Byelection may reveal the shape of things to come

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

INSIDE POLITICS: In three weeks, the voters of Meath East will have made their decision on who should fill the Dáil vacancy created by the death of Shane McEntee. The question is whether the result will amount to a verdict on the Government’s performance after two years in office or represent a purely local response to a tragic event.

Both factors will come into play as the voters in the constituency make up their minds on who to support on March 27th. That will make it impossible to read too much into the result but that is always the way with byelections in any case.

During the long years of Fianna Fáil hegemony between the 1987 and 2011 the party never managed to win a byelection while it was in office but that didn’t stop it winning power at six general elections in a row.

The uncertainty in Meath East is whether the circumstances surrounding Shane McEntee’s death will be a more important factor in determining the outcome than the natural instinct of the electorate to always vote against the government of the day in byelections.

While it will be impossible to read too much into the result, the outcome will still be hugely important for all of the political parties. Even allowing for the vagaries of byelections, it will provide some indication about their current standing in the eyes of the electorate. The performance of the candidates will also be hugely important for the morale of their respective parties.

From a purely political view, the timing could not be worse as far as both Government parties are concerned. As the voters of Meath East go to the polls, the householders of the constituency will have assessments from the Revenue Commissioners detailing their property tax liability dropping through letterboxes.

Property tax has long been an emotive issue in this country. Most politicians know that some kind of property tax is necessary to fund local government and to avoid further increases in income tax but all of the parties have over the years exploited the issue for political advantage.

While Fianna Fáil is the worst offender, being responsible for the abolition of domestic rates in 1977, no party has an unblemished record on the issue. Fine Gael began the process of undermining local tax in the early 1970s by campaigning to have the health charges removed from the rates. Fianna Fáil just went one step further in 1977 by offering total abolition as an election ploy.

Then in the 1980s Fine Gael and Labour introduced a badly worked out residential property tax which was never properly enforced for fear of inflaming the electorate. This tax was abolished by the same two parties in government in 1996 in a failed effort to curry favour with the electorate the following year.

The gestation of the latest property tax provoked further manoeuvring. Fianna Fáil established a Commission on Taxation in 2009 which recommended the introduction of a valuation-based property tax, very much along the lines of what is happening now.

The following year the party agreed with the troika that a system of local property tax should be introduced and it was included as a part of the bailout programme. However, Fine Gael claimed in the 2011 election campaign to be opposed to property tax on principal private residences.

Now that Fine Gael has introduced a property tax, Fianna Fáil is in the process of performing another somersault, objecting to the tax on the basis that it is not quite the same as the one to which it agreed with the troika.

Political weapon

The cynical use of property tax as a political weapon over the years fuelled public opposition to a necessary measure and it is hardly a surprise that it is now a hot issue. Still, Fianna Fáil’s reversion to cynicism so soon after arguing in favour of the measure raises doubts about it credibility as a party of government.

The party has staged a significant recovery in the opinion polls over the past 12 months but restoring credibility as a potential party of government is the critical goal. The performance of the party’s byelection candidate former TD and current Senator, Thomas Byrne, should provide some pointers about its long-term prospects.

While Fianna Fáil won just under 20 per cent of the vote in Meath East in 2011, it took a whopping 43.5 per cent in 2007 – if Byrne can come anywhere near that he will be in with a good chance.

Resentment factor

The property tax is not the only issue that could help the Opposition candidates and cause problems for the Government hopefuls. The resentment among public sector workers at the terms of the extension to the Croke Park agreement will also be a factor in the byelection.

Fine Gael is hoping that the wide affection felt for Shane McEntee in Meath will be enough to counter the Government’s unpopularity and translate into support for his daughter Helen. The deep involvement of the wider McEntree family in the community, particularly the GAA, will clearly be important to the outcome.

Still the task of winning the seat is a formidable one. The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 2011 but it was just 26 per cent is 2007. Helen McEntee will need to be well ahead on the first count if she is to win.

The Labour Party byelection candidate will do well to get the 12 per cent share of the vote the party got in 2007.

Sinn Féin doubled its vote between 2007 and 2011 and will be hoping to do so again while the Greens, the Workers’ Party and Independents will all be hoping to build for the future. Regardless of the factors that determine the outcome, the result will give everybody something to think about.

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