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Three things to watch in the upcoming European and local elections - including immigration on the ballot paper

The local and European elections are not a crystal ball. But they amount to a huge political event that will tell us things about the state of Irish politics

Campaigning in the local and European elections has moved up a gear and with three weeks to go until polling day, candidates in all parties and none are hitting the doorsteps and the campaign trail in the voracious pursuit of votes. European Parliament candidates in the two vast non-Dublin constituencies will rack up thousands of kilometres over the coming weeks, while local election candidates are bombarding their areas with posters, leaflets, sundry stunts and blanket canvassing.

One of the striking things is the number of candidates running in the European Parliament elections across the three constituencies – 73 of them. Many are fringe political actors who presumably know they have no chance of a seat but want to take the opportunity to put their political vision before the voters, and to talk publicly about issues they deem important. Good luck to them. Whether you agree with them or not – and maybe you find some of their views repulsive – this is democracy in action.

This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos B&A poll showed that a couple of things are afoot. The decline of Sinn Féin support continues; Fine Gael has begun a rally. Saturday’s findings for the European elections – the first constituency-specific poll of the campaign – will be pored over by candidates and parties. A few candidates look home and hosed. For the rest, it’ll be a mad scramble in which transfers play a decisive role.

The findings are discussed in great and anorakish detail elsewhere in this weekend’s paper. But pulling back the lens a bit, what can we expect to learn from these elections once the dust has settled? We know that the results are not a reliable guide to what will happen in the general election that must follow within eight months. Sinn Féin had a disaster at the polls in 2019 and went on to have a spectacular general election eight months later; conversely, Fine Gael won 30 per cent at the Europeans and 21 per cent at the general election.


So the locals and Euros are not a crystal ball for the election; that much is clear. But they still amount to a huge political event that tell us things about the state of Irish politics – and both will also have potentially far-reaching impacts on the parties and the political landscape generally. For now, there are three things to watch.

1 How does immigration play in Irish electoral politics?

This is the first time, really, that immigration issues are on the ballot paper – in the sense that all the parties are talking about it, canvass reports say it’s coming up on the doorsteps and some candidates are running explicitly on the issue. If anything, though, you’d say there is a danger of the anti-migrant vote being split between too many candidates.

What often happens in Irish politics is that controversial issues are taken up by the fringes and then gradually percolate towards the centre, and are eventually taken up by the mainstream parties. The three big parties are all essentially moving towards the same space on dealing with asylum seekers – expanded state provision, tighter application of the rules and speedier processing.

In 2021, Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman sent out a series of tweets, in several languages – including Albanian, Arabic, French, Georgian, Somali and Urdu – announcing the end of the direct provision system and telling the world that Ireland would be “welcoming, inclusive and respect the needs of those seeking refuge”. Three years later, the effective policy is now to dissuade as many people as possible from coming here. Whatever way you present it, the asylum system is likely to get tougher. Just how tough may depend on how the issue plays electorally in the coming weeks.

2 Setting the context for big decisions

The results of the coming elections will not settle anything about the next general election. But they will set the context in which some very important decisions will be made this summer. The most obvious is the timing of the general election. Taoiseach Simon Harris wisely took the issue off the political agenda by saying he wanted the Government to run its full term. But I can tell you discussion of the timing of the election is as live a question behind the scenes in Government as ever before. There are two options – late October/early November or late February/early March. That decision will almost certainly be taken in a five- or six-week window after the local and European elections – in the political context that flows from those results.

So will other important and far-reaching decisions. On, for example, the future funding model for RTÉ and more broadly the future for the station (though RTÉ seems uninterested in the wider question and is solely focused on its funding). On the future of the hate speech/hate crime legislation. And on who Ireland’s next European Commissioner will be. This is a Fianna Fáil nomination and so if Micheál Martin wanted to take it himself, he could. It’s hard to think of something that would impact more on the party’s outlook in advance of the general election.

3 Harris as campaigner

It will be the first test of Harris as a campaigning leader of his party. He has been greeted enthusiastically by the Fine Gael organisation but the audience that counts in an election are lapsed Fine Gael voters: can he win them back? Harris certainly has plenty of energy, and he has until now proved a superb communicator. You could have said the same about Leo Varadkar, though, and that did not lead to unqualified electoral success. Harris came to the Taoiseach’s office to do two jobs: to lead the Government and to increase the support for his party by a few points. The poll suggested progress: the election will be a better test.

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