Guest Post: Ireland 2014
David J. Barrett contributed this excellent guest post covering the results of the European and local elections in Ireland
The Irish European and Local elections, along with two parliamentary by-elections, took place on May 23rd. They were the first truly major nationwide polling test of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that took office in 2011, when the financial collapse and subsequent involvement of the IMF finally brought down the increasingly beleaguered Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.
Since the General Election
The new Fine Gael-Labour government, elected amidst a tidal wave of popular anger that brought Fianna Fáil, the largest party in the Irish state in every election from 1932, to third and behind both of the new coalition partners, had considerable good will towards it. Led by Enda Kenny, the long standing Fine Gael leader (since 2002) and a former Minister for Tourism, the government had a crushing parliamentary majority. There were indications that the government could prove fractious. Labour, a Social Democratic party, had largely campaigned against excessive cuts to public services, while Fine Gael, a Christian Democratic party, had made it very clear that they were in favour of implementing the proposed austerity budgets negotiated by their predecessors, even if they were not very happy with it. The final coalition agreement, while containing commitments to several socially liberal reforms that pleased Labour, largely followed the Fine Gael line on the economy.
The government has trumpeted its economic success. Unemployment has fallen steadily (but remains very high), Ireland has left the bailout program and its bonds are no longer rated as ‘junk’. However little of this has, or is expected to, reach the general public. Emigration, particularly to Britain and Australia, remains enormous. Taxes are now among Europe’s highest, public services are rated as mediocre at best compared to other European countries and, most importantly, there is absolutely no sign that anything other than tax increases and budget cuts will be on the cards at all for at least another ten years, making it hard for the public to feel optimistic for an economic recovery that is unlikely to benefit them at all.
Inevitably therefore, this enormous popularity was not to last, and the government as its term has gone on has suffered increasing domestic setbacks. They were most obviously felt by Labour, which began to suffer enormously from (effectively) conceding the economy to Fine Gael. While immediately following the General Election Labour won both the Presidential election and a by-election in Dublin West – the constituency held by the Labour Deputy Leader Joan Burton – the party has increasingly suffered from defections and resignations the longer it has been in government. In November 2011 – six months after taking office – popular junior minister Willie Penrose had resigned from the party over the relocation of an army barracks in his constituency. He was followed one month later by the resignations of two backbenchers over the austerity proposed in the budget, with one the resignations being Patrick Nulty – the newly elected deputy for Dublin West. In September 2012 another junior minister, Roisin Shortall, a senior party figure who was considered a strong contender for a cabinet post, resigned from the party and government over disagreements with the Fine Gael Minister for Health James Reilly following perceived favouritism of his constituency in health resource allocation. In December of that year another backbencher resigned over the budget, eventually joining Fianna Fáil, and in June 2013 MEP Nessa Childers resigned as well, saying that she “no longer wanted to support a Government that is actually hurting people”. Throughout all of this time the party suffered the loss of a steady stream of local councillors, most of whom resigning from the party with issues of the support of the party leadership for austerity.
Labour’s poll rating fell steadily, from roughly the 19% it received in the general election of 2011 to 9-10% by 2014, and a clear fourth place in the polls, behind Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. In March 2013 the party suffered a crushing defeat in the Meath East by-election – a largely commuter belt constituency where the party had received 21% in 2011 – winning a mere 4.6% of the vote. In spite of all of this Labour’s woes were certainly not the biggest challenge facing the government.
