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Election time

Five big political questions we'll see answered as the local results come rolling in

It’s all over bar the counting.

Local and European Elections-35_90706714 Voters at polling station in Dublin

IF THEY SAY a week is a long time in politics, what about 226 weeks? That’s the length of time since Ireland last voted in an election.

Over the next few days we’ll see 949 council seats filled along with 14 seats in the European Parliament. While that’s important in itself, we’ll also get a clear sense of how the Irish electorate is feeling ahead of a general election.

Something that must happen over the next nine months. 

Ballots in the European elections won’t be announced until tomorrow night and counting may extend into the next few days, so we’re going to focus a little bit on what to look out for as the local election results come in. 

Will it be Independents’ Day? 

Independent Ireland-4_90704178 Richard O'Donoghue, Niall Boylan, and Michael Collins of Independent Ireland.

There have been so many polls released over the past few months that it’s been hard to keep track. Between different polling companies and surveys across both elections, there’s just a lot of numbers and figures to take in. 

One of the clearest trends though has been the apparent strength of independent candidates. The most recent The Journal/Ireland Thinks poll ahead of election day put independents at 23% and ahead in the race for European seats.

In local government, independents already have a strong representation, winning about one in five of all the seats up for grabs in 2019, but there will be many non-aligned candidates hoping to see this increase. 

Interestingly though, the political stage has somewhat shifted in regards independents over the past while.

The emergence of Independent Ireland as a registered party has grouped a number of prominent independents under the same banner, with some candidates being in the position of being grouped with some others they may not agree with politically. 

For example, Ciaran Mullooly, who is running for Independent Ireland, was forced to distance himself from comments made by party leader Michael Collins TD. 

In another era, a so-called celebrity candidate like Mullooly might have thrown his lot in with one of the big parties, but such is the wind behind the sails of independents, perhaps he saw this as the best option. 

In recent days we have also seen the perceived independence of non-aligned representatives being questioned by some opposition parties, with Labour and People Before Profit in particular suggesting that the voting records of many independents in the Dáil show that they often side with the government. 

If indeed it is the case that independents have a good day today, expect this question to be a big one as people speculate about the mathematics of the next Dáil. 

Is Sinn Féin in make or break territory or is this just a warm up?

Sinn Fein Campaign Manifesto-12_90706209 Mary Lou McDonald TD launching the party’s manifesto in Dublin. Sasko Lazarov Sasko Lazarov

Electorally speaking, this may be the biggest question we get an answer on today. 

In the previous local elections in 2019 Sinn Féin had a disastrous day. The party went from having the lion’s share of Dublin City Council (15 seats) to just 8 seats out of 63 and this pattern was matched elsewhere in the country, where it essentially lost half its representation in local councils. 

It was seen as a major blow to a party that had a new leader in place in the form of Mary Lou McDonald and there were post-mortems galore afterwards. 

However, suggestions that the party’s support had peaked were wildly misplaced. Nine months later Sinn Féin won the most first preferences in the general election, a historic first time ever that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael had won the popular vote. 

In the four years since Sinn Féin has become used to topping opinion polls, often by wide margins, but this has shifted in the past year, with the party now slumping back to instead fight for lead with Fine Gael. 

The issue of immigration dominating the campaign clearly hasn’t helped the party, but some of the party’s own members have also said there are other issues at play

Regardless of the reasons, there will certainly be an eagerness in the party to position itself strongly ahead of the general election. Particularly if they’re seeking to use the local elections to springboard some fresh faces towards a run at the Dáil.

In some ways the poor performance in 2019 offers a low base from which they can seek to improve, but if the improvement is only marginal this would certainly represent a concern.

The party put forward 335 candidates in the locals yesterday, it’s still fewer than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but is way up on the 230 or so they had last time. 

In some constituencies there are four Sinn Féin names on the ballot, perhaps a risky strategy in some areas, but with eyes on the general election the party is not going to make the mistake again of running too few. 

Was Leo right to step down and will Simon be tempted to cut and run?

363Fine Gael Ard Fheis_90702892 Harris and Varadkar at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis.

When he announced his shock resignation as taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar felt he was “no longer the right person” to maximise the Fine Gael vote. 

It was a rare candid admission from a political leader but came from a man who had struggled to turn his appeal into electoral success for his party.  

Now, Taoiseach Simon Harris faces the first test of whether he is the “right person” his party is looking for. 

The early signs have been positive, with polls suggesting Fine Gael has risen by three percentage points in the past month. This bump has even led to some suggestions that Harris would use his prerogative to call a general election sooner than the March 2025 deadline.

Asked about this last weekend, Harris again reiterated that there was “a lot of work to do” before he wished to call an election, adding that “there’s a poll taking place on Friday”. 

Now that this poll has been completed, those questions are unlikely to stop if Fine Gael manages to secure some strong results. 

Will the centre-left eat itself and will the Green wave become a Green wipeout? 

951Social Democrats Conferences_90699541 Holly Cairns giving her leaders speech at the Social Democrats National Conference .

The crowded centre-left space has become even more crowded in this election and it throws up a lot of questions about the number of votes to go around. 

While there has been some focus on these elections being the first for Simon Harris as party leader, the same can be said for Holly Cairns at the Social Democrats and Ivana Bacik at Labour. 

Both women are leading their parties for the first time in elections and the locals may provide some important evidence for party strategists ahead of the next general election. 

In the Dáil, the Social Democrats currently hold six seats and Labour seven, a haul that owes a lot to Sinn Fein not running sufficient candidates to benefit from transfers.  

It means that the two parties will be playing defence in the next general election, and in many cases may be fighting each other to hold onto those numbers. 

Polling has frequently put both parties within the margin of error of one another at 4-5% but these elections also throw another factor into the mix. 

The Green Wave that swept Eamon Ryan’s party into government in 2020 first started rising in the local elections in 2019.

The vote saw the party dramatically growing its presence in local government and it coincided with a period in which the global climate action movement found a new face in the form of Greta Thunberg.

Now, after four years in a coalition government in Ireland in which the Greens have been successful in getting policies over the line, they face the perennial challenge of smaller coalition partners in getting squeezed at election time. 

From a support level of 7% in the last general election, the Greens are now polling at around 4% and are therefore fighting with the aforementioned Labour and SocDems. 

With all three parties fighting for the same pool of votes, something may have to give. 

Will there be a far-right breakthrough at local level?  

Immigration Protest-44_90704862 Anti-immigrant protesters in Dublin city centre.

Ireland has never elected a politician from a far-right party, with the best-performing candidate in the 2020 general election getting just 2% of first-preference votes.

Ahead of the local elections, we have seen a number of new parties that have leaned into anti-immigrant sentiment registering with the newly formed Electoral Commission. 

Some of the parties whose rhetoric is heavy with such sentiment are The Irish People, the National Party, the Irish Freedom Party and Ireland First.

Candidates from those parties as well as some independents who have espoused similar views number over 110 across the country, with more than half of the local electoral areas having such a candidate. 

While immigration policies have been central to the debate ahead of the local elections and have been discussed by all parties, the far-right in Ireland and elsewhere present immigration as a kind of cultural pollutant.

They claim that immigrants bring crime to the country and pose a threat to locals, especially women and children. 

Such misleading rhetoric is heard at many of the anti-asylum seeker protests around the country, and many of the agitators that have attended such protests have built up significant profiles on social media.  

Several are running in both the local and European elections, but the chances of being elected at local level is much higher. One of the biggest questions of these local elections is therefore whether this online support has real-word clout. 

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