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Count staff member Cian O'Connor (left), from Douglas Co Cork, wearing a different novelty T-shirt for each day during vote counting in Ireland's European elections at the Cork count centre. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Opinion Right-wing politicians will see that slating the system is easier than working within it

Larry Donnelly looks at the busy week in political life and shares his key takeaways.

FIRST, WHITHER SINN FÉIN, is the question being posed by political observers across this island and beyond. Friday, 7 June, was a bad day for the party, whose backing had soared to 36% in 2022, yet whose standard bearers in the European and local elections received approximately 12%.

Unusually, stories abound of widespread internal discontent, with activists and losing candidates openly interrogating strategy and even the position of Mary Lou McDonald.

There is no doubt that Sinn Féin has tumbled steadily in the opinion surveys since the razor sharp focus of the media and the citizenry on housing shifted markedly to immigration in the wake of the arrival of 100,000+ Ukrainians and a sizeable swathe of international protection seekers. Then, concerns were heightened following the Dublin riots last November.

The influence of the right

There is no doubt that McDonald and Co have been squeezed from the right – anti-immigration elements of its working class base abandoned it – and the left – young people, especially, who gravitated to Sinn Féin primarily because of the housing crisis and the persuasive advocacy of Eoin Ó Broin, are dismayed at what they perceive as a disavowal of liberal values.

As they “reflect and rebuild” in Ó Broin’s words, it seems to me that any move for personnel change is improbable and would be misguided. In terms of policy and messaging, there does not appear to be a clearly identifiable, obviously advantageous plan of action; “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” springs to mind. Greater clarity of intent – regardless of which direction they go in on immigration or on any other topic in the aftermath of a campaign during which prominent Sinn Féin representatives were not always on the same page – is advisable.

They should stay mindful in these necessary deliberations of one truth above all that this outcome has confirmed: Ireland’s electorate is extremely volatile. Their party’s contrasting fortunes in 2019, 2020 and today demonstrate it. And it would be unwise to extrapolate excessively from this second order contest, given that exit polling conducted by Kevin Cunningham of TU Dublin indicates that 43% opted for a local election hopeful in a party different to their preferred general election party.

Second, did the far right really rise? Astute commenters had speculated that aspirants who took the government to task for its support for accepting newcomers, recent failed constitutional referendums, hate speech legislation and social progressivism more broadly would win numerous seats on county and city councils and possibly procure a spot or two in the European Parliament.

Prior to assessing their performance, language is important here. The “far right” moniker is utilised with often reckless abandon. For instance, it is erroneous to affix the label, as many on the left are prone to do, to the Independent Ireland grouping, which is not anti-immigrant, though it is critical of the government on immigration, or to Aontú, simply on the basis that Peadar Tóibín’s fledgling entity is against abortion.

The meaning of far right

Let’s consider the fortunes of those who can legitimately be described as far right. They did not make the breakthrough in the locals that some forecast. Only a handful ultimately prevailed. It will be interesting to monitor how efficacious they will be on behalf of those who put their trust in them now that they are actually in the arena. As Malachy Steenson, Gavin Pepper and their fellow travellers will soon discover if they don’t know it already, it’s a lot easier to throw stones from the sidelines than to operate within the system.

At European level, they may have been spread among an array of agitators, yet many did give their first, or a high, preference to the far right. The tens of thousands of votes garnered by Derek Blighe in the South constituency are equally noteworthy, surprising and alarming.

In an overarching sense, there was not an uprising, but there was not a repudiation. Watch that space. The Irish far right’s future viability will depend to a large extent on whether its disparate figures can form a cohesive movement and rally around a capable leader.

PR-STV

Third, and I recognise that this will invoke the ire of traditionalists, the counting takes too long. While the entire process was alien to me as I carefully looked on at my first general election here in 2002, I have come to love the drama and intrigue of a count as much as any seasoned Irish political anorak. I enjoy them and the concomitant conjecture as to where transfers will go immensely. And I wholeheartedly endorse the superiority of the PRSTV method to the “first past the post” system in the United States and the United Kingdom for a host of reasons.

On this occasion, however, it was ridiculous. Having to wait nearly a week for a result in 2024 is bizarre and punishingly cruel to the candidates and their loved ones. As political scientists have asserted, it may prove detrimental to the new members of the European Parliament. They were lingering in Castlebar, Cork and Dublin. Their continental colleagues were acquainting themselves with their novel roles and surrounds.

Several ideas to expedite things have been mooted on Twitter/X. His Election Excellency, Gavan Reilly of Virgin Media, proposes an elegant solution. “1) Paper voting. 2) Human sorting. 3) Machine counting, like a bank teller machine. Doesn’t remove the human oversight, still allows for manual backup in the event of mistrust, but allows quicker totting up of huge stacks of paper.” The Electoral Commission should examine its feasibility.

Election

Fourth, there is the matter of the date for a general election. The dominant view currently is that the Taoiseach would be foolish not to go to the nation in October or November. The thinking is that Sinn Féin is on the ropes, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are doing pretty well and canvassing in early 2025 when the nights are short, people are broke and the weather is miserable would be nightmarish.

Their arguments are difficult to assail. That said, Simon Harris – who, in my estimation, has bolstered Fine Gael and, accordingly, the government since assuming office – is adamant that he will go the distance. Rumours that by-elections necessitated by the moves of sitting TDs to Europe will be held in September suggest that he is not bluffing.

To this, I might add the point, albeit anecdotal, that everywhere I look, new housing of all types is being built. Friends say the same about their areas. This remains the top issue and one Sinn Féin et al will be endeavouring to restore the focus on. The more individuals, couples and families who get the keys to a home before an election is called, the less impactful the attacks on the government’s track record on housing.

I’ve believed for months that the general election will be in late February or early March of 2025. And I’m still not fully convinced by the admittedly compelling rationale articulated by the vast majority of pundits to the contrary. Either way, fascinating times lie ahead.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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