Kenny, having survived a challenge to his leadership in 2010 by his Deputy Leader Richard Bruton, began to surround himself with those figures in Fine Gael who stood by him in that time, and appointed all of them to senior cabinet posts. Unfortunately, it was these figures that began to cause the government the most trouble. A referendum on Children’s Rights that passed in 2012 still has not been signed into law because the Minister for Children used departmental money to promote the referendum – which is unconstitutional in Ireland and resulted in a legal challenge to its validity. Environment Minister Phil Hogan was responsible for the implementation of water and property taxes nationwide, which has made him a lightning rod for public anger. Health Minister and Fine Gael Deputy Leader James Reilly, in addition to negative press over favouring his constituency, has been plagued by a series of news reports discussing cost overruns in his department and for his botched removal of certain medical cards (which provide free medical care to needy groups, such as pensioners, those in poverty and certain chronic illnesses), with his department supposedly taking cards away from individuals with terminal cancer and down syndrome on the basis that they were unneeded. Furthermore his flagship policy – free medical care for children under six, has proven surprisingly unpopular as people perceive the money for it to be taken off other aspects of the health service.
However it was Justice Minister Alan Shatter that caused the most problems. While widely respected as an excellent legislator and an advocate for liberal reforms such as the legalisation of divorce early on in his career, he is also regarded as arrogant and difficult to work with. A scandal erupted in February 2014 involving the bugging of the Gardai Siochana Ombudsman Commission, the body responsible for investigating claims of malpractice by members of the police service, with equipment sophisticated enough that they had to have come from another government agency. Following this and allegations made about police malpractice Shatter and the Garda (Police) Commissioner were forced to resign only a little over three weeks before the elections were due to take place.
However it was not only the government that was suffering problems. Both of the main opposition parties had issues going into the election campaign. On the 30th of April 2014 the leader of Sinn Féin (SF), a left wing and nationalist party with historic links to the IRA, was arrested for involvement with the murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, in Belfast in 1972. McConville was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA for being thought to be a British informer, but was subsequently posthumously acquitted. Adams has long been linked to the murder but has never been formally connected to it until new evidence emerged from an oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict conducted in Boston College, Massachusetts. While he was released without charges brought against him three days later it was thought that this would remind people of SF’s past, and bring its association with conflict back into the minds of voters. However it did not notably impact on the polls.
Fianna Fáil (FF), a centrist party with populist leanings, also had problems with the past after it emerged that Mary Hanafin, a former Deputy Leader of the party and cabinet minister who was defeated in the 2011 election wipeout, had been nominated to contest the local elections in Blackrock, an affluent suburb in the south of Dublin. While the party initially denied it, and said that she was running on her own, it transpired that she had received the necessary paperwork from the party general secretary to be a party candidate. This caused quite a degree of anger, as Hanafin was strongly associated with the last FF government, which FF was trying to distance itself from. Eventually the party compromised by saying that they were only acknowledging the other candidate as an official candidate. It should be noted though that despite the huge news coverage this provoked, the party quite quietly ran several other former deputies defeated in 2011, such as Charlie O’Connor in Tallaght, a working-class Dublin suburb, and Margaret Conlon in Monaghan, a rural county on the border with Northern Ireland.
In addition to the regularly scheduled local and European elections two by-elections were also held. The first was held for the tragic death of Nicky McFadden, a Fine Gael deputy for the rural midlands constituency of Longford-Westmeath, of Motor Neuron disease. The second was held following the resignation of Patrick Nulty, elected as a Labour deputy but now an independent, in Dublin West, a working class commuter belt constituency. Nulty himself was elected in a by-election earlier on this parliamentary term, and resigned over inappropriate messages sent to constituents over Facebook.
The Campaign, candidates and elections in Ireland
Ireland uses PR-STV to count elections. This is a proportional system where voters rank candidates, and not parties, in the order of their preference – eliminating the bottom ranked candidates and distributing their preferences until all of the seats are filled (more details can be found on Wikipedia) . Ballot papers are often very long.
The Dublin ballot paper for the European parliament election
Election campaigns in Ireland are highly personalistic. The single best thing that politicians can do to win votes is regarded as knocking on people’s doors and personally meeting them (called canvassing). Parties put up posters, giving their candidates, and rarely their party, prominence on every lamppost (a selection are on the right and left).
For European elections profile is considered crucial however, as the constituencies are considered far too large for canvassing. The parties therefore place great care on who they nominate. There are three constituencies for the European Parliament – the three-seater Dublin, South, a four seater containing most areas south of the capital, including Ireland’s second city of Cork. Midlands-North West, another four-seater, contained the central rural counties, the border with Northern Ireland and most of the Western seaboard.
