Last Friday saw much fanfare in the USA, and among Irish-based Americans, for the Independence Day celebrations, but in Ireland a dominant theme of political discourse - even close to two months after the local the European elections - is more of Independents’ Day.
Despite the triumph of Joan Burton in the Labour leadership contest (widely expected ) and the Cabinet reshuffle (long overdue many might think ), Independents and how they will impact on the next General Election looks set to be a theme that will continue to be debated by political watchers.
A range of Independents and smaller parties were among the main winners in the local and European elections, which also saw Sinn Féin finally make its big breakthrough in the Republic.
The big losers were the established parties, with a particular backlash for the Government. So as another Dáil term comes to an end where do the various parties and personalities stand?
Traditionally governments take a beating in midterm elections, so the poor performance of FG and Labour was hardly unexpected. Despite this there were a number of unpleasant surprises for them.
The scale of the backlash was worse than expected. Bearing in mind that FG and Labour took 56 per cent of the vote in the 2011 General Election, to barely reach 30 per cent on this occasion represented quite a collapse. Indeed it was barely more than the FF/Green government managed in what was a disastrous 2009 local election outing.
Secondly, the predictions of Armageddon for Labour largely materialised with the party’s seven per cent showing at the lower end of opinion poll predictions.
It has been evident for some time that Labour would pay the price for broken promises; a strong perception of timidity in Government when defending its key constituents; and a general sense it was dancing to a FG agenda.
In the closing days of the 2011 election campaign, one of the biggest selling points for Labour’s involvement in government was the number of experienced ‘big beasts’ it could bring to the Cabinet.
However Eamon Gilmore proved to be badly out of his depth while Pat Rabbitte was a huge let-down. Brendan Howlin has perhaps been the party’s best performer. Much of the plaudits he has earned have come for the manner in which he has held a strong line - but this is for implementing policies favoured by FG and the Troika, but anathema to much of Labour’s core vote.
Labour now finds itself in a difficult position. There will be much fanfare over Joan Burton’s leadership, the Cabinet reshuffle, and an opportunity to loosen the purse strings as the Budgetary position improves - but much of the damage has already been done.
In addition to having polled poorly itself, Labour now must contend with a resurgent SF which is well placed to inflict significant damage on Labour. In the past Labour could console itself that any fall in its vote would be split all over the place, giving it scope to salvage seats even on a bad day.
Insider felt there was much wishful thinking by FG in advance of local and European elections. There was something of an expectation that potential FG voters would be more willing to accept the economic policies being implemented and that the party would escape with a respectable (if diminished ) vote share.
Insider has sensed over the past year or so however a growing disenchantment – even among its traditional supporters – with a FG party that has started to exude incompetence. As it turned out, FG slipped to one of its worst election performances in recent history.
While Insider would agree that FG (or FG-minded ) supporters are more likely to accept the general thrust of the ‘policy of austerity’, they certainly are not likely to be passive in the face of the calamitous handling of the various crises impacting An Gárda Síochána (culminating in the resignation of both the Gárda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice ).
Nor are they likely to have been impressed with the farcical manner in which the introduction of water charges were handled. Never mind the matter of how much the charge will be, what utterly bewildered the sight of Government ministers trying to convince themselves they weren’t really introducing these charges. What was the point in that?
Surely coming clean on the charge, thereby killing the issue was better than allowing it to drag on for weeks?
Insider also warned FG for the past few years that there is particular disenchantment with the Government and the party in rural areas. This has been surfacing since the end of 2011 – with Phil Hogan’s performance in the Department of the Environment being especially unpopular.
This trend manifested itself quite noticeably in rural Ireland in the recent elections, in particular in the west. This is something the party must address before the next General Election, although in the meantime it faces the nightmare prospect of a by-election in Roscommon/South Leitrim.
There is also the sense with FG – and the Government in general – that there is a greater interest in getting plaudits in Europe than in serving the electorate. It was therefore especially embarrassing that the first item on Enda Kenny’s agenda, the week after the elections, was an EU summit! There was a touch of irony though to FG’s rather impressive European election showing, which was in sharp contrast to its local election display.
Recovery for FF?
FF’s objectives in the local elections was simply to match its 25 per cent vote share of 2009, something that looked a big ask but was just about achieved. In addition it pulled off something of a coup by unexpectedly replacing FG as the largest party in Local Government.
Good showings in rural areas as well as in some provincial towns and cities (notably Cork ) will have cheered FF but a poor showing in Dublin and a very disappointing European campaign will have provided it with something of a reality check.
For FF, after the disastrous scale of its implosion between 2008 and 2011 modest steps is the order of the day.
Having maintained its 25 per cent local election vote share, the party’s next objective must be to maintain that in a General Election. This will not be easy as an electorate willing to vote for popular local councillors may hesitate before giving FF a vote at a national level.
Sinn Féin breakthrough
The most significant winners in these elections were SF. It is one thing for a range of unaligned candidates to get votes from an angry electorate in a midterm election but quite a different thing for a party brand – especially one that has been controversial – to make significant advances.
SF have made much of the fact it got an MEP elected in all Euroconstituencies on both sides of the border. What is even more impressive is that, when you delve deeper into the local election results to discover the party has expanded its presence into areas that traditionally would not have been SF strongholds.
Yes SF is still a party that is far stronger in urban and working class areas, but now it has a reasonable foothold in middle class and rural areas that will enhance its prospects in some Dáil constituencies, with Galway West being a good example. There have also been significant improvements in the age and gender balance of its vote.
The key questions ahead of the General Election are – can SF put in place enough strong candidates to capitalise on its popularity? and, is there an element of people willing to vote for it in a local election but not in a General Election?
Finally we return to Independents Day. Independents traditionally do well in local elections but never on the scale we witnessed in May.
There is a clear disenchantment with the established parties – an unpopular Government coupled with doubts over both main opposition parties has left many voters turning towards the Independents and smaller parties.
This manifested itself heavily in the west – six Independents returned to Galway City Council and the spectacular European election victories of Luke Ming Flanagan and Marian Harkin. Ming’s victory should not have come as such a surprise to pundits who should have been familiar with anger in the west of Ireland over EU regulations on fishing and turf cutting as well as the general sense of disenchantment.
The same two questions apply to Independents as apply to SF above.
While well-established Independents – such as Noel Grealish and Catherine Connolly in Galway West and Sean Canney and Timmy Broderick in Galway East – stand to do well, Insider is not convinced the electorate will be willing to vote en masse for Independents as a group. Independents and smaller parties are certainly on course to increase their numbers in the next Dáil but it is far from clear to what extent.