This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 21st, just a few days before Limerick, Waterford and Cork cities voted on having directly elected mayors. Only Limerick voted in favour.
On Thursday voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls to elect three members of the European Parliament. Given the dominance of Sinn Féin and the DUP the focus will be on the contest for the last seat between the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood and Alliance’s Naomi Long. While a win for either will be a win for progressive politics, many at the top of Sinn Féin are hoping Long makes it, though their voters may not agree.
On Friday, voters down here will find themselves confronted by three ballot papers when they get to the polling station.
Not only do we get to choose Ireland’s 13 MEPs (two of whom will sit on the reserve bench until Brexit is resolved) we also get to elect 949 City and County Councillors from the almost 2,000 candidates on offer across the State.
And, as if all that responsibility was not heady enough, most voters (i.e. Irish citizens) will also get a third ballot paper, asking them to approve or reject two specific changes to the constitutional provisions on divorce.
But wait, there’s more.
Some very lucky voters will get a fourth ballot paper. These are the voters residing in Limerick, Cork and Waterford, who are eligible to vote in the local elections. They will get to vote in local plebiscites on whether those cities should have directly elected mayors from 2022.
I have now updated my initial thoughts, musings, observations and mild rantings on the implications of the local election results, particularly Fianna Fáil’s stronger than expected showing.
This was first posted on Sunday morning – updated on Monday morning to reflect the revised party national totals in the Local Elections.
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.
Quite a lot, it seems.
Yesterday we saw history repeating itself, with the electorate visiting upon Fine Gael and Labour almost exactly the same devastating blow it had served up to Fianna Fáil and Labour five years earlier.
In 2009 Fianna Fáil lost around 39% of its support (when compared with 2007) while the Greens endured a massive reduction in its vote of 76%.
Yesterday, based on the Local Election results to hand, Fine Gael lost 34% of its support and Labour lost 63%.
While the story of the Local Elections is the rise in support for Sinn Féin and the Independents and the scale of the loss for Labour, the Fine Gael haemorrhaging of support should not be ignored.
Indeed, the case can be made that the real story of the election is this massive Fine Gael loss – a loss that should not be glossed over by what might appear to be its reasonable performance in the European Elections.
Losing 100 plus Councillors, on a day when you have increased the number of available council seats, is a political meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2009 proportions. It will send a shiver around the Fine Gael backbenches that will match that currently coursing along the spines of their Labour colleagues.
Leo Varadkar’s line that the next election will be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin was a clever attempt to calm the troops with the notion that their lost support will come back when the Irish voters realise that Fine Gael is all that stands between them and the Shinners.
It’s clever line, but a flawed one.
For it to offer any comfort it would need to be underpinned by Fine Gael still remaining the largest party – but it hasn’t. By the time the dust settles it will become clear that the other big story of the locals is the return to frontline politics of Fianna Fáil, even if its European results are a bit rocky.
If the battle of the next election is, as Varadkar suggests, to be fought on the question of where you stand with regard to Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil, with a few more weapons in its armoury, is standing on better – and now even firmer – ground than the depleted followers of Enda.
While Fine Gael may see itself as the antithesis of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil can challenge SF’s voodoo economics every bit as credibly as FG, but with the added bonus that that can better undermine and dismantle the Shinner’s fallacious claim to Republicanism, especially in its back yard.
The other story of the Fianna Fáil result is its incredible variety. Its national level of support at just over 25% belies some very good and incredibly bad local results, especially in urban centres.
They range from the sublime such as its 49% in Bailieborough-Coothall 39% in Castlecomer and 38.4% in Ballymote-Tobercurry to the ridiculous: such as its 4.9% in Dublin North Inner City, 6.8% in Tallaght South and 8.7% in Lucan.
While there are several other disappointing low teen results in urban centres across the country e.g 9.6% in Waterford City South, 10.5% in Bray and 13% in Limerick City North, it is no coincidence that the single digit performances are in Dublin.
That is not to say that the Capital is a wasteland for Fianna Fail. Contrast the single performance mentioned above with the parties stunning 27.3% in Castleknock, its 24.2% in Clontarf and its 22.3% in Stillorgan.
While the overall Dublin result of 16% points to a major problem for the party, the variety in results, highlighted above, shows Fianna Fáil’s further potential for growth and renewal in large swathes of Dublin.
It is the very patchiness of its result that points up where the party needs to work harder and better. Far too many candidates in Dublin were left to struggle on by themselves with no structured national campaign to underpin their efforts.
Having “Fianna Fáil” on your poster does not guarantee a good new candidate a certain base level of support in Dublin and other urban centres in the same way as having “Sinn Féin” on your poster did for their new first time candidates. Indeed it does not offer the prospect of that base level of support as it does in non-urban Ireland.