In Dublin Fine Gael nominated Brian Hayes, a prominent junior minister. Labour nominated their incumbent MEP Emer Costello, a replacement for the previous elected MEP, and Fianna Fáil nominated local councillor Mary Fitzpatrick, who was well known for her acrimonious relationship with former Taoiseach Berie Ahern, and was widely regarded as having her election hopes in 2007 personally sabotaged by him in spite of them being on the same party ticket. FF evidently hoped that nominating someone with such a clear association against the old party leadership would stand to them. SF however nominated the almost completely unknown Lynn Boylan, an ecologist. For the minor parties the far-left Socialist Party nominated its sitting MEP Paul Murphy, who replaced party leader Joe Higgins upon his election to parliament. The Green Party nominated party leader Eamon Ryan, a former cabinet minister now without a seat in parliament following their collapse, and People Before Profit, a minor Trotskyist umbrella group, nominated local councillor Brid Smith. Among the more notable independent for the area was MEP Nessa Childers, formerly of Labour. Polls indicated that Boylan and Hayes would take the first two seats for Dublin, with the final seat competitive between all other candidates, with Fitzpatrick, Childers and Ryan being somewhat ahead of Costello, Murphy and Smith.
In South Fine Gael nominated outgoing MEP Sean Kelly, Senator Deirdre Clune, member of a political dynasty in Cork, and deputy Simon Harris, based just south of Dublin. Fianna Fáil nominated immensely popular incumbent Brian Crowley, a socially conservative figure, and Kieran Hartley, an anti-pylon campaigner. Labour nominated incumbent Phil Prendergast, who was expected to struggle, and SF nominated Liadh Ní Riada, the party’s Irish language officer, who has never previously run for office. The other candidates were the Green’s Grace O’Sullivan, a Greenpeace activist, and independent Diarmaid O’Flynn. Crowley was considered almost certain to be the biggest vote winner nationally, and Kelly and Ní Riada also considered certain to be elected. The last seat was considered to be an internal battle between Fine Gael’s Clune and Harris.
In the sprawling Midlands-North West Fine Gael nominated their outgoing MEPs Mairead McGuinness and Jim Higgins, FF nominated outgoing MEP Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher and Senator Thomas Byrne. SF nominated Monaghan councillor Matt Carthy, Labour ran long-shot candidate Senator Lorraine Higgins and the Greens ran former senator Mark Dearey. Additionally a number of independents ran in the region, ensuring a lively contest there. Outgoing independent MEP Marian Harkin, regarded as a centrist, ran to hold her seat. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (nicknamed such because of his supposed resemblance to supervillain Ming the Merciless), a deputy for Roscommon and an eccentric figure in Irish politics, ran on a Eurosceptic platform that criticised EU protection of bogs and marshes (as in rural Ireland they are often dug up for fuel). In Ireland however he is best known for his advocation of the legalisation of cannabis. Additionally independent Senator Ronan Mullen was a candidate. He is well known for his vociferous opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Most polls agreed that McGuinness and Carthy were certainties, and that Flanagan was polling competitively, and would be in the reckoning with Gallagher and Harkin for the final two seats.
In the Dublin West by-election most candidates were the same as the last by-election in the area, and were local councillors. The seat was regarded as competitive between FF and the minor Socialist Party, which has a strong base in the area. The Longford-Westmeath by-election had Fine Gael nominate the sister of the deceased deputy, and FF nominated the son of a former deputy for the area, both hoping to capitalise on dynastic goodwill in the area. The seat was regarded as competitive between the pair of them, with Labour and SF far behind.
