven by events. And elections are the events to which politicians pay most attention. This day next week, as the votes tumble out of the boxes, it is likely that the political world will shift a bit – and possibly quite a bit – on its axis.