Without wishing to indulge the cynics who say that politics is for the birds, let us begin with an avian analogy.
It centres on the mysterious signals that guide birds to cover large swathes of ground in search of optimum conditions. At first glance their movements appear to be exclusively local ones, but piece it all together and suddenly every arrival and departure collectively paints a universal picture.
And so bringing it all back down to earth the same can be said of the political revelations offered by the local elections.
Yes, the 166 electoral areas will have individual idiosyncrasies separate from the prevailing national themes, but these elections have frequently offered the first view of patterns that define the general elections which follow.
Think back to Fianna Fáil’s drubbing in 2009 when it lost more than 130 council seats across the board while Fine Gael gained over 80. That motif was consistent with what transpired less than two years later in the general election.
Equally the Fianna Fáil recovery in the 2016 Dáil election was first evident in the 2014 council elections when it became the biggest party in local government. That was a result which would ultimately see it form a controlling influence on 26 of the 31 city and county councils.
Sinn Féin’s eclipse of the Labour Party was also first achieved at local level in 2014 when it trebled its number of council seats.
It all means that conditions are near perfect to gauge the national sentiment towards political parties and independent candidates when voters choose their 949 local representatives on 24 May next.
Fine Gael is perhaps the most strident when speaking of its intent going into these elections. The Taoiseach has stated that the aim is to win 50 seats to add to the current tally of 233 councillors. If this ambition was realised it would make the party the largest one in local government. The party is also aiming to have 30% women candidates to improve gender balance.
This is likely to be one of the themes of the election with the Women for Election group already providing training to more than 1,000 candidates.
Just under 200 women won seats in the 2014 elections.
Figures also show that in excess of four out of five members of the Dáil and Seanad began their political life in councils. That could all mean that some of Fine Gael’s new General Election candidates will possibly see their names on the local government ballot paper next May. This may include Julie O’Leary in Cork City, Garrett Ahern in Tipperary and Eimear Currie in Dublin West.
Fianna Fáil won 267 seats five years ago and it will endeavour this time to retain its place at the helm of local government. It’s a task made all the more important given the recent confirmation that the general election will take place in 2020 at the latest. The party has candidates chosen in 117 electoral areas already and almost all the remaining election tickets will be filled within the next three weeks.
More than two dozen of the party’s councillors elected in 2014 were later elevated to either the Dáil or Seanad in 2016. Those well placed to make a similar journey next time, but who will first face the electorate in the council elections, include Padraig O’Sullivan in Cork East, Paul McAuliffe in Dublin North West and Mary Fitzpatrick in Dublin Central.
Sinn Féin is set to have all its candidates selected by 9 Februaryh when it will hold a rally to unveil them. The party trebled its number of city and county council seats in 2014 when it had just over 150 councillors elected.
The party’s ability to hold on to these seats or to even increase those numbers will be viewed as a key measure of how Sinn Fein’s new leadership is performing. This is particularly pertinent coming as it does after Liadh Ní Riada’s poor showing in the Presidential Election. It’s expected that Sinn Féin will closely align both its local and European Parliament election campaigns, with both votes taking place on the same day.
The second last Friday in May will also pose a key test for the Labour Party and its leader Brendan Howlin. The party lost over 80 council seats in 2014 when it had 51 representatives elected. It has lost some of those along the way including both Mick Duff and Martina Genockey in Dublin West.
Winning back seats in this once Labour stronghold will be one of challenges facing the party. It is a similar story in the cities of Cork and Waterford, traditionally important party heartlands, but these are places where Labour faces into these elections without any elected councillors.
The last council elections saw major gains for smaller parties and independents. This time the shape of the electoral areas has been altered and the huge municipal districts that elected up to ten councillors in 2014 have been reduced in size. This could potentially create difficulties for candidates outside the bigger parties.
However, all are confident they can make progress on this redrawn ground including the Greens who will run up to 60 candidates. These will see the party contest in areas outside the bigger urban centres with candidates like organic farmer Pippa Hackett selected in Edenderry, Co Offaly, and Roisin Garvey in Ennistymon, Co Clare.
The Social Democrats were not in existence when the last local elections were held but this time they will possibly field 60 candidates. Among them will be Ellie Kisyombe in Dublin who has spent the last eight years living in Direct Provision.
Solidarity-PBP will have upwards of 70 candidates in these elections. Five years ago it had 28 councillors elected. Those results were reflective of the political momentum that later saw the group get six TDs elected in 2016. Since then however, opinion polls have indicated a decline in support for the party. The council elections will give the clearest measure yet though of its current strength on the ground.
The political movement led by former Sinn Fein TD Peadar Tóibín will be contesting its first elections in May and the results will give an early indication of how the electorate views this new political entity.
This is just one of the many questions that will be categorically answered by voters in less than five months time.