Political parties agree that, for the first time in years, the local elections this week really are about local issues, on everything from housing to the environment to policing to dog-fouling. The 2014 contest was marked by protests over austerity, water charges, and medical card cuts, but the issues are different this time for those wanting to be councillors or who are seeking re-election.
Also this time, there is a threshold for running female candidates. Moreover, the results this weekend will be viewed as a litmus test for any snap general election ahead. Another outcome of local elections is how councillors or parties control authorities.
This can influence property tax rates, bin charges, and agreement on housing projects. Furthermore, success matters for a party leader trying to train foot soldiers for Dáil duty in an era of new politics.
There are 949 council seats and more than 2,000 candidates vying for them across 31 local authorities. There are few certainties in politics, but there are indicators (and warning signs). The Greens could win multiples of their current 12-seat tally, with a spike in support on the back of extreme weather and international climate action concerns.
Eamon Ryan’s party is running 82 candidates — close to double the number that ran five years ago — and the party is riding a new wave of support, having reached 7% nationally in one weekend poll. Furthermore, almost all other parties admit that green and environmental issues are common topics being raised by voters during canvasses or on the doorsteps.
The Greens’ director of elections, Roderic O’Gorman, says 25 local seats would be a “breakthrough”. Current polls predict they will achieve twice that, with the party aiming to take back seats previously lost in Cork, Galway, Kildare, and Laois.
“This is a climate election, for certain,” says O’Gorman, a Fingal county councillor.
Strategists say Friday’s poll will reflect local concerns about housing, planning, antisocial behaviour, and even potholes and dog-fouling. Labour’s director of elections, Kevin Humphreys, says that his party wants to win back losses suffered in the last locals, when the then coalition party was annihilated. The majority of Labour’s candidates this year are novices and its strategy is to boost transfers, with 111 individuals targetting seats.
“There is a warmth there that hasn’t been there for a number of elections,” says Humphreys.
As for the two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, some polls put them neck and neck. For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, this is his first electoral test, in an era of new politics, of leading Fine Gael. There are initial signs of a backlash in rural Ireland, particularly among farmers.
On the other hand, Fianna Fáil is desperately trying to regain lost support in Dublin, where Fine Gael is strongest. Fine Gael does expect some mid-term bruising.
Director of elections, TD John Paul Phelan, said:
That’s a candid admission. Nonetheless, Mr Varadkar has insisted that he wants his party to regain control over local government, as Fianna Fáil has the larger numbers.
Fine Gael controls, or is part of, a dominating alliance in 23 of the 31 councils. But Mr Phelan also says it faces challenges in keeping or regaining seats in Waterford, Dublin City, and Cork.
For Fianna Fáil, this election is a test. Can it retain its powerful position in local government (the party controls 84%, or 26, of councils)? In addition, only 21% of its candidates are women, which is below the 30% threshold set for parties. And there is much new electoral blood, after more than two dozen of its councillors went on to the Dáil in 2016.
Director of elections, TD Dara Calleary, says the message on the doorsteps is about delivering local services, and bringing back local democracy, such as town councils:
One of the biggest winners in 2014 was Sinn Féin, when the party — riding a wave of protests over austerity — trebled its number of council seats to 159. Despite the triumph for then leader, Gerry Adams, it failed to take control of large swaths of local government. Nonetheless, it remains dominant in Dublin City and South Dublin, among the six councils it helps to control.
For Mary Lou McDonald, this is also her first electoral test since becoming leader, last year. Some Sinn Féin councillors have also jumped ship since 2014, with 144 left. But director of elections, Ken O’Connell, explains how, running 232 candidates, Sinn Féin wants to win further control in Louth and Monaghan and in other border councils. “We are telling people we will fight for them in councils,” he says, admitting that the wave of anger over austerity is less of an issue this time.
Critics expect Sinn Féin to lose some support, but the party is holding its position in the polls. Its biggest problem is not being transfer-friendly.
Other smaller parties are hoping for breakthroughs. Solidarity-People Before Profit made gains in 2014, but, this time, the amalgamated parties are running a combined 66 in the field.
PBP TD Richard Boyd Barrett said: “It is down to the strength of [our] local campaigns. The two biggest issues are housing and the environment.” Its strongholds are in Dun Laoghaire [Mr Barrett’s own area], South Dublin, and Dublin City, where the party will be hoping to double numbers.
Other smaller groups and Independents will mop up where there is dissatisfaction with the established parties or with the Government.
484 are running under a non-party banner. Unlike in 2014, strategists expect a fall-off in support for Independents, as voters move back to the larger parties. But as Independent Alliance election strategist, Tony Williams, explains, some aspiring politicians have been inspired by the ability of TD Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran to get into government as a minister: “This gives them hope.” The alliance is backing 50 councillors in this election, says Mr Williams.
Local election votes are often used as a stick to beat the government of the day. This election may be no different. But Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael have thrown the kitchen sink at the election, with gilded promises for voters in recent weeks. Close to €7bn has been promised in projects, including €3bn for broadband in rural Ireland and Cork’s €3.5bn transport strategy. In recent days, another €100m was announced for beef farmers. The country is awash with cash. But will voters pay heed?
One thing is for sure. These elections will be judged as a test for some leaders and as a precursor to any general election coming down the line. And parties or groups that dominate local government will dictate crucial needs, such as housing, the environment, and services, over the next five years. Expect breakthroughs, too, particularly for the Greens.