Wednesday 19 June 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Local elections will show there is little between main parties'

The ballot box is unlikely to trigger a seismic shift in the political landscape for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, writes Philip Ryan

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

For Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the coming week is all about managing expectations. Neither party believes there will be any major shift in its fortunes once the votes are counted in the local elections next weekend.

Before the campaign kicked off, Fine Gael strategists were making bold predictions of overtaking Fianna Fail to become the biggest party in local government.

That confidence has been tempered in recent weeks as candidates reported back from the doors. It is not that they are getting run off the doorsteps by angry voters. But there is not a lot of room for growth in an increasingly crowded field and party loyalties have not shifted significantly since the last local election, or the last general election for that matter.

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So the expectation of being the largest party in local government is being replaced by a narrative which will suggest Fine Gael won the election by not losing seats.

The party will say Fianna Fail, even if it still has the most seats, has essentially lost the election because the Government wasn't hammered at the ballot box.

"The last governing party to increase their seat counts in local elections was Fianna Fail in 1999 under Bertie Ahern and they only got one extra seat," a Fine Gael minister said yesterday.

The same minister also pointed to comments made by former British prime minister Tony Blair who attacked the current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for failing to capitalise on the dysfunctionality within the Conservative Party in the recent UK local elections.

"This is a government not in a state of disarray but of profound dysfunction. No one of any age or any political experience can remember anything like it," Blair said, before adding: "Yet Labour cannot even win the local elections, for heaven's sake."

Fine Gael will push a similar line about Micheal Martin if it is still trailing behind Fianna Fail after the local elections.

Fianna Fail is relatively content with its own campaign but, like Fine Gael, it is not expecting a seismic shift in the political landscape next weekend.

Fianna Fail is the largest party in local government with around 265 councillors. It would be happy enough if it came back with a similar figure as long as it was ahead of Fine Gael in the overall standings.

Councillor turnover is a big problem in modern Irish politics and it can be difficult to gauge if the fresh-faced new recruit is well positioned to replace the party stalwart who decided to step down.

A lot of Fianna Fail's top performers in local politics were promoted to the Dail after the 2016 General Election and those co-opted into their seats are untested with the public. However, they will naturally have the endorsement of their local TD.

Sinn Fein is also facing into a tricky election after spending two years engulfed in a high-profile controversy over allegations of bullying within its local party apparatus.

During a two-year period up to the summer of 2018, Sinn Fein saw a total of 37 local representatives step down from their seats. This included 10 leaving for personal reasons while five were expelled, eight resigned and a further 14 quit amid accusations of bullying.

Many of those who quit are running in the local elections for other parties or as Independent candidates. Sinn Fein had a good election campaign in 2014 but now it will find itself up against former candidates who have built up their profile by taking on Mary Lou McDonald's party.

The anointed party leader could find herself being forced to answer some difficult questions by its shadowy backroom overlords if she again fails to impress at the polls after the disastrous presidential election campaign. McDonald will probably take some solace in returning four MEPs in the European elections but in reality the local elections will be more telling of the party's overall standing with the electorate ahead of a national poll either this year or next.

Certain sections of society have developed an environmental conscience in recent years which will probably help the Green Party increase its presence on local authorities.

People like to vote Green during times of prosperity but that will probably change rapidly once the party starts seeking to impose carbon taxes on taxpayers.

The Labour Party might see a slight bounce too as the palatable party of the left for people who want to vote progressive but not Green.

The mix-match bag of hard-left protest parties might find themselves squeezed next weekend. They did well off the back of the water charges protest but have proved to be disruptive rather than productive in council chambers.

Independents could have a good election despite national polls showing a drop in public support for non-aligned candidates. As one Fianna Fail TD put it last week, it is a "very local local election" so the issues being debated are quite defined depending on the area. Independent candidates are at times one-issue politicians but it's generally an issue which strikes a chord with their electorate.

Five years ago, the country was convulsed by the Government's botched introduction of water charges and repulsed by its callous policy on discretionary medical cards. The two issues dominated the campaign but there is no singular issue this time out.

Broadband is coming up on the doors but it certainly hasn't resonated in the same way as water charges did. The Bus Connects plan in Dublin is the main issue which could damage Fine Gael in the capital.

Local elections are supposed to be bellwethers ahead of national polls but next week's vote will probably tell us what we already now - that there is very little between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent

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