Results show electorate is deeply disillusioned with political process


THERE is a tidal wave of political unrest out there which has wreaked havoc on the establishment parties and left them deeply shocked. Brian Lenihan may have limped home with the help of cross party transfers but after these by elections, few TDs can afford the luxury of a good night's sleep.

But a win is a win is a win. And the Dublin West success represented "the heights up to heaven" as far as, Bertie Ahern was concerned. Having created a little bit of history by losing five by elections on the trot Fianna Fail has finally come good under Mr Ahern.

For a time, it seemed it would all go horribly wrong. The party's vote was down and the rule book suggested that both seats would be lost, to independents. But the rule book was shredded the pendulum of public opinion swing during the course of the counts and Fianna Fail emerged as victors in Dublin West.

It was an unmitigated disaster for the Labour Party. A wipe out of unprecedented proportions took place in Dublin West where the party's vote dropped from 23 per cent to 4 per cent. And in Donegal North East, where the party had hoped to set up Sean Maloney as a serious contender for the next general election, it was left at the starting gate with 12 per cent of the poll.

This was not an ordinary midterm reverse for the Government parties. The results carried a more profound message. They mirrored deep disillusionment with the established political process and the way in which the main political parties have responded to the needs and desires of the people. The tide is going out on old certainties.

The most immediate result has been an increase in the floating vote, as was obvious in the drift of support to independent candidates in both constituencies. But the most positive change, from Fianna Fail's point of view, was the party's ability to attract voting transfers from traditional enemies.

This development reflects the removal of the ban on sharing power with other parties. Fianna Fail is no longer regarded as exclusivist by the electorate. And it was a strange quirk of fate that the political departure so strongly espoused by the late Brian Lenihan should be of immediate benefit to his son in this Dublin West by election.

The successes of Fianna Fail should not, and almost certainly will not, blind it to the mammoth job that lies ahead. For if it is to regain the ground lost in the 1992 general election, it will have to do much better. The party has actually lost ground since 1992, with its percentage of the vote falling by six points in Donegal and by five points in Dublin.

Fianna Fail's success was fashioned from the failure of the other Dail parties. Fine Gael's vote held fairly solid, dropping by a single point in Dublin and by three points in Donegal. Labour's disastrous showing has already been catalogued. The Progressive Democrats managed a single point increase, to 5 per cent in Dublin West where it once held a seat, but it did not contest Donegal. Democratic Left surrendered without a fight in both constituencies.

It would be the height of foolishness to try to model the outcome of the next general election on the basis of these figures, for people vote differently when the selection of a government is at stake. And independents tend to fare less well.

But there are messages to be read here. The likelihood of a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats government being formed is diminishing. The Labour Party has moved back into the frame as a possible partner for Fianna Fail in 1997. And the idea of a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael government being formed is no longer politically unthinkable. After all, it was Fine Gael transfers that finally elected Fianna Fail's candidates in both constituencies.

In the rush to congratulate the winners, the Dail parties should not lose sight of the gallant losers. With 29 per cent of the vote, Harry Blaney put up a marvellous show in Donegal when he came within an ace of repeating the coup Cecilia Keaveney's father, Paddy Keaveney, had pulled off for the Independent Blaney camp in 1976. And Dublin West supported radical left politicians when Joe Higgins took 24 per cent of the vote and Tomas Mac Giolla won 10 per cent for the Workers' Party.

The performance of Sinn Fein was impressive, if not spectacular. In Donegal, where Harry Blaney was running a green campaign, the party's vice president, Pat Doherty took a very respectable 8 per cent of the vote. And, in Dublin West, the party's vote doubled to 6 per cent. The icing on Sinn Fein's cake was the knowledge that, in Dublin, it had outpolled the Labour Party. Not only that, its performance served notice on Fianna Fail that in the next general election it is likely to win Dail seats in the Border constituencies. Gerry Adams could not ask for a more convincing reason in urging a resumption of the ceasefire on the IRA.

During the campaign, a succession of TDs from all parties expressed open eyed wonder and dismay over the depths of deprivation and social neglect they had encountered in parts of Dublin West. It was as if they had been cocooned on another planet. Now that the contests are over, the Dail parties cannot return to that comfortable state of self induced ignorance. There are many other wastelands on the fringes of Dublin which are threatening gross social disruption due to endemic unemployment, drug abuse and high crime rates.

The Dublin West result was a cry for help from the 44 per cent of the electorate which felt it worth its while to get out and vote. And, in Donegal North East, the electorate is still spitting defiance at the political establishment. All the Dail parties have reason to return to the political drawing board.