The candidates in Dublin raised the Fianna Fáil vote to their level, not the other way around. The vote in Dublin and other urban centres, is not the party vote plus the candidate’s unique personal support – it is just the latter. In certain parts of the city is it the unique personal support minus the residual antagonism to Fianna Fáil.
The “Fianna Fáil” identity is Dublin is not a coherent identity based on a core defining message from the party as a national political party: it is the collective identities of its various candidates.
This is not to underestimate the particular nature of Dublin voters, especially their looser party allegiances; it is just to point out that Dublin voters are just as likely to be receptive to a national message, just less continuously loyal to it.
Despite some clearly very good results in Dublin, most Fianna Fáil supporters still struggle to answer the questions: why should I vote Fianna Fáil and what does Fianna Fáil stand for. Most of the successful candidates I have encountered in Dublin answer it with the words: here is what I stand for…
It is not that there are not answers to these questions, but rather that the party has not sufficiently defined and substantiated them.
It is work that can and must be done. That work is not aided or encouraged by intemperate outbursts or Quixotic threatened heaves. The issues are policy and organisation – not personality.
The 24.3% of voters who abandoned Fine Gael and Labour saw their political alternatives this week. Some said independents, some said Sinn Féin – though not by a large margin as the swing to Sinn Féin since the 2011 election is in the 5.3%, but even more said Fianna Fáil with a swing of just over 8%, but the point should not be lost that the biggest single section of them said: none of the above.
The ones who stayed at home are the ones who were badly let down by Fianna Fáil and are now just as angry with Fine Gael and Labour for promising them a new politics and then delivering the old failed politics as usual.
Perhaps they concluded that they could afford to sit out these second order elections, as they do not see how the results will change their lives, they will not be as sanguine at the next election.
Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: I have no in depth or insider knowledge of what has been going on with the Limerick City of Culture – or City of Vultures as some have christened it.
All I know is what I have read in the papers and on Twitter. In that regard, I suppose, I am very like the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan TD, who admitted on Radio last Sunday that he only knew what he had read in the papers. Doesn’t it make you feel good inside to know that the State’s money is being guarded so keenly?
Looking at the whole debacle from the safe distance of South Dublin, it does appear to me to be an example of how resignation is not always the answer to a problem. An already bad situation has now been made considerably worse by not just one, but a whole series of resignations.
Contrary to the perceived wisdom of the past few years, if not decades, calling for someone’s head and demanding their resignation is not the solution to every problem.
As we are seeing in Limerick, instead of addressing a problem of governance, the whole debate surrounding who should and should not resign has moved the focus to a clash of personalities, even if the outworking of that clash has been entertaining to those of us outside Limerick.
While a resignation may offer a win to one side in a dispute, that victory is just Pyrrhic where the core issue is not addressed.
In the case of Limerick the sequence of resignations, starting with the Artistic Director’s and culminating with the Chief Executive’s (who I should declare is a highly regarded former colleague of mine) has only succeeded in having both sides in the dispute poking each other in the eye and undermining public confidence in what should have been an exciting time in Limerick.
Problems such as the lack of proper advanced planning and budgeting and transparency in the appointments have not been addressed. These issues persist, though not to such a degree that they are stopping the Limerick Year of Culture from proceeding, as it does have a publicised calendar of events for the coming months.
The net result of the resignations is a slew of bad publicity and a hiatus in administration while new personnel are properly appointed – what did that achieve?
Without doubt the individuals resigning did so for what they felt were genuine reasons – whether those resignations where “elective” or “unavoidable”.
“Elective” is the “I just cannot tolerate this any longer” approach where the person believes that resignation is their only remaining response to a problem, having exhausted all other options. Such resignations are often gauged to focus public attention on a major issue of governance, or as a protest against some major malfeasance.
The other, is where the resignation is “unavoidable” because public comment or media attention on some major issue or dispute has made it impossible for the person to reasonably remain in a position, it usually features the line: “it is now in the best interests of the organisation that I move on”.
While noble, do the Limerick resignations fall under these headings? Was there an initial “active” resignation precipitated by frustration at how things were being run – or did someone just peg their toys out of the pram at not getting their way?
Similarly was unavoidable resignation really unavoidable, or was their position untenable from the outset by virtue of the particular nature of the appointment process?
From this distance and with such piecemeal information to go on, I have no idea.
What I do know is that none of the resignations have achieved anything and that there are now four people out of work, each of whom could have contributed further to making the year a success.
Meanwhile the people in government who should be answering questions and acting speedily to undo the damage caused by their delays in 2012 and 2013 continue to act as if they were mere bystanders.