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  • James Livermore

Irish Local Elections 2024: A glimpse at a new dawn or a reinforcement of the status quo?

Ireland has always been a country with a plethora of political issues. One of the most salient of which has been a housing crisis that has disproportionately affected young people and those on lower incomes. With house prices skyrocketing and rents becoming increasingly unaffordable, predominantly due to the pro-homeowning government policy of the past decades. The Government is currently being torn apart by social divisions driven by the immigration debate, with far-right groups and their vocal supporters starting protests and riots across the country over the past three years, polarising Irish society. While the economy has appeared to be consistently growing, this growth has not led to the increases in living standards for the majority of the population that it may have been expected to, as many in Ireland are currently feeling the pinch of its ongoing cost of living crisis. 

As a result of these crises, the existing Fianna Fáil - Fine Gael - Green Party coalition government has been growing ever more unpopular, which has been met by the previously unthinkable rise of Sinn Féin - who have surged in popularity ever since its success in the 2020 General Election.

On 7th June, Ireland will head to the polls in what could be the beginning of a historic electoral transformation for the country. Local city council and county council elections will be taking place across the country on the same day as Ireland’s European Parliamentary elections, in what promises to be an interesting barometer of the Irish political temperature in advance of the next general election - which has to take place before April 2025. But what will these local elections mean for the country? Will they be used to cast a new beacon of hope onto the ever-stagnant and alienating Irish political landscape, or will the results prove to be a depressing reinforcement of the political status quo?

The aforementioned growth of popularity for Sinn Féin has been largely unexpected and worrying for supporters of the status quo in Irish politics. Either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael have led every government in Ireland since the 1930s, with both representing a similarly centrist/centre-right tradition - with both parties in fact governing together since the 2016 and 2020 General Elections.

However, this consensus is looking to be broken by Sinn Féin who managed to become the second largest party in the Dáil (legislature) in the 2020 General Election. Sinn Féin represents a differing agenda to the Fianna Fáil - Fine Gael status quo in Irish politics. Its historic links with the IRA had previously made it a pariah in Irish politics, never exceeding 15% of the vote in general elections. This has made its resurgence and rebranding in recent years all the more remarkable. Under the premiership of Mary Lou McDonald, the party has become the left-wing home of voters dissatisfied with the status quo in Ireland. Sinn Féin has offered popular policies such as a large-scale house building program and widespread increases in government spending. This led to the shock result of the 2020 election in which the party got the most first-preference votes and ended up being the second-biggest party in the Dáil.

However, this popularity and electoral success has not yet led to the political success of Sinn Féin. Due to the highly proportional nature of the Irish electoral system, coalitions and confidence-and-supply agreements are typically the only way in which governments can be formed. So while Sinn Féin received a similar number of seats to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at the last election, they could not form a government because of the fact that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ruled out forming a coalition with the left-wing party. 

The centre-right parties both cited differences with Sinn Féin over tax and economic policy, along with the optics around Sinn Féin’s historic ties with the IRA. However, I would argue that these reasons are not entrenched and should the correct opportunity present itself, either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael would be willing to form a government with Sinn Féin. While both of these parties differ with Sinn Féin greatly on a lot of economic policy, there have been reports that Fianna Fáil’s membership have been putting pressure on the party to be open to a coalition with Sinn Féin. 

However, it is still abundantly clear that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would much rather enter government with one another than with Sinn Féin. The current three-way coalition government including the two centre-right parties incredibly looks more stable than ever. This is despite the arrangement weathering the housing, immigration and cost of living crisis, COVID, and, incredibly, the recent resignation of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach (prime minister) - who was the leader of the coalition. Varadkar has been replaced by one of his ministers, Simon Harris, the youngest Taoiseach in Irish history, despite his grey hair. Harris has helped his Fine Gael party make marginal gains in the opinion polls and has kept the coalition agreement stable, making the prospect of immediate change less likely in Irish politics as he has resisted calls to call a general election. The relative political stability provided by this government again makes the prospect of large change in governance seem all the more abstract.

This provides a real challenge to Sinn Féin as it currently looks unlikely that they will be able to form a government in the next general election. As even if they do become the largest party in the Dáil, they would likely need the support of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, which still looks unlikely. However, the best chance that Sinn Féin has is by winning a much greater number of seats than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. While this may seem like an obvious solution, it is likely the only way in which they will be able to govern and will have to force the centre-right parties’ hands into going into government with them. Even the most generous opinion polls of the past two years have never had Sinn Féin above 35% of the national vote, meaning a one-party government seems almost impossible. 

"Unless either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil change their attitudes towards this modernised and popular Sinn Féin, Ireland faces a future of inequality, cost of living crises and stark social division."

Optimism around change in Irish politics has continued to be buoyed by Sinn Féin’s recent drop in the opinion polls by around 5 points, as independent candidates continue to grow greatly in popularity. Again, the growth of these independent candidates shows the huge dissatisfaction and alienation that Irish voters feel towards the mainstream political parties, even Sinn Féin seemingly, for the current political inaction surrounding the country’s many crises.

But could these local elections be the rise of a new dawn in Irish politics? A strong electoral performance in these local elections from Sinn Féin could be a huge show of strength for the party and really legitimise them as a genuine contender for government office, akin to Labour’s sweep of the British local elections in early May. This could lead to a bounce in the polls for Sinn Féin ahead of the next general election which seems likely to take place in 2025.

But a realistic perspective must be taken. Even the most optimistic local elections victories for Sinn Féin would do little to remedy their lack of ability to govern via coalition. While the Irish people may send out a message that they want change at these local elections, right now that change is still unlikely to occur in the next general election. Unless either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil change their attitudes towards this modernised and popular Sinn Féin, Ireland faces a future of inequality, cost of living crises and stark social division.

Image: Flickr



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