Pat Leahy: Ten lessons from the local and European elections
A snap election is now unlikely, and other things we learnt from the votes
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Frances Fitzgerald and Alan Farrell at a Dublin count centre. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Ten things to take away from the local and European elections now that the dust has settled a bit:
1. A snap election is now very unlikely
It is, of course, possible that Leo Varadkar could call a June general election in the coming days, but it would be an unlikely gamble on his premiership and perhaps his leadership of Fine Gael. There is certainly little sign of it. Fine Gael did not do badly in the elections, but they did not have the sort of triumph that might have catapulted Varadkar into calling a general election. Despite what lots of people in Government and in Fianna Fáil think, September is probably impossible because we will be staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit, so November or next year seem to be the only options.
2. After the Green wave
So what now? With electoral success comes power, and with power comes responsibility. If the party wishes to use that power to achieve its policy goals – which presumably it does – it will have to get its hands dirty by doing deals with other parties, first in local government and then, after the next election, in national government. That will involve compromise and refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Eamon Ryan is up for this, but not all of his party will be – he will have to win the internal argument. One big advantage he has: if you think you’ve only 12 years to save the planet you probably need to get a move on.
3.We need to get better at counting votes
The counting of votes is preposterously slow. This is not an argument for electronic voting or counting; it is an argument for counting the votes more quickly, whether that requires better management or more staff or whatever. Irish people’s attachment to and sense of ownership over their utterly transparent electoral process is a priceless strength of our democracy. But for the love of God, returning officers need to speed up the counts. And we need – broken record warning here – an independent electoral commission to oversee the whole shebang.
4. We need to teach people how to vote
There are way, way too many spoiled votes. A voter education campaign should be one of the first things of the agenda of an electoral commission.
5. There were too many candidates in the European elections
One of the reasons the counts were so long was the length of the candidate list. It’s hard to see how our democracy is served when half the candidates have no chance whatsoever of being elected. Of course everyone who wants to run should be allowed but to get on the ballot paper they should be required to demonstrate some level of support for their nomination. At present if you’re not a party nominee you can either get 60 signatures or pay a deposit of €1,800. The bar should be set higher.
6. Wise parties will do an honest postmortem
The Greens need to have a long hard look at themselves to decide what they want to achieve in the coming years; for a different reason so should Sinn Féin. As Fiach Kelly reported, Fine Gael has already begun to have another look at its general election tickets in the light of the results. For Fianna Fáil the local results show a roadmap to prospective electoral gains. No doubt TDs sitting on their own in capacious constituencies will be delighted to hear from headquarters that they are going to have to shove over and make room on the, er, swing.
7. Sinn Féin is in a bit of a crisis
For no party is the postmortem as important as Sinn Féin. The party is actually in the midst of three crises – of leadership, of strategy and of morale. The reflex response – hunker down and work hard – is necessary, but certainly not sufficient.
8. FF and FG are now neck and neck
Fianna Fáil won the locals, Fine Gael the Euros. But there’s little between them. If there was a general election now there would probably be no more than a handful of seats between them at the end, and the advantage could go either way. One obvious consequence of this is that it hands huge power to whoever is available for a coalition deal afterwards. It’s hard to see Sinn Féin in that mix, so the implications for the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and Independents are obvious.
9. The Mick and Clare Show moves to Brussels
So farewell then, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, who will vacate their Dáil seats to move their distinctive approach to politics to Brussels and Strasbourg. Their politics was not everyone’s cup of tea, but both were able legislators and forensic interrogators on the issues they cared about. They’ll be a loss to the Dáil, but at least Mick will have a wider choice of football matches within easy range. Their departure also reflects their judgment on the capacity for Independents in opposition to get stuff done in the Dáil. Recent general elections have seen huge numbers of Independents returned; but it looks like Mick and Clare believe the tide is going out.
10. No easy solutions
Policy-making on climate action is fraught with danger. If people believe that climate solutions are cooked up by elites to be paid for by ordinary people, they will reject them and mobilise against them one way or another. Two findings from that RTÉ exit poll: nearly 90 per cent of people believe the Government could do more on climate change; and nearly 80 per cent say they’re “tired of listening to so-called experts/elites who don’t speak for me”. Climate action will be a minefield for any government.