While both Martin Schultz (the PES candidate for EU commission president) and Ska Keller (the Green candidate for the same post) did campaign in Dublin, Irish voters would be forgiven for not knowing this, seeing as it received no news coverage. The campaigns stayed remarkably parochial and focused on local concerns that had little to do with the European parliament, the most notable of which was the Socialist Party renaming itself as the ‘Stop the Water Tax-Socialist Party’ for the election (creating the amusing situation in Ireland of the far-left campaigning against water and property taxes which the right does not oppose), which is something that the European Parliament has no power over.
It was widely expected in the local elections that Labour would do very badly, although some of the worst damage might be mitigated due to local government reforms. Environment Minister Hogan stipulated that all local wards must have at least six seats, which meant that many wards were merged. He also tried to address the population imbalance of local councillors, which meant taking seats away from rural areas and giving them to urban ones, and particularly Dublin, where most of Labour’s seats are. He also increased the overall number of councillors in compensation for the abolition of town councils, a largely powerless layer of local government just below the county councils that the election was for.
For the local elections the ward of Ballybay-Clones, in Monaghan, has not voted yet owing to the death of one of the local councillors in the polling station, so there are six more seats to be filled.
Turnout: 52.44% (-6.2%)
MEPs: 11 (-1) in 3 multi-member constutiencies
Electoral system: STV
Fianna Fáil (ALDE) 22.3% (-1.8) – 1 (-2)
Fine Gael (EPP) 22.3% (-6.8) – 4 (nc)
Sinn Féin (GUE-NGL) 19.5% (+8.3) – 3 (+3)
Labour (PES) 5.3% (-8.6) – 0 (-3)
Green Party (G-EFA) 4.9% (+3) – 0 (nc)
Socialist Party (GUE-NGL) – 1.8% (-0.9) – 0 (-1)
People Before Profit – 1.5% (+1.5) – 0 (nc)
Independents and others – 22.4% (+10.9) – 3 (+2)
Full count details available at ElectionsIreland.org.
Fianna Fáil – 25.3% (-0.1) – 266 (+48)
Fine Gael – 24.0% (-8.2) – 232 (-108)
Sinn Féin – 15.2% (+7.8) – 157 (+103)
Labour – 7.2% (-7.5) – 51 (-81)
Green Party – 1.6% (-0.7) – 12 (+9)
People Before Profit – 1.7% (+0.8) – 14 (+9)
Socialist Party – 1.3% (+0.4) – 14 (+10)
Independents and Others – 23.7% (+7.4) – 198 (+69)
Newly elected Green councillor Claire Byrne made quite a good series of graphics for each local election result, helping to visualise the process of a PR-STV count for those who are not used to it.
The results of both the Local and European elections were catastrophic for the government. Both governmental parties performed worse than any poll predicted. Labour’s dreadful showing was both predicted and still shocking for the party. It was not even competitive for a European seat – with all three of their candidates going out of the count very early on. However it was in the local elections that Labour’s nightmare became clear.
Labour had long been relying on a local vote for its councillors – counting on its local members being much more popular than the party nationally and therefore able to withstand the pressure of the electorate, much like FF were hoping in the 2011 General Election. Like FF, they were bitterly disappointed. An initial early projection had the party winning as few as 39 seats nationally based on an exit poll, and early indications seemed to bear that out, with initial expectations suggesting that the party may elect as few as three members on Dublin City Council, where they had 18 outgoing councillors. The final results were somewhat better, as the party scraped through to hold a number of seats by narrow margins, with eight survivors in Dublin City. Nonetheless, their result was appalling. The party was reduced to only two seats from 86 in Cork City and county – an area where they have four parliamentary deputies – and were entirely eradicated in Cork City and Waterford City. In Wicklow, a commuter county south of Dublin that was a long-time stronghold for Labour, the party won no seats and only 3% of the vote. In working class Dublin the party was nearly totally obliterated. It returned only one councillor with a constituency average of 13% within Dublin South Central, a very deprived area where the party won 35% and two members of parliament in 2011. It went from 28% in the General Election to 11%, and no councillors, in Dublin Central – where the Minister for International Development has his seat.
