Thursday 22 August 2019

John Downing: 'Local elections struggle to grab voters' attention, but they do show how State's political winds are blowing'

'We have noted before that local elections, while replete with local issues and characters, are also a good gauge of the public mood' (stock photo)
'We have noted before that local elections, while replete with local issues and characters, are also a good gauge of the public mood' (stock photo)
John Downing

John Downing

Eamon Gilmore exited his job as party leader less than two days after getting news of Labour's loss of more than 80 council seats in the last local elections in May 2014. Barely three years earlier he had been feted as the most successful Labour leader ever with the "Gilmore gale" bringing home 37 TDs in February 2011.

Labour then went on to win a by-election as a party in government, a feat not achieved in 30 years, and also saw its candidate Michael D Higgins elected president with a record vote. But it was hero to zero in 1,185 days and Labour has been hovering on the brink of extinction ever since that calamitous election on May 24, 2014.

So, while voters may be less than enthused by the local elections in just 18 days' time, you can be sure all the political party leaders, their elected members and activists are taking this local contest very seriously indeed.

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We have noted before that local elections, while replete with local issues and characters, are also a good gauge of the public mood.

In 2004 they told us Enda Kenny's Fine Gael - which had an electoral meltdown in the 2002 Dáil elections - was on the way back. In 2009 they presaged the huge defeat the parties of the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition were going to get in 2011, bringing each party to the brink of extinction.

The big surprise in 2014 was the revival in fortunes for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. So, apart from anything else these local elections will be a political bellwether.

Local councils and councillors are an easy mark for the comedian and satirist. But good councillors can be a huge influence for good in any community. And many successful politicians will quietly tell you of the huge volume of lessons they learned as members of the local council.

Yet the Irish political elite are also rather grudging about local government in a country which is among the most centralised in the world. As UCC politics lecturer Dr Liam Weeks has eloquently pointed out recently, local elections were delayed on 15 separate occasions.

Credit is due to Noel Dempsey as environment minister for putting through a referendum in 1999 which gave constitutional status to local councils and stipulated council elections must be held every five years.

But while councillors can have huge influence within their own political party, their role as local advocates is often seen as the poor relation in our democracy.

Councillors are often engaged in an unequal push-pull relationship with senior council officials. Local authorities are often left short of cash, obliged to squeeze businesses for excessive rates, and builders for exaggerated levies to help make ends meet. There are strong arguments for doing better by our system of local democracy.

In 2014 another environment minister, Phil Hogan, abolished some 80 town councils and reduced the number of councillors. It has left many large towns without a forum to debate their problems.

The current junior minister responsible for councils, John Paul Phelan, has resisted efforts by some, including former public expenditure minister and Labour leader Brendan Howlin, to restore the town councils. Mr Phelan has opted instead to try to align the electoral areas closer to the larger towns in efforts to improve local linkage.

We will see how that works out. Mr Phelan has also worked to improve some of the more outlandish and diffuse electoral areas which were used in the last local elections. But, while many look more workable this time, again we must wait and see how they work out.

Another intriguing innovation this time out will be a plebiscite in Limerick, Waterford and Cork on whether there should be directly elected mayors.

This idea has long been mooted for Dublin but never acted upon by politicians who fear they could be creating "a political Frankenstein", a rival power pole over which they may have little control. This is a fascinating topic to which we will return.

These local elections are hard to gauge right now. It is remarkable both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil campaigners are quietly saying they are being well received on the canvass by prospective voters.

"Either they are genuinely not against us this time, or they're not telling us the truth," one veteran Fine Gael campaigner told this writer.

But seasoned canvassers know how to read a prospective voter's body language.

Many in Fianna Fáil have bitter memories of the raw anger they encountered in the 2009 local elections and 2011 Dáil elections, both contests which returned the party's worst ever electoral performances.

Fine Gael and Labour stalwarts will recall a similarly bitter reception in the 2014 local elections in which Fine Gael lost 110 council seats.

Sometimes, politics is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

But now Fine Gael is so ebullient that Mr Phelan - this time wearing his director of elections hat - has predicted it can actually make gains. On Friday he told party activists it would be a first in 35 years for a party of government to make local council gains and he said the ambitious target of going from 230 to 280 councillors was realisable.

Fine Gael has 405 candidates, 119 of whom are women. Professor Michael Marsh of TCD has put the party on 30pc in his recent poll of polls, a figure which would deliver a very good result. But the Taoiseach will have to mind his mouth when he is out and about for the next fortnight. Another bad week, like the last one, would leak a lot of votes.

Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin need a good result to calm some members' fears about damage from propping up this minority Government. They will hope to get some strong newcomers who can fight for Dáil seats next time out.

Labour needs to show its malaise is not terminal. On the downside the party appears stalled in the opinion polls and struggling to gain public attention.

Against that it is fielding a young generation of candidates, and has a very good gender mix. Activists argue they are strong in some pockets and can make a statement that the obituary writers are premature. They need a big statement here to quell despondency.

Sinn Féin needs to show recovery from a bad presidential election and sluggish recent poll ratings. The legacy of the Troubles, which followed their leader of 35 years - Gerry Adams - has not been so easy to banish. The local infighting and bullying allegations have hit a lot of local branches hard.

SF will also be looking for a big result which will answer critics. But it faces competition on the left from Solidarity-People Before Profit and a reinvigorated Fianna Fáil on the other flank.

A plethora of smaller parties are in the field. Any way you look at it, all parties have a lot riding on this local election.

Irish Independent

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