A familiar pattern in Meath

The two big beasts on the Irish political stage, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, slugged it out in the Meath East byelection this week before Helen McEntee emerged with the spoils. It was an achievement based largely on public sympathy following the death of her father Shane McEntee and the rewards were relatively modest: a boost to the confidence of Fine Gael and personal satisfaction for the victor. In terms of Dáil arithmetic, it will make little difference. But that should not disguise the strong performance of Ms McEntee in retaining her father's seat and her contribution to Fine Gael's ascendancy in the constituency.

Fianna Fáil will take comfort from a result that, if repeated in a general election, would return a seat to the party in a district it has long dominated. Severe damage caused to its vote in the general election, following economic meltdown, has been partially repaired and party leader, Micheál Martin can now point to tangible progress. Much ground remains to be recovered, however, as the party’s vote fell well short of traditional levels.

The disastrous performance of Labour Party candidate Eoin Holmes, who trailed home in fifth place with only 5 per cent of the vote was the talking point of the contest. The result is likely to rattle nerves within the junior Coalition party. The hard work of recent years was undone when support slipped from 21 per cent in the general election to a level last reached in 2002. That slippage is likely to spark demands for a more assertive approach by Eamon Gilmore in pursuing the party's agenda in government. It may also raise questions about his effectiveness as leader. Such a response would be understandable. But it may be misplaced in view of the volatile performance of previous Labour candidates in this constituency and the type of campaign waged by Mr Holmes. He stood for gay marriage and a suicide clause in legislation on abortion while the leading candidates adopted muted attitudes in this very conservative constituency.

Sinn Féin failed to make the breakthrough it had hoped for on the back of widespread mortgage difficulties, looming tax increases, a solid Dáil performance and an unpopular Government. It did succeed in pushing up its vote by four points, to 13 per cent. But that result was little better than it achieved in the byelection of 2005, when it beat Labour into fourth place. Clearly, the party has much work to do if it wishes to develop broad support and pose a threat to Fianna Fáil.


Disillusionment with established parties generated a 7 per cent vote for Ben Gilroy and the Direct Democracy Ireland party. Too much should not be made of this development, however, as Meath constituencies often produce protest votes involving Independent and other candidates ranging from 11 to 14 per cent. The pattern was unchanged on this occasion.