The party held up somewhat better in middle class areas and in some of their more rural strongholds, although even here success could be measured in holding seats rather than gaining them. It still won 18% in the Dublin Bay South constituency, which contains mostly wealthy and well educated professionals and is a stronghold for socially liberal politics. The party sensationally held on to a seat in Clontarf – a middle class suburb without the more bohemian elements that characterise Dublin Bay South that the party has had difficulty winning even on good days. In the wealthy suburbs to the south of Dublin City, in Dun Laoighaire-Rathdown, the party only lost one seat on the whole council to leave them with seven. In their rural strongholds in the South-East of the country the party also had credible performances. In rural Carlow and Kilkenny, the party won 13% and 11% of the vote – more than sufficient to hold their parliamentary representation there, and the party clung to representation in rural Wexford and Waterford (where, as already mentioned, their heavy losses were actually in Waterford City, where they should do much better). The party is starting to resemble the Liberal Democrats in Britain – with strength in certain rural pockets and among the liberal middle class, and not among the working class that they claim to represent.
Fine Gael’s election was also awful – although somewhat disguised by how badly Labour did and the fact that they held all four of their European seats. No poll had the party coming in second, and the party’s losses in some areas were quite severe. The party failed to return representation in Dublin South Central (which may be becoming a government blackspot) and also suffered heavy losses in Donegal, a border county in the North that always feels as though the government is treating it badly, and Mayo, the constituency of the Taoiseach Enda Kenny – where his brother came extremely close to losing his council seat. What seems to have hurt the party most is extremely poor candidate strategies at local level. The party seemed to be planning on the basis that they would perform much better than polls predicted that they would – and not worse. Apparently the party was planning on an electoral bounce from leaving the bailout program that never actually materialised. In Bray for instance, a Dublin commuter town, the party ran three candidates and only had one electoral quota between them – almost causing the party return no representative there.
By contrast in Europe and the by-elections the party has reason to be pleased, in spite of the defeat of long-time MEP Jim Higgins. In spite of finishing about 400 votes behind FF in the national vote total it won four seats to the one won by its great rival. It achieved this by good vote management and candidate selection. Its lone candidate in Dublin, junior minister Brian Hayes, polled better than the party did in the local elections, and scraped in, probably on his high profile. While Jim Higgins was defeated in Midlands-North West Mairead McGuinness won quite easily there, and in South the party managed to get both Kelly and Clune elected with significantly fewer votes than FF – who only won one seat there. They managed this by having a fairly even split between their candidates, meaning that they tended to avoid being eliminated early in the count. Additionally the party held Longford-Westmeath fairly easily, making this the third time out of four the government has won a by-election (before this parliamentary term no government had won or held a seat in a by-election since 1982).
FF’s feelings about their result are probably mixed. On the one hand it is clearly the largest party in local government again. On the other hand the party has legitimate reason to be disappointed. It actually lost votes on its last, awful, local election performance and many of its gains could be attributed to how badly Fine Gael and Labour did than by a popular mandate for FF. What the party has most reason to be pleased about was its modest recovery in Dublin, where the party currently has no parliamentary representation and where its decline was starting to look terminal. It placed second in the Dublin West by-election – easily ahead of both government parties and it took nine seats on Dublin City Council and came second, and won a seat in all bar one ward on the City Council (which was more than either Fine Gael or Labour managed on either count). Both Hanafin and the ‘official’ party candidate won in Blackrock despite the controversy of her candidature, which clearly did not hurt the party, and is one more seat than the party had any reason to expect in the ward. It is the largest party on numerous councils that are very different from each other, from republican and border county Donegal to prosperous Dublin commuter belt in Kildare. More disappointingly, the party failed to win long-time strongholds like Kerry and Galway, and placed second in the Longford-Westmeath by-election – which is usually reasonable territory for them. Nonetheless, the party has, since the 2004 local elections, lost 164 county council seats, with 84 gone in 2009 alone. This gain of 48 seats in no way compensates for this loss. The party still has a long way to go towards complete recovery, but it may have stopped the rot.
