Polling stations close after Irish vote in three elections

Polling stations have closed after Irish voters cast their ballots in three elections.

Votes were cast for local councils, the European Parliament and for the first time voters in Limerick are directly electing a mayor.

Ballot boxes will be opened at 9am on Saturday before counting in the council election gets under way later in the day.

The counting of votes in the European election will start on Sunday while the mayoral votes will be counted on Monday.

On Friday evening, there were reports of a steady turnout of voters.

Ireland’s leaders including Taoiseach Simon Harris led the way in casting their votes on Friday morning.

Mr Harris urged everybody to “get out and have their say”.

The separate elections come at a febrile time in Irish politics dominated by discussion on 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 eagerly awaited polls will provide political parties with concrete evidence of voter sentiment, having had to wait more than four years since the last nationwide elections.

In the years since the last general election, politicians have had to rely on newspaper opinion polls to gauge the mood of the nation.

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

To leader Mary Lou McDonald’s regret, this was unrealised potential as the party was left in opposition after failing to run a sufficient number of candidates in the parliamentary constituencies.

Mary Lou McDonald at a Sinn Fein event
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged she should have run more candidates in the last general election (Brian Lawless/PA)

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

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

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

For a protracted period of time, Ireland has continued to fail to provide accommodation for all asylum seekers. There have been several anti-migrant protests across the State and buildings earmarked to accommodate refugees have been damaged in suspected arson attacks.

Also of note, Fine Gael appears to have had somewhat of a “Harris hop” in the polls following 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.

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

The results of the three campaigns being decided on Friday may be instructive for the overall state of the parties – and could potentially direct Mr Harris’ decision on when to call the next general election, which must be held by March next year.

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina cast their votes on Friday morning.

The couple were greeted by staff at the polling station in Phoenix Park in Dublin.

As he placed his ballot papers inside the box, Mr Higgins said: “Sin e.” (That’s it.)”

European and local elections
President of Ireland Michael D Higgins casts his vote in the local and European elections in Phoenix Park, Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach cast his votes early at Delgany National School in Co Wicklow ahead of a day of campaigning across the country.

“It is so important that people get out and vote, that they have their say, that they cast their ballots because of course if you don’t turn up you’re allowing someone else to speak on your behalf,” Mr Harris told reporters at the voting centre in his home constituency.

“So polls are open to 10pm tonight, I’d urge everybody to get out and have their say in what is a great exercise in democracy.

“We live in a healthy democracy and today is working proof of it.”

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at the party’s launch of the European election campaign
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at the party’s launch of the European election campaign (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ms McDonald said “today is the big day” and said it was “very important” for people to use their vote.

Speaking after casting her ballot at the polling station on Navan Road in Cabra, Dublin, Ms McDonald denied running too many candidates.

“No, we ran a great slate of candidates and they have all thoroughly enjoyed the campaign and (being) out and about meeting people. So today is the people’s day, please come out and vote,” she said.

In south Dublin, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said there is no “anti-government sentiment” among the Irish public.

As he cast his votes in Friday’s elections at Muslim School Clonskeagh, Mr Ryan said there was a queue outside the door by 7am.

European and local elections
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said it was ‘very important’ for people to use their vote (Niall Carson/PA)

“This is a Government that’s working and my sense in the last few months canvassing is there isn’t you know … people they recognise the Government is working,” Mr Ryan said.

“They’re not happy with, rightly, a whole range of different things we need to do better.

“But you couldn’t say out there that there’s a strong anti-government sentiment.

“We’ll see if that’s reflected in the count in the end.”

Across the island, millions of residents were eligible to vote in local elections.

There are 31 local government bodies in Ireland. Each county and city council is divided into local electoral areas with a specified number of council seats to be filled in the election.

In total, there are 166 electoral areas in Ireland and each of them elects a number of councillors. The number of councillors to be elected nationally is 949.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan reading his local-election manifesto
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan reading his local-election manifesto (Brian Lawless/PA)

These representatives are tasked with making policy decisions at local level including on planning and community development.

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

The MEPs are responsible for debating EU-wide legislation and working on the budget for the bloc.

The local and European elections are held every five years.

In the south west of the country, voters in Limerick city and county have the opportunity to directly elect a mayor. From now on, this vote will also take place every five years.

The successful candidate will be considered the region’s first citizen and will have unique executive powers around long-term strategic planning, including measures on housing delivery, road infrastructure and environmental measures.

They can serve a maximum of two terms, each lasting five years.

Ballot boxes being prepared for the election in a warehouse
Ballot boxes are prepared for the election (Brian Lawless/PA)

There are 15 candidates vying for the new job which carries a salary of approximately 150,000 euro.

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

Ballots in the local elections can begin to be sorted straight away on Saturday but results in the European election cannot be declared until after all EU states have finished polling, which will not happen until late on Sunday night. Counting in the mayoral election is expected to begin on Monday.

Even then, Ireland uses a system of proportional representation which allows voters to rank every candidate in each race by order of preference.

Candidates must reach a certain quota of votes in order to be deemed elected.

In the likely event that not enough candidates are above this threshold following the first count, hopefuls with the least amount of votes are eliminated and their votes are redistributed based on the further preferences on the ballot papers. The same occurs when a candidate is elected with a “surplus” of votes.

It means the paper ballots in each election, which are filled out with pencil or pens, are sorted and counted multiple times by hand.

The entire process can take days to complete.