This is my Broadsheet.ie analysis of the 2019 Local Election results (this first appeared on May 28th). Here I set out why the results brought bad news for the leaders of both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.
It is almost exactly two years since Leo Varadkar was selected as Fine Gael leader. On June 2nd, 2017 after a two-week contest involving FG members and councillors, but primarily TDs and Senators, Varadkar was declared the winner. He beat Simon Coveney with 60% in a weighted ballot in which TDs and Senators had 65% of the total vote, the membership had 25% and councillors had 10%.
While Coveney won the popular vote among the membership He secured 35 per cent in the membership ballot, Varadkar got the backing of 51 of the 73 members of the parliamentary party.
Six months later, in January 2018, Mary Lou MacDonald was announced to absolutely no one’s surprise as the sole candidate to succeed Gerry Adams. Adams had announced that he would step down after four decades as Sinn Féin leader at a special Árd Fheis the following month.
I have now updated my initial thoughts, musings, observations and mild rantings on the implications of the local election results, particularly Fianna Fáil’s stronger than expected showing.
This was first posted on Sunday morning – updated on Monday morning to reflect the revised party national totals in the Local Elections.
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.
Quite a lot, it seems.
Yesterday we saw history repeating itself, with the electorate visiting upon Fine Gael and Labour almost exactly the same devastating blow it had served up to Fianna Fáil and Labour five years earlier.
In 2009 Fianna Fáil lost around 39% of its support (when compared with 2007) while the Greens endured a massive reduction in its vote of 76%.
Yesterday, based on the Local Election results to hand, Fine Gael lost 34% of its support and Labour lost 63%.
While the story of the Local Elections is the rise in support for Sinn Féin and the Independents and the scale of the loss for Labour, the Fine Gael haemorrhaging of support should not be ignored.
Indeed, the case can be made that the real story of the election is this massive Fine Gael loss – a loss that should not be glossed over by what might appear to be its reasonable performance in the European Elections.
Losing 100 plus Councillors, on a day when you have increased the number of available council seats, is a political meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2009 proportions. It will send a shiver around the Fine Gael backbenches that will match that currently coursing along the spines of their Labour colleagues.
Leo Varadkar’s line that the next election will be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin was a clever attempt to calm the troops with the notion that their lost support will come back when the Irish voters realise that Fine Gael is all that stands between them and the Shinners.
It’s clever line, but a flawed one.
For it to offer any comfort it would need to be underpinned by Fine Gael still remaining the largest party – but it hasn’t. By the time the dust settles it will become clear that the other big story of the locals is the return to frontline politics of Fianna Fáil, even if its European results are a bit rocky.
If the battle of the next election is, as Varadkar suggests, to be fought on the question of where you stand with regard to Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil, with a few more weapons in its armoury, is standing on better – and now even firmer – ground than the depleted followers of Enda.
While Fine Gael may see itself as the antithesis of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil can challenge SF’s voodoo economics every bit as credibly as FG, but with the added bonus that that can better undermine and dismantle the Shinner’s fallacious claim to Republicanism, especially in its back yard.
The other story of the Fianna Fáil result is its incredible variety. Its national level of support at just over 25% belies some very good and incredibly bad local results, especially in urban centres.
They range from the sublime such as its 49% in Bailieborough-Coothall 39% in Castlecomer and 38.4% in Ballymote-Tobercurry to the ridiculous: such as its 4.9% in Dublin North Inner City, 6.8% in Tallaght South and 8.7% in Lucan.
While there are several other disappointing low teen results in urban centres across the country e.g 9.6% in Waterford City South, 10.5% in Bray and 13% in Limerick City North, it is no coincidence that the single digit performances are in Dublin.
That is not to say that the Capital is a wasteland for Fianna Fail. Contrast the single performance mentioned above with the parties stunning 27.3% in Castleknock, its 24.2% in Clontarf and its 22.3% in Stillorgan.
While the overall Dublin result of 16% points to a major problem for the party, the variety in results, highlighted above, shows Fianna Fáil’s further potential for growth and renewal in large swathes of Dublin.
It is the very patchiness of its result that points up where the party needs to work harder and better. Far too many candidates in Dublin were left to struggle on by themselves with no structured national campaign to underpin their efforts.
Having “Fianna Fáil” on your poster does not guarantee a good new candidate a certain base level of support in Dublin and other urban centres in the same way as having “Sinn Féin” on your poster did for their new first time candidates. Indeed it does not offer the prospect of that base level of support as it does in non-urban Ireland.
The candidates in Dublin raised the Fianna Fáil vote to their level, not the other way around. The vote in Dublin and other urban centres, is not the party vote plus the candidate’s unique personal support – it is just the latter. In certain parts of the city is it the unique personal support minus the residual antagonism to Fianna Fáil.
The “Fianna Fáil” identity is Dublin is not a coherent identity based on a core defining message from the party as a national political party: it is the collective identities of its various candidates.
This is not to underestimate the particular nature of Dublin voters, especially their looser party allegiances; it is just to point out that Dublin voters are just as likely to be receptive to a national message, just less continuously loyal to it.
Despite some clearly very good results in Dublin, most Fianna Fáil supporters still struggle to answer the questions: why should I vote Fianna Fáil and what does Fianna Fáil stand for. Most of the successful candidates I have encountered in Dublin answer it with the words: here is what I stand for…
It is not that there are not answers to these questions, but rather that the party has not sufficiently defined and substantiated them.
It is work that can and must be done. That work is not aided or encouraged by intemperate outbursts or Quixotic threatened heaves. The issues are policy and organisation – not personality.
The 24.3% of voters who abandoned Fine Gael and Labour saw their political alternatives this week. Some said independents, some said Sinn Féin – though not by a large margin as the swing to Sinn Féin since the 2011 election is in the 5.3%, but even more said Fianna Fáil with a swing of just over 8%, but the point should not be lost that the biggest single section of them said: none of the above.
The ones who stayed at home are the ones who were badly let down by Fianna Fáil and are now just as angry with Fine Gael and Labour for promising them a new politics and then delivering the old failed politics as usual.
Perhaps they concluded that they could afford to sit out these second order elections, as they do not see how the results will change their lives, they will not be as sanguine at the next election.
While there are worse jobs in the world: the worst job in politics is certainly leader of the opposition.
If he didn’t already know this, it is certain that Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheal Martin will know this in just over a week.
The 2014 European and Local Election campaigns for which he and his HQ team have prepared and planned for over 18 months are proving themselves to be a source of unalloyed joy. It is hard to believe that these are the campaigns they wanted.
The latest round of opinion poll findings only confirm this. They suggest that
His Dublin Euro candidate will fail to take the seat
His Midlands North West duo may struggle to win a seat
While his Ireland South candidates have the best part of two quotas between but are so imbalanced as to render a second seat impossible.
If the ballots cast on Friday confirm these poll findings, then it will be hard to make any of this sound like an achievement.
This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle.
A few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:
“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”
Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.
Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.