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The centre can hold – for now: Ireland’s elections and the far-right challenge

12 Jun 2024 5 minute read
Counting at the local and Euro elections in Ireland. Photo Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Lila Haines

In Ireland they’re still counting as I write, but the results of a democracy-fest that began with state-wide ballots on 7 June is clear enough to conclude that the political centre is still holding against a far-right onslaught.

Wales’ western neighbour – the Republic of Ireland, one of the most stable democracies in the world – has been voting to choose 949 local councillors, 14 MEPs and the state’s first directly-elected mayor.

The counting, tending to marathon length anyway under the Single Transferable Vote system, were prolonged by the sheer number of candidates.

The newbies included far-right parties with patriotic-sounding names like ‘Ireland First’ or ‘Irish National Party’ as well as individuals associated with anti-immigrant activities including rioting in Dublin in November 2023 and a campaign of attacks on accommodation they claimed could be used to house asylum seekers.

Known quantities

But on 7 June a majority of voters opted for what they knew – familiar names, community causes, mainstream parties, incumbents of various hues – and, it could be said, for decency, a much valued virtue in Ireland.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the larger partners in the Government formed in June 2020, were the main winners at local and EU levels.

New FG leader and Taoiseach Simon Harris doubtless boosted Fine Gael election prospects and some are now fancying their chances in an early general election even though Harris continues to insist the Government should run its full term because there’s much still to do.

If anyone in Fianna Fail was thinking of challenging leader and current Tánaiste Micheál Martin, they’ll be quietly hiding their ambitions after this campaign’s results for his party.

The coalition’s third party, the Greens, faced with a backlash against environmental policies, lost their MEPs Ciaran Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan after tight and prolonged counts, as well as some local seats, but they held on elsewhere, mainly in urban areas.

Labour and the Social Democrats improved their showings compared with the 2019 locals. Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD took a European seat for the Dublin EU constituency, and instantly appealed to the Social Democrats and Green Party to “join forces” and “stop pretending that there’s any difference” between the three of them.

Out went the maverick MEP Clare Daly, famed for her pro-Putin stance on Ukraine but also a darling of some on the left for her strong support for Palestine.

The third biggest category of winners – the Independents, ranging across a wide spectrum of political mavericks, loose groupings with geographic locations, issues or self interest in common, and campaigners – took more than 200 council seats.

Far-right foothold

Controversial figures like Nigel Farage’s former press officer Hermann Kelly, of the Irish Independence Party, scooped up enough votes in the Euros to give them a platform for the future.

Three anti-immigration parties won a seat each on the 63-member Dublin City Council and others came within spitting distance of local wins, with some higher profile anti-immigrant individuals making a splash in the European ballots.

When writing Radicals & Realists’ I didn’t foresee the rise of the far right but after these elections nobody should make that mistake again.

Immigrant winners

Though less noted, Ireland now has far more councillors from migrant backgrounds than from the far-right.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland says that 5% of all local election candidates were of immigrant background, more than half of them women.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Labour, People Before Profit-Solidarity and the Social Democrats all ran candidates of immigrant background and nearly 20 were elected. (No information was available from Sinn Féin.)

Cork City Council now has its first black councillor, one of 16 Green Party candidates of migrant background, and a black woman was elected to Galway City Council for Labour.

The SF shock

What about Sinn Féin, whose dramatic surge in the February 2020 general election fuelled wild speculation about Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach and re-unifying Ireland?

They trailed in third in the local races with barely over 100 councillors compared with nearly 250 each for the two main Government parties – or in fourth place if you count all the independents as a group, which wouldn’t make political sense.

Sinn Féin’s appeal has faded, chunks of its support base lured away by new ultra-nationalist parties, and many younger voters who backed them in 2020 because they claimed to have solutions to the housing shortage seemingly looking elsewhere.

Members of this famously disciplined party are questioning McDonald’s future as leader and they’ll doubtless rev up their campaigning for the next general election in the Republic – but will they face unpalatable facts?

Fintan O’Toole posited an interesting theory about what this means for Sinn Féin: ‘Irish politics has lost its shock absorber’ and ‘that shock absorber was Sinn Fein’ – and that poses serious questions for the Irish political class as a whole, and for the country, not just for Sinn Féin.

Can the centre hold?

In 1919, in the wake of the First World War, W B Yeats wrote in The Second Coming:

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’

It seems that in Ireland the centre can hold – at least for now – but the threat from the right cannot be dismissed as a mainland Europe problem.

The political challenge facing France, Germany and other EU countries is of a vastly different order of magnitude to that in the Republic of Ireland – but it’s mainly a matter of magnitude and timing.

Lila Haines is the author of ‘Radicals & Realists: Political Parties in Ireland – A Concise History’ (2022, Welsh Academic Press) – widely available in paperback or on Kindle.

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Noel Walsh
Noel Walsh
1 month ago

Well researched and presented overview of our near neighbour. It appears immigration was a major factor in local elections. This a developing trend of national and international issues influencing local politics. In mainland Europe we see significant resurgence of right wing parties, at every political level. Bread and butter local concerns seem to be losing importance/interest to those that bother to vote. That is one point the otherwise informative article left out, the turnout. The amount of disaffection/dissatisfaction amongst the electorate.
Voter apathy is the backdoor to extremist parties both left and right.

Lila Haines
Lila Haines
1 month ago
Reply to  Noel Walsh

Thanks for your kind words, Noel Walsh. Turnout varied, mostly +50% in locals, mid-40s in Euros. There’s much else I could have mentioned and may do in future contributions if is willing. For background and parties’ histories perhaps take a look at Radicals & Realists?

29 days ago
Reply to  Noel Walsh

Voter apathy in Wales is the feedstock that keeps on nourishing and sustaining our shoddy Labour regime. Yet none of the parties seem interested in launching a sustained barrage of well detailed critiques. Makes one think they are all complicit despite the occasional bouts of pi*s and wind. .

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