Sinn Féin falters in Irish local elections

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Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin expressed disappointment at its performance in local elections, which confirmed a recent slump in support for a party once seen as the frontrunner to lead the next government.

Early returns from council elections held on Friday indicated the party polled well below expectations, while votes for governing coalition partners Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil held up and independent candidates appeared on course to make gains.

“We are disappointed . . . It hasn’t been our day,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told reporters at the counting centre on Sunday, pointing out they had made “modest” gains.

She said “anger” with “government policy on this occasion has translated into votes for independents and others” but added that she would not step down from her role.

The party is still expected to make gains compared with its performance in the last council elections in 2019, when it lost half its seats, and hopes to boost its tally of one MEP in EU elections. European parliament results are due from Sunday evening, while full council results could take several days.

But Sinn Féin’s hopes of becoming the largest party in local government appeared crushed as coalition parties made gains.

That rewarded Simon Harris, who took over as Ireland’s Taoiseach in April with promises to inject “new energy” into Fine Gael, which has been in power for 14 years. He has toughened the government’s stance on immigration, a growing electoral issue.

Sinn Féin has bounced back before, recovering from huge losses in local and European elections in 2019 to come within a whisker of winning the 2020 general election.

Its popularity then soared, with approval ratings above 30 per cent, but support has cratered in recent months. In the most recent Ireland Thinks poll, a week ago, it stood neck-and-neck with Fine Gael on 22 per cent.

Analysts say local elections are not usually good predictors of the national vote. Nevertheless, Lucinda Creighton, a former Fine Gael junior minister, said Harris should now cut and run to an early poll — perhaps in September — instead of waiting until the end of the government’s term in March 2025 as he has vowed.

“I certainly don’t see any advantage in waiting for the budget [in October]. In my mind, it makes a lot of sense to go before then and get on with it,” she told the Financial Times. “If they leave it too long, Sinn Féin can really change the narrative.”

With turnout recorded at just 49 per cent, former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cautioned against translating the local election result into likely general election performance. “Five years ago, a whole load of Sinn Féin councillors lost their seats. Eight months later they were TDs [members of the Dáil parliament].”

Gary Murphy, politics professor at Dublin City University, said the low turnout underscored volatility in Irish politics and the coalition partners had no time for “any resting on laurels” while there remained considerable dissatisfaction about immigration, housing and other issues.

Ireland’s housing crisis had driven many young voters unable to afford their own homes into the arms of the pro-Irish unity Sinn Féin, which vowed to fix the problem. But the government has been encouraged by improving housing construction data in recent months.

Meanwhile, amid a series of mis-steps, Sinn Féin has leached support from its core working-class base to independent candidates opposed to immigration in a country with no mainstream far-right party.

Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman, told Newstalk radio he was “absolutely confident” the party could have an “exceptionally good general election”.

He noted “apathy” among voters in the local and European elections on Friday and said Sinn Féin would have “to ask ourselves why did the people who voted for us in 2020 stay at home?”

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