Friday 23 August 2019

John Downing: 'Big parties must be keenly aware of importance of local elections'


Stock photo
Stock photo
John Downing

John Downing

Bertie Ahern summed it up: "If you don't have councillors, you'll find it very hard indeed to have TDs."

It was 2003 and he was talking about the huge hill a man called Enda Kenny (remember him?) had to climb with the Fine Gael band after its general election meltdown in June 2002. Well, that wheel has turned a full 180 degrees - and back again - since then.

But the three-times Taoiseach's point was that any serious politician will disparage the local elections at their peril.

In precisely 24 days - three weeks from Friday - voters will be invited to choose their local councillors. This local election model pre-dates the foundation of the Irish State and has been with us since 1898.

Councils and councillors are an easy mark for satirists and comedians. But many of us who keep our eyes open to the world also know that a good councillor can exert considerable influence and be a real force for community good.

The local elections are also a crazy mix of the local personalities and issues - set against big-picture national sentiment. Local council elections in 2009 were a harbinger of major national calamity coming down the tracks for the governing Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition in the General Election which followed in February 2011.

The same can be said of both Fine Gael and Labour in the 2014 locals, as huge councillor losses for both were followed by comparable Dáil losses in the general election of February 2016. Bertie Ahern's maxim was borne out on each occasion.

On Friday, May 24, things just might be different. The country is relatively, albeit fretfully, prosperous and voters do not have the same urge for vengeance.

Strategists inside both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are quietly confident they can make gains.

Fianna Fáil may be the better placed as last time, in May 2014, it performed a political Houdini act by becoming the biggest local authority party three years after it was left on the verge of extinction.

Fine Gael can surely win back a large share of the 110 local council seats lost in 2014 and it is their stated aim. But for both parties much now depends on the strength of their respective campaigns and the quality of their local candidates.

Sinn Féin has had some great local elections in its recent past. But this one will pose challenges amid many local rows, being stalled in the polls and a bad outcome in last October's presidential election.

Labour is keeping the bright side out but very badly needs a comeback if it is to continue arguing its decline is not terminal. The Green Party and other smaller parties have their own grounds for hope. Independents may be declining in national polls but a good local Independent is a tailor-made councillor.

It may well be the first election where climate change features as an issue.

Irish Independent

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