FG in pole position in Meath East as local factors likely to decide outcome

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

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.

The political logic of running a relation as the candidate in the byelection is as compelling therefore in Meath East as it always is. In this instance, that logic is reinforced by the fact that his daughter, Helen, was centrally involved in his political operation on a full-time basis as his personal assistant. As well as having the advantage of being female, she is an able candidate and she shows considerable courage putting herself into the political fray, at a relatively young age, less than three months after the death of her father.

Shane McEntee’s passing and the tragic circumstances in which it occurred will form a particular context to this campaign which is likely to shape the outcome more than any precedents or national issues. Fine Gael recognises this clearly. Within hours of Helen McEntee’s selection, the party press office and several others posted a campaign video on YouTube, Introducing Helen McEntee, in which she says little of herself but speaks poignantly about the political lessons she learnt from her father.

Helen McEntee as candidate

While her selection was met with cynical comment in some media, that will matter little in Meath East where Shane McEntee’s support was strong, sympathy for his family is widespread and where even the other parties and their candidates speak with genuine affection for him as a popular and non-partisan public representative.

When it comes to the other parties Labour was always going to struggle. It has an incumbent TD but no obvious byelection contender. Labour is also falling in the national polls and, in the circumstances of this byelection, was always likely to take the brunt of electoral punishment for austerity policies. It is also clear it was blindsided by Fine Gael in the rush to announce the byelection. As of yet, Labour has not even selected a candidate. It all suggests that the Labour effort in Meath East will be perfunctory in the hope that it can thereby minimise any national political damage from it.

Sinn Féin is on a more long-term project with its new candidate, Darren O'Rourke. Meath East borders four constituencies where Sinn Féin has sitting TDs – Meath West, Cavan-Monaghan, Louth and Dublin North West – and is therefore an obvious target for a gain. O’Rourke is a policy adviser to the party’s health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.*

In what will become a bipolar Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil contest, Labour, Sinn Féin, the smaller parties and any Independents are likely to be left behind.

* This article was amended on 09/03/13 to correct a factual error

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