It is not too often in the Irish electoral context that you can say it was a good day for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But the winners of the byelection in Meath East yesterday were undoubtedly the two traditional parties, who garnered a whopping 75 per cent of the vote between them. Amid all the flux and volatility, uncertainty and hardship, it is a remarkable statistic that three out of four voters plumped for the old reliables.
Byelections are not usually critical in the political context but occasionally they can be. Sometimes they can give a party a temporary morale boost or can shore up a leader’s authority. At other times they can give an unwelcome jolt to a governing party well into its term. That said, there are often local factors, personalities and quirks that prevent them from being reliable indicators of national trends.
However, the most significant outcome of this election (and one that will have profound implications) was the dismal performance of the Labour Party, which saw its vote share collapse from 21 per cent to just 4.5 per cent – that is four-fifths of its support evaporating within the space of two years. Unsurprisingly, that was the talking point from early morning in the count centre in the Donaghmore-Ashbourne GAA club.
The evisceration of the party in the byelection (despite the liveliness of its candidate, Eoin Holmes) could not be ascribed to local factors or once-off peculiarities. The few Labour TDs who were brave enough to show up privately accepted it was a black day for the party and would lead to soul-searching and uncomfortable questions about its role and strategy in government.
Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte urged supporters to be brave enough to stay the course. But the clear evidence on the doorsteps was that, as far as voters were concerned, Labour in government was following a programme that diverged widely from its pre-election promises – even allowing for the compromises entailed in being in coalition.
In contrast, while the strong endorsement of Helen McEntee owed a huge amount to a sympathy vote in memory of her late father, Shane McEntee, it would be churlish to diminish the sense from Fine Gael supporters that the party is adhering more to its popular mandate.
The byelection in itself will not be a deal-breaker for Labour but Eamon Gilmore and the party's leadership will be thrust into an awkward spotlight, defending its role in government, even to its most loyal parliamentarians. The reality is that something needs to change for Labour (internally as well as an upturn in the overall economy) or it will be doomed to the same kind of fate as the Fianna Fáil-Green combination in 2011.
Of course, Fine Gael is the big winner. For the party to retain 38 per cent of the vote (just two points shy of its general election showing) was a major success. Fianna Fáil was almost as upbeat yesterday, with a legion of its TDs milling around happily. A 13-point increase for the party from its dismal 19 per cent showing in the general election constitutes a very good day for the party and for Senator Thomas Byrne. It shows the strong level of its resurgence and all but guarantees it a seat in this constituency in the next election.
A couple of rules usually apply to byelections. One is that opposition parties tend to win – this principle was followed in an unbroken pattern for 30 years over 21 successive elections. This Government has confounded that twice, this time mainly because of another cast-iron rule of byelections – the dynasty rule. The sons and daughters of TDs who die in office tend to be the strongest candidates, on the basis of name recognition and sympathy.
Another feature of byelections is that the candidate in first place after the first count is seldom usurped. Only twice has it happened in the past two decades. In 1999 Labour's Mary Upton came from second place to win the byelection to fill her late brother Pat's seat in Dublin South Central. In 2005, the Independent candidate Catherine Murphy was placed second. In both instances they were within two percentage points of their FF rival and were always going to attract anti-government transfers. With a six-point advantage after the first count yesterday, it was fanciful that McEntee would be caught.
A surprising outcome of the byelection was the poor performance of Sinn Féin. It had a new and presentable candidate in Darren O’Rourke and he was expected to increase the party support significantly. However, while its support increased from just under 9 per cent to just under 13 per cent, the gain was hardly spectacular.
The party had invested a lot of resources and energy into the campaign and will be disappointed with the result. On the basis of this result it won't be close to challenging for a seat in the next general election. In contrast, some of the protest vote that might have been destined for Sinn Féin accumulated around Ben Gilroy and his Direct Democracy party.
Important psychological win
He ran a high-visibility campaign locally (if below the radar in the national media) that majored on the argument that the political system needs to be dismantled and re-imagined. By securing 1,568 votes and relegating Holmes to fifth place, he scored an important psychological win.
Beyond Labour’s obvious pains, caution is required before extrapolating any long-term national trend from this byelection. Micheál Martin commented yesterday that besides anti-Government sentiment at doorsteps there was also an evident anti-politics feeling.
Nevertheless, the none-of-the-above element was muted. Independent candidates and smaller parties won only 10 per cent of the vote, only half of their showing in recent opinion polls. And the turnout of 38.5 per cent was not at all bad, given the inclement weather, allied to the general sense among the population that byelections are less than riveting experiences. What can be said is that after all the travails Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil remain the dominant forces in Irish politics.
Harry McGee is political correspondent