Voter volatility the likely hallmark of Meath East byelection
Coalition parties face uphill struggle to retain share of vote achieved in general election
Shane McEntee: his death last December gave rise to the Meath East byelection
The Meath East byelection was caused by the death last December of Fine Gael TD and minister of state Shane McEntee. Overall, its outcome will make no difference to the Dáil arithmetic where the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition has a huge majority.
However, symbolically it is significant as it will give a strong indicator of how the Government is performing at mid-term. It will also reveal the extent of the Fianna Fáil resurgence and what progress has been made by Sinn Féin.
This relatively new three-seater, created for the 2007 elections, is a weathervane constituency. It is a traditional rural seat in many ways but many small towns such as Ratoath, Dunshaughlin, Ashbourne and Dunboyne have become big commuter towns serving Dublin. Numerous voters in those towns did well during the Celtic Tiger years but have suffered more than others from unemployment, salary cuts and new taxes.
The Government parties did very well in 2011, making huge gains at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael, with 40 per cent of the vote, won two seats while Labour’s Dominic Hannigan took the third with 21 per cent. Fianna Fáil’s vote collapsed to below 20 per cent while Sinn Féin was on 9 per cent.
Just as 2011 flipped the 2007 results, this byelection is expected to reflect ongoing economic – and by extension, voter – volatility.
The evidence from national opinion polls and from the doorsteps is that Fine Gael and Labour face a struggle, but of a different magnitude for each.
Labour’s vote share looks vulnerable to a big drop, although Eoin Holmes is a fine candidate. Fine Gael’s candidate is Shane McEntee’s daughter, Helen. She is a 26-year-old politics graduate and will get a sympathy vote but may struggle. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin looked poised to capitalise. Fianna Fáil’s candidate is Thomas Byrne, a former TD, who has argued that Meath East needs a strong Opposition TD. Sinn Féin has a new candidate, Darren O’Rourke, who has acquitted himself well. Séamus McDonagh of the Workers’ Party seems strongest of the others.
The Government parties have been criticised for broken promises, austerity and the new charges, including the property tax. The state of rural roads in Co Meath, local health services, and variable broadband availability, also feature.
The consensus is it will be a two-horse race between McEntee and Byrne. A lot will depend on how Labour and Sinn Féin perform as their transfers will be important. McEntee is the slight favourite but Fianna Fáil is increasingly confident it can pull off a surprise.