Dublin West may halt a 29-year trend


ANALYSIS:THE LAST time a government party won a byelection was in 1982 when Noel Treacy of Fianna Fáil was the victor in Galway East. Twenty-one byelections have been held since then, each won by the opposition. One, in 1996, was in Dublin West, where Brian Lenihan jnr filled the seat left vacant by the death of his father.

However, this time round it looks like a Government party candidate will buck the trend of 29 years. Byelections have tended to deliver mid-term messages to government parties. However, the electorate will go to the polls on October 27th at a very early juncture in this Government’s term where there is little discernible broad cynicism about its performance.

Based on the support levels in the general election, the most likely candidate to take the seat is the Labour candidate, Patrick Nulty (28), a councillor who lives in Corduff. Labour had a 29 per cent share of the vote in this four-seat constituency. Moreover, Nulty was the second candidate on the Labour ticket along with Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. He amassed 2,688 votes and was the last candidate to be eliminated.

Fine Gael almost matched Labour for first preferences, winning some 27 per cent of the vote, well in excess of a quota in the four seats. The party’s problem is that in a byelection the quota is 50 per cent plus one. With a preponderance of left-wing parties, it is difficult to see how the party will attract transfers, unless candidate Cllr Eithne Loftus, based in Castleknock, comfortably tops the poll.

Accompanying the four leading candidates – Nulty, Loftus, Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party and David McGuinness of Fianna Fáil – on canvass has shown up a number of trends which may have a crucial bearing on the outcome. Easily the most prominent is the status of Blanchardstown hospital, which has become the dominant election issue. The closure of some wards, and doubts over its 24-hour emergency department, have put both Loftus and Nulty on the back foot. Loftus has pointed to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s reassurances that the emergency department would be retained.

“There has been a lot of scaremongering. It’s not the perfect situation that there are cutbacks. But all in all there is a positive story that the hospital will retain its status,” she said.

For his part, Nulty has said his first commitment if elected a TD will be to ask when beds that were closed will be reopened. Nulty is a left-winger who voted against going into Coalition. He is said by some to be presenting as an anti-government Government candidate but he does not accept this. “As a local representative I have carved out a reputation as taking very strong stands on issues,” he says. Interestingly there is no formal transfer pact between Fine Gael and Labour.

Coppinger, a teacher, is a plausible, serious and likeable candidate. The party’s Dublin West TD, Joe Higgins, who has a very strong base in the north and west of the constituency, has accompanied her each day. The party’s criticism of Government policies is unambiguous and was well received by constituents during a canvas of Hunstown. But to win, she must win votes, and also attract transfers, across the constituency, in areas outside Higgins’s bailiwick.

That seems unlikely. McGuinness was Fianna Fáil’s second candidate in the general election and amassed only 660 votes, albeit in the context of a nationwide meltdown. The 26-year-old is a personable and enthusiastic candidate, a music teacher from a working class background. On a canvas with party leader Micheál Martin it was clear that while an outsider to win, Fianna Fáil’s performance here will not be a disaster. Much of the raw anger towards the party has dissipated.

McGuinness is likely to position himself strongly for the next general election.