In Europe however the party has most reason to be disappointed. In spite of actually winning the largest number of votes nationally, it only won a single seat – that of Brian Crowley in South. This places it behind both Fine Gael and SF. The reason for this can be seen in awful strategy and vote management. Their candidate in Dublin actually placed third on the first count, but was overtaken by both the Greens and independent MEP Nessa Childers as the count went on, and placed fifth. While certainly a credible performance that has placed their candidate well for a parliamentary seat when the next general election is called, they will still be disappointed with the result. In South Crowley seems to have refused to share his vote or engaged in any kind of disciplined constituency split that Fine Gael undertook, causing the party to lose a seat that, by all rights and even by vote share, they should have won. This is a problem the party has had before at parliamentary level, with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and cabinet minister Willie O’Dea running away with astronomical vote totals, only to leave the other party candidates in the dust with far too few votes to win a seat. However it is Midlands-North West that is most bitter for the party. In spite of polls always showing that it was possible and the insistence of the MEP Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher that his seat was in no way secure, the party still seemed shocked when he lost the final seat by a mere 275 votes. While the constituency was undoubtedly crowded with lots of strong candidates, it seems to have been a huge error to run two candidates – allowing Marian Harkin to assemble a strong lead on early eliminations that transpired to be, just about, unassailable. The party needs to have a long, hard look at its strategy. It lost two seats which it had the votes for – one because it could not impose a constituency division or vote split on a sitting MEP, another because it could, but the ensuing vote split meant that their lead candidate had just too much ground to make up.
Sinn Féin is, understandably, delighted at its result and is certainly the clear winner of the election. All three of its European candidates won and won well, including coming first in Dublin. On Dublin City Council only two of its candidates failed to be elected. The party is now without seats in only four wards across the whole Dublin area – and it was unlucky to fail to win in Rathgar-Rathmines. The party finally achieved its breakthrough across middle class Dublin. It topped the poll in Dundrum, considered the epitome of prosperous south Dublin. It won a seat in Killiney, a haunt for old money where Bono lives. It won a seat too in Pembroke-South Dock in another poll-topping performance – the ward containing Ireland’s most expensive addresses and embassy row. In working class area its results were stunning even to the party itself, and it could have won several more seats if it had actually run more candidates in those areas. For instance in exurban and working class Tallaght South the party won over 50% of the vote – which could easily have it won it three or even four of the ward’s six seats, but it only ran two candidates. In Clondalkin, a similar ward, the party had more than three vote quotas between its two candidates. Very unexpectedly, the party placed first on the first count in the Dublin West by-election. Dublin West, in spite of it being largely working class, has always been considered a bad area for the party with the local strength of the Socialist Party, and while the party placed third in the by-election in the end, it is well placed for the future.
Outside of Dublin its performance could be considered good rather than spectacular. It placed a clear third in the Longford-Westmeath by-election, and failed to win the very republican counties of Kerry and Donegal, which on the back of such a strong showing it should have been more competitive in. Nonetheless the party had clear successes. It beat the Labour Party into fourth place in Galway City – where it had previously had no representation. The party placed second in Cork City, with eight seats and clearly ahead of Fine Gael. It won seats in every ward in rural Limerick – one of their worst areas nationally historically. On the back of this kind of performance there are very few areas where SF could fail to be at least competitive in a general election, and the other parties know it. Indeed their rhetoric towards the party has noticeably softened since the results, hinting that they would be willing to consider coalition with them.
It was a good election all round for the three main small parties – the Green Party, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit. The Greens only narrowly missed a European seat in Dublin, and its candidates in other regions performed credibly. While its vote in the local election fell this was because it ran much fewer candidates than last time, and it won twelve seats, a gain of nine. This included a poll-topping performance Rathgar-Rathmines in Dublin – the first time the party has headed any poll anywhere since 1999. It should be noted however that nine of the party’s seats are in the greater Dublin area, including Wicklow, and those that are not are personal fiefdoms in Dundalk and Kilkenny that the party had held even in 2009. It missed seats in Galway and Cork with good candidates, and it must be noted that even their Dublin seats tend to be in areas where the party had won before their collapse. The party seems to have bounced back to where it was before, and it would need to do quite a bit better than this local performance to win any parliamentary seats – but, like FF, it remains on track for recovery.
