FG in pole position in Meath East as local factors likely to decide outcome
The pace with which Fine Gael moved the writ for the Meath East byelection this week and the extraordinarily short period it has provided for the campaign both play to the party’s strategy. It is clear that once it had confirmed the McEntee family was in a position to deal with the campaign, the party acted quickly to narrow the window in which national issues might encroach on its prospects.
Even if one looks solely at the cold electoral statistics in Meath East, this is a clear Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil fight with advantage to Fine Gael. The seat being contested is one of two Fine Gael won in this three-seater in February 2011.
It won 17,371 of the 42,752 votes cast, more than twice those secured by Fianna Fáil, which lost its two seats that day – one to new Fine Gael candidate Regina Doherty and the other to Labour’s Dominic Hannigan.
Break from precedents
If one assesses the contest just in terms of byelection precedents, Fianna Fáil would be seen as having the advantage. Sitting governments do not win byelections in this country. The victory of Patrick Nulty, then of the Labour Party but now Independent, in Dublin West in October 2011 was an anomaly. Apart from that, opposition candidates have won all byelections since 1982.
Fianna Fáil’s Tom Byrne is clearly the strongest Opposition candidate for this byelection. The fact he was the runner-up in 2011 and a former TD helps his position. Although his support base was originally in the northeastern part of the constituency, around Kells and Duleek, he has, as a Senator since 2011, expanded into what was formerly Mary Wallace’s turf in the heavily populated Dunshaughlin local electoral area.
As a younger candidate, Byrne is less tainted by the events that gave rise to Fianna Fáil’s collapse in 2011. The fact that Fianna Fáil nationally is about 10 points higher in the polls now than it was then gives him some wind at his back.
Byelections tend to raise the national political temperature. We can expect even louder and more pointed exchanges between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in particular in the Dáil and media in the next two weeks. Issues such as property tax and the pay reductions arising from Croke Park II have a resonance in Meath East, situated as it is in the newly urbanised so-called commuter belt. The looming assessment for the property tax will add to the stress already facing many in Meath East’s Celtic Tiger estates, both finished and unfinished.
There is one important factor, however, that will serve to insulate the Fine Gael candidate from the anti-Government backlash. Shane McEntee had been building steadily on the base he gained in the 2005 byelection when he won the seat vacated by John Bruton in the five-seat Meath constituency. In 2007, McEntee polled 16 per cent of the vote and he increased that to 21 per cent in 2011.