As I write this column on Saturday evening, tallies in local elections are trickling in, suggesting that most political groupings except Sinn Féin are set to draw satisfaction from the results. There will be more independent councillors, though what their election means remains to be deciphered.

Government parties, especially Fine Gael, are retaining a lot more support than could be expected after a long period in power through a series of crises. Smaller parties like Aontú, Labour and the Social Democrats will secure a sufficient level of success to express credible positive sentiment.

It will take a lot longer to get a picture from European elections, where only seven countries including Ireland have finished voting. The resulting shape of the European Parliament won’t be known until late into Sunday night after the other 20 close their polling stations.

It will be another month before the coalitions that will influence the formation of the next European Commission are determined. The only indication so far is an exit poll in the Netherlands suggesting that the election of MEPs there has turned into a contest between a leading Labour/Green block and far-right leader Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party.

This is the shifting political environment the Government of Taoiseach Simon Harris must now navigate before gambling the fate of its Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition members in the next general election.

If good results for the coalition parties are confirmed, the temptation for their leaders will be high to call a snap vote. If they resist it, the campaign for a general election within the next eight months will kickstart anyway. Either way, strategists in the ruling and opposition parties alike have a short window to read into the tea leaves of Friday’s vote.

The rise of candidates running outside traditional parties has sent as blurry a message from the electorate as could be. Looking at a provisional sample of over 50 such candidates in the running for seats after tallies on Saturday evening, I can see:

  • around half campaigning on local interests, many of whom are sitting councillors;
  • eight supporting local figures like the Healy Rae family in Kerry and Michael Lowry in Tipperary;
  • eight representing the new Independent Ireland grouping, including its first officially elected representative Séamus Walsh in Co Galway;
  • the odd Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael rep who failed to get a party nomination;
  • five with a clear far-right, anti-immigrant stance including one of the leaders of the infamous protest against the accommodation of asylum seekers in Dublin’s East Wall, Malachy Steenson;
  • two with a clear left-wing leaning.

This has not been an election about policies or proposals. It has been about themes and trends. Its outcome is not radical but a reflection of societal change and changing perspectives in the four years since Irish voters last had a chance to elect anyone.

Judging by the rising number of incidents on the doorsteps and during postering and leafleting activities, the undercurrent to the election was one of anger. Covid, war, the cost of living and social division have left many people angry, even if they are struggling to articulate why. In many cases, it took the form of abstention, resulting in a turnout below 50 per cent.

The rhetoric of division – from left and right – has not helped, but there is undoubtedly a lingering anger entering Ireland’s political discourse and it is filtering through from people of all demographics. At this early stage, there is no clear pattern to the voting, no clear agenda to its outcome.

Ruling parties will say that the centre holds. But the centre has likely moved.

The alternative before them is now as follows. They can retain their centrist identity and work harder to convince voters that they can answer the electorate’s concerns with structured plans and efficient policies. The Government’s experience on housing does not bode well in this direction.

Or they can alter their stance to follow the trends, fact-based or not, that have directed part of the vote towards the farther corners of the political spectrum. This comes at high political risk, as the shift towards right-wing movements in the European election is expected to show across the continent.

This is a new conundrum for Irish centrist parties, and one that is now also facing Sinn Féin.

In the past, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could marginally move the dial on their economic and social policies to sway a small cohort of undecided voters. 

Unusually in Europe, thanks to Ireland’s colonial past, Sinn Féin used to crystallise both the nationalist and the left-wing strands of the opposition to such centrist meandering. Then, in recent years, Sinn Féin almost turned into a single-issue party hammering the Government on its objective failure to address the housing crisis.

It is now time for Mary Lou McDonald to assess whether to keep going with this strategy. “It’s not the result we hoped for,” the party’s finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty told RTÉ on Saturday, acknowledging that he and his colleagues would need to “dust themselves down” and learn some lessons from Friday’s vote.

Next stop: the budget

Should the coalition parties decide to stay in government until the end of this year, the budget looms large over the rest of their term, as Minister for Enterprise Peter Burke made clear in his interview with me a few days ago. 

Despite the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council’s renewed warnings of “fiscal gimmickry”, a giveaway seems to be the surefire way for the Government to win votes without wading into the unchartered waters of ideological fights with those intent on dragging Irish politics into culture wars imported from the US and the UK.

The influx of tax revenue in May shows that there will be enough money for everyone in the audience. While corporation tax led the charge with double-digit growth in payments from multinationals, the overall position of the Exchequer is extremely favourable. Income tax and Vat, collected more evenly across the domestic and FDI sectors, are also yielding increasing revenue.

On the business front, expect some leniency in the winding down of tax debt warehousing. While €100 million owed by companies and sole traders who have failed to agree a repayment schedule with Revenue are now formally subject to enforcement, the agency’s chair Niall Cody told Ian in an interview last week: “Some of that will be paid.” This implies some of it won’t, and there is evidence of write-offs when businesses face insolvency or job losses.

Calls for spending restraint are unlikely to get any traction with Harris and Minister for Finance Michael McGrath when they make the ultimate budget calls. Largesse is a given. The Government will be judged on how precisely and convincingly this expenditure is targeted to solve the housing crisis in both the short- and long-term, including asylum seeker accommodation, and to alleviate the insecurities of those voters tempted to drift towards the far right.


Elsewhere last week, Stephen examined the experiment at work in another aspect of this weekend’s vote in his home city and county: the first direct election of a mayor for Limerick.

A farm went up for sale in Co Louth on Thursday at an asking price of €2.5 million. I tracked the roots of the receivership sale to a loan extended by a lending unit of billionaire JP McManus’s family office. 

Francesca interviewed British lawyer Matthew Jury, managing partner of the firm McCue Jury, who represents victims of IRA attacks during the Troubles. He is now attempting to have former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams found liable for some of these incidents, which Adams denies.