The Socialists had a mixed day. On the one hand they won the Dublin West by-election and took fourteen council seats, a real breakthrough. On the other hand they lost their European seat in Dublin fairly easily. Taking the by-election sets up their winning candidate Ruth Coppinger to succeed their long-time parliamentarian Joe Higgins, who is retiring, as the Socialist voice in Dublin West. It was always going to be difficult holding the European seat without Higgins as a candidate and, indeed, no poll had the co-opted MEP Paul Murphy as truly competitive for it. The local result was very good. In addition to its usual sweep of council seats in its Dublin West stronghold the party took a seat on Dublin City Council for the first time, and had a breakthrough outside of Dublin –winning three seats in Cork City and three in Limerick.
People Before Profit had similar reason to be pleased. Unlike the Socialists, it never expected to be competitive for Europe so polling well, even if not well enough for a seat, was a pleasant surprise. The party did quite well in the Dublin area – wiping Labour out in Dun Laoghaire ward, the personal base of de-facto party leader Richard Boyd-Barrett, and winning three seats in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council – and only very narrowly losing two other seats to Labour in the area. It also broke through on the other Dublin councils. In Dublin City Council it won five seats – including its first seats on the North side of the city that it usually unofficially ceded to the Socialists. It won fourteen seats overall. Like the Socialists this sets them up to have a full parliamentary delegation come the next general election.
One of the big news stories of the contest though was the success of independent candidates. In Europe their success was particularly high profile. Nessa Childers held her seat in the European Parliament, in spite of moving constituency to Dublin. Europe may too need to get used to Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who did very well in Midlands-North West and took the first seat, and Marian Harkin held off FF to win the last seat in the area. At local level too independents were successful, increasing their representation on virtually all councils. Many independents elected are associated with particular independent parliamentarians, and so resemble a kind of unofficial local party, with such organisations being quite prominent in Kerry, where there are two of them, in Kildare and in Waterford – all places with strong independent deputies. Additionally many councillors formerly members of Labour had spectacularly good elections, placing ahead of the official candidates of the party they left. In spite of the generally good results some of the more established local independents and minor parties did quite badly though. The ‘Lowry Group’ in Tipperary, associated with former Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry who is under a seemingly never-ending corruption investigation – only returned three councillors. The long established ‘Gregory Group’ in Dublin’s North Inner City did not return any official group candidate – although a former group member was elected as an independent. United Left, a micro-left party associated with two far-left parliamentarians that were connected to the Socialists and People Before Profit before, only elected one councillor.
It is probably foolish to talk of independents as one group. Many of the rural independents are about as far removed from the left-wing urban independents as it is possible to be in the Irish political space – but many of these candidates will certainly poll well in a general election, and win seats.
The most immediate consequence of the election was the resignation of Labour’s leader Eamon Gilmore, who resigned rather than be ousted by a group of panicked parliamentarians. Virtually every member of his parliamentary party has announced that they are running for either leader or deputy leader and, whoever wins, is likely to be much more combative than Gilmore over government economic policy. Depending on who it is and what they demand from Fine Gael, this could destabilise the government enough to cause it fall.
Fine Gael, too has been shaken. The party was under the illusion that FF was now so tainted that it could nearly win by default. That is clearly not the case. The party now knows that it will need to fight hard to win a second term in government – something never before achieved by the party. FF, for its part, knows that it may yet have a chance of re-entering government, stabilising nerves.
If SF remain coalition poison, which is becoming less likely but still present for the parties, and independents do as well as this, only a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is likely to be mathematically possible after the next election, something that is likely to finish the junior partner in that alliance utterly. It seems likely that Ireland is entering a period with no truly large parties, and no real political stability.