Vote counting under way in Irish local elections

The counting process in Ireland’s local elections is under way.

A day after voters headed to the polls in three highly anticipated elections, the ballot boxes were opened at 9am on Saturday.

Irish people have voted to elect a swathe of new councillors as well as picking candidates to send to the European Parliament and, for the first time, some were asked to decide on a directly elected mayor to represent them locally.

European and local elections
Ballot boxes in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

The full results will take days to be finalised because Ireland uses a system of proportional representation which allows voters to rank every candidate in each race by order of preference. The process means ballot papers are sorted and counted multiple times by hand.

The separate elections come at a febrile time in Irish politics dominated by a housing crisis, the cost of living and migration.

The coalition partnership of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party has been battling criticism domestically and on the continent over other issues including climate action, agriculture policy and defence co-operation in the EU.

The polls will provide political parties with evidence of voter sentiment, having had to wait more than four years since the last nationwide elections.

The ballot papers are separated by count staff in centres across the nation – which is expected to take some hours – before they are officially counted.

The local government elections will be sorted and counted first, before the papers in the European and Limerick mayoral elections are counted on Sunday and Monday respectively.

European and local elections
Taoiseach Simon Harris at the polling station at Delgany National School in Co Wicklow (Grainne Ni Aodha/PA)

For the count, the papers will be sorted based on first-preference votes, with spoilt votes separated from the piles.

To win a seat in a local authority, candidates have to meet the required quota of votes, calculated by dividing the total valid poll by one more than the number of available seats, and then adding one.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said early indications show there “won’t be a wipe-out” of his party.

He also said that his candidates Claire Byrne and Michael Pidgeon had the potential to top the polls in their Dublin city regions.

Speaking at the RDS count centre in south Dublin, he added: “My eyes are on the country, I think we have a chance in Dingle (with) Peadar O Fionnain. It’s very tight to call but he’s not out of the running.

“If we win a seat in Dingle I’ll be celebrating as much as Dublin Bay South, if not more because that would send a really strong signal about the whole country.

“So far, we are hopeful but obviously we have to wait and see what happens. We look forward to see the next two days.”

Green party leader Eamon Ryan
Green party leader Eamon Ryan (Cillian Sherlock/PA)

Since the last general election, politicians have had to rely on opinion polls to gauge the mood of the nation.

The main takeaway of the 2020 campaign was a massive increase in support for Sinn Fein, which took almost a quarter of the popular vote.

But the party was still left in opposition after failing to run a sufficient number of candidates in the parliamentary constituencies.

Estimated support for Sinn Fein then hovered above 30% for a long time, even temporarily reaching highs of around 35%.

However, polls over the last eight months suggest that support is on a dramatic slide as independents take more of the expected vote share.

Many ballot papers contain a large number of independents with a variety of political leanings, several of whom have been described as anti-immigrant.

Fine Gael appears to have had a “Harris hop” in the polls after the shock resignation of Leo Varadkar as leader of the party earlier this year, leading to Simon Harris taking over that position as well as the role of Irish premier.

The results of the three campaigns could direct Mr Harris’s decision on when to call the next general election, which must be held by March next year.

Millions of residents were eligible to vote in Friday’s local elections, which will see 949 councillors elected.

At the same time, EU citizens registered in Ireland were eligible to vote for 14 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) across three constituencies: Dublin, South and Midlands-North-West.

While the count for the European elections is not officially under way, the segregating of the ballot papers allowed observers to get a sense of which candidates are performing well.

In Dublin, incomplete tallies by noon suggested Fianna Fail’s Barry Andrews and Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty were leading.

Green Party incumbent Ciaran Cuffe, Independent Ireland candidate Niall Boylan, Labour representative Aodhan O Riordain and Sinn Fein hopefuls Daithi Doolan and Lynn Boylan will be fighting over the remaining two seats.

Speaking on Saturday, Mr Cuffe said the race was “hard to call”.

Asked if he believed he could stay ahead of Mr O Riordain and Social Democrat Sinead Gibney, the at-risk MEP added: “For the wildebeest, you just have to stay ahead of the lion.”

In the South constituency, Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly and Fianna Fail’s Billy Kelleher are considered to be in contention for re-election.

Sinn Fein will be hoping to regain a seat in the region with Kathleen Funchion.

European and local elections
Early voters waiting for a polling station to open (Niall Carson/PA)

In sporadic observations from Midlands-North-West, there were reports of strong support for Fine Gael’s incumbent Maria Walsh and her running mate Nina Carberry.

Fianna Fail’s Barry Cowen, Independent Ireland candidate and former RTE correspondent Ciaran Mullooly and Independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan have also polled well in some regions across the vast constituency.

A clearer picture will emerge once counting begins on Sunday.

In the south west, voters in Limerick city and county had the opportunity to directly elect a mayor with executive powers on long-term strategic planning.

The role is seen as a test case for other local authorities in the future.

A cross-party tally from midday indicated that Independent candidate John Moran is in the lead with around 25% of the votes.

The former secretary general at the Department of Finance is ahead of Independent candidate Helen O’Donnell in second place.

The elections will be held again in five years.