Irish coalition parties set to trounce Sinn Fein in local elections

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s two main coalition parties looked set on Saturday to soundly beat Sinn Fein in local council elections, a surprising and potentially devastating blow to the left-wing party’s hope of its first victory in national elections due by March.

Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, saw a commanding three-year lead in opinion polls almost disappear recently as more voters came to see immigration as their top concern rather than affordable housing, an issue which Sinn Fein dominated.

Voting took place on Friday as more than 2,100 candidates vied for 949 seats on 31 local councils.

Results began to be tabulated on Saturday. With close to a quarter of votes counted, Prime Minister Simon Harris’ Fine Gael and his main coalition partner Fianna Fail each had around 24% of the vote with Sinn Fein on 11%.

“We didn’t win the seats we expected to win…. What we need to do is regroup and listen to what the electorate has said,” senior Sinn Fein lawmaker David Cullinane told Newstalk radio.

Counting will continue on Sunday, along with the first results for elections to the European Parliament.

Sinn Fein were at 35% in opinion polls as recently as October. “The idea that there’s some kind of inevitability about Sinn Fein being in government is going to be shattered in these elections,” Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe of the centre-right Fine Gael party told reporters.

While Sinn Fein should improve on the 9.5% its candidates secured at the last local poll in 2019, unofficial tallies suggested it will land nowhere near the 25% won at the 2020 general election, the most for any single party.

The difficulty for Sinn Fein is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail want to govern together again without it after the next national election. Disrupting that plan would require Sinn Fein to achieve about 30% of the vote.

Failing to enter government for the first time would be a setback to Sinn Fein’s ambition of seeking a referendum on unifying with Northern Ireland, the British region where it is already the lead party.

Local council results may tempt Harris to call an election before March and capitalise on Sinn Fein’s struggles, though ministers said the government would run its full term.

“I suspect there will be a lot of Sinn Fein soul searching because they are not going to be a credible leader of an alternative government based on these figures,” said Theresa Reidy, senior lecturer in politics at University College Cork.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)


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