Winners and losers in the Irish local and European elections

So what are the long term trends in Irish local election results?

Much has been written about the Irish local and European election results, but mostly from a very partisan perspective. There is nothing much wrong with that except that it is very prone to wishful thinking: people see what they want to see and emphasize those aspects which favour their preferred party or political perspective.

Thus, David Moane delighted in Sinn Féin’s disappointing results and suggested it heralded the party’s demise as a major player at least south of the border. Indeed, he suggested it should now retreat to its Northern Ireland bailiwick, as if it were some kind of malignant foreign invader or intruder into the south’s political space. Indeed, he made no bones about his hatred of Northern nationalism generally.

Andy Pollack was similarly delighted, but mostly from the point of view of fostering reconciliation with northern unionists, who he suggested would be more favourably disposed to working with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But with the DUP having boycotted strand 2 as well as strand 1 of the Good Friday Agreement and having refused to work with a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil led government, it is difficult to see how that would be the case.

Una Mullally suggested it was all because Sinn Féin had shed its radical roots and become indistinguishable from the middle class centre right establishment parties. She suggested Sinn Féin should now try to form an alliance of the parties of the left to offer a distinctively different left of centre policy mix to the electorate at the forthcoming general election. The fact that Labour and the Social Democrats won’t touch Sinn Féin with a barge poll seems to have escaped her attention.

Most, in my view, made too much of elections which were primarily about local and European issues, and were not about forming a new government, promoting a united Ireland, or engaging with unionism. The turnout was also much lower than at a general election, and thus it was only those more politically engaged or exercised by local issues who determined the result. Research has shown that people vote for the qualities of the candidate, rather than their party designation in local elections.

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And thus it was the independents and smaller parties of various hues focused on local issues who were the primary winners, and particularly those who articulated local concerns about uncontrolled immigration, lack of housing, and pressures on public services. Out and out far right or racist parties made little headway, however, and indeed more councillors from immigrant backgrounds (21) were elected than for the far right Irish Freedom party and Irish National party who won precisely one seat each  out of the 949 on offer.

The more amorphous but generally conservative Independent Ireland Party is made up of a diverse coalition of independents who seek to provide an alternative to Fine Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin and won 23 council seats.

But what are the long term trends in voting patterns?

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As shown in the graphic above, the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vote has continued its long term decline from 67% in 1999 to 46% in 2024. The Sinn Féin vote, on the other hand, has only once previously reached double figures in that period and increased from 9% in 2019 to 12% in 2024. Meanwhile votes in excess of 20% for independents are not uncommon in local elections and the Labour vote has declined to less than half in recent elections.

So why is everybody lauding the results as a disaster for Sinn Féin? The answer is that it is all about the framing. Sinn Féin’s results are being compared to their performance in various opinion polls where they peaked at 36% two years ago rather than what they actually achieved last time out. But those opinion polls are generally about voting intentions in a general election, and it must be remembered that Sinn Féin almost trebled their vote in the general election which followed the last local and European elections.

To be fair, the media can’t be entirely blamed for this. When Sinn Féin were riding high in the polls, Sinn Féin and their supporters worked hard at creating a narrative that they were a government in waiting and the almost inevitable leaders of the next government. In that context, 12% is a disastrous result.

In vain, analysts like myself pointed out that Sinn Féin would have to achieve greatly in excess of 25-30% of the first preference vote to form the next government, as no other party had indicated a willingness to form a coalition with them. Yes, some independents might be persuaded to do local deals, but Sinn Fein would have to be within shouting distance of an overall majority to outvote the massed ranks of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens, Labour and the Social democrats in the Dáil.

Sinn Féin activists continued to peddle the line that somehow Fianna Fáil could be persuaded to become their junior partner in government. Perhaps so, but it would be the last time Fianna Fail would be a significant player in Irish politics. Being a junior partner in Government has destroyed Labour, the Progressive Democrats, and the Greens in the past. You get all the blame for failures, and none of the kudus for success.

Somehow, I couldn’t see Fianna Fail committing political suicide. “Vote Fianna Fáil, get Sinn Féin” would be the rallying cry for every other party at the following election. With an aging membership and voter profile as it is, there might be no coming back for Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael would have the centre right ground all to themselves.


European Election results

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Again, the narrative that the election was a disaster for Sinn Féin is not born out by the facts: Compared to 2019, their vote was static in the 11-12% range. Fine Gael lost almost 9% of their vote while Fianna Fáil gained almost 4%. (Imagine the headlines had Sinn Féin lost 9%! But the Fine Gael loss has been hardly mentioned).

The Green party vote more than halved from 11 to 5% and the big winner was Ciaran Mullooly, of Independent Ireland, who took a seat formerly held by Sinn Féin. However, he has stated that he does not share some conservative views evinced by Independence Ireland members, has declared himself a centrist, and said he will not be joining the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the Parliament.

If there was a particular trend discernible in the European elections, it was the rejection of “Putin apologist” incumbents like Claire Daly and Mick Wallace. Nigel Farage take note! The Greens also suffered two defeats as climate change took a back seat to other concerns among the electorate, very much in line with trends throughout Europe. But as in Ireland, there was no major swing to the hard right in Europe, even if the media narrative would have you believe otherwise.

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The centre right EPP actually increased its seats from 176 to 189 and is in the driving seat when it comes to selecting the next Presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, much to the chagrin of more right wing leaders like Giorgia Meloni, Prime Minister of Italy. The socialists retained their place as the second largest grouping, losing just 3 seats from 139 to 136. The more right wing Renew Europe group lost 28 seats from 102 to 74 while the European Conservatives and reformists group gained 14 seats and the Identity and Democracy group gained 9. The Greens lost 20 seats from 71 to 51 – including two in Ireland, while the Left made marginal gains from 37 to 39 seats.

So where is the huge swing to the hard right?


So, what is the significance of the overall results in the elections? Firstly, voters often vote for candidates rather than parties in local elections. They want someone they know personally and can contact if they have a problem. Again, the research shows that more voters met or knew Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates than anyone else. Sinn Féin’s ground game does not appear to be as good in the south as the north.

But overall, the combined vote of the “establishment parties”, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, continued its long term decline. While Sinn Féin gained some ground in the local elections, they remained short of their 15% peak in 2014. Undoubtedly, the elections have been a PR disaster for Sinn Féin and will put an end to the narrative that they will inevitably lead the next government. The fatalism surrounding the current government parties will have dissipated, and they will now believe that its all to play for.

A rebound for Sinn Féin as in 2020 when they went from 9% in the 2019 locals to 25% in the general election is anything but guaranteed, but a lot depends on whether the government is perceived as making progress on housing, immigration, and public healthcare. If not, the public mood may well swing to giving the other lot a chance, and the many mis-steps under Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership will be forgotten.

The Irish electorate can be pretty ruthless with any government seen as tired, unfocused, and living on past glories. It is a case of deliver or else. People need to know that long-standing problems have solutions, and that progress is being made. Otherwise, they will feel they have little to lose by giving Sinn Féin a chance to show what they can do. That may be a mistaken assumption. As those who voted for Brexit found to their cost, things can always get worse, but claiming the opposition will do an even worse job tends not to be a winning campaign slogan.

But those who claim that Finn Féin are a busted flush south of the border are letting one disappointing result do an awful lot of work. We will need a lot more data points to declare that “peak Sinn Féin” has been reached – something like the continuing downward trend we can see all so obviously in the combined Fianna Fáil Fine Gael vote over a sustained period of time. Those lost votes have to go somewhere, but to date they have been going all over the place, and a general election is an altogether different ball-game.


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