Fianna Fáil needs to end its byelection losing streak

Pressure on Martin to steady party ship, boost morale and secure leadership with win

Irish Times political correspondent Michael O'Regan meets with candidates in the forthcoming Carlow Kilkenny byelection which takes place as a result of the appointment of Phil Hogan to the European Commission.Video: Bryan O'Brien


Fianna Fáil needs to win the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection to secure a much-needed boost for the party and its leader, Micheál Martin.

Victory would copperfasten Martin’s leadership and calm nerves in the run-up to the general election later this year or early next year. Defeat would mean the seventh byelection loss in the lifetime of the current Dáil.

While its candidate, Kilkenny-based Bobby Aylward, is regarded as favourite among the 13 candidates, nobody, least of all Fianna Fáil, is taking the result for granted.

The biggest challenge to Aylward is expected to come from Fine Gael’s candidate, Kilkenny councillor David Fitzgerald, whose victory would be a spectacular coup for his party.

There will be considerable interest in the performance of Renua Ireland, facing its first electoral test since the party’s launch earlier this year. Its candidate is Kilkenny councillor Patrick McKee, formerly of Fianna Fáil, who, at 26, is trumpeting his party’s promise of a new beginning in Irish politics.

Sinn Féin’s candidate, Kilkenny councillor Kathleen Funchion, is expected to poll well and she could lay the groundwork to challenge for a seat in the general election.

Family tradition

To win, Aylward must restore the party’s fortunes in the constituency and secure sufficient transfers. The tradition of voters sometimes using a byelection to fire a warning shot at the government of the day will be in his favour.

Fianna Fáil won three of the five seats in the constituency in 2007, but this was reduced to one – held by Martin critic John McGuinness – in recent times, as the party’s vote fell by over 19 percentage points to 28.10 per cent in the last general election.

Fine Gael was the big winner, securing three seats with 2.4 quotas, under the direction of master strategist, then long-serving TD Phil Hogan, former minister for the environment, whose appointment as EU commissioner caused the vacancy.

The other two Fine Gael TDs elected were John Paul Phelan and Pat Deering, while Ann Phelan, Minister of State for Rural Affairs, took the Labour seat.

Fitzgerald has a strong local political pedigree, given that his uncle, Kieran Crotty, and grand-uncle, Patrick Crotty, served as constituency TDs. He did well to secure the nomination over former IFA president John Bryan, rumoured to be the choice of party headquarters.

But the heady days of the last general election would seem to have passed for Fine Gael and current circumstances appear to favour Aylward more. Nevertheless, sufficient transfers could see Fitzgerald eclipse his Fianna Fáil rival.

Labour is fielding Carlow county councillor William Quinn, from Borris, and his performance will be analysed to determine Phelan’s chance of returning to the Dáil in the general election.

Defying trends

The party increased its vote by close on seven percentage points to 16.25 per cent in the last general election, but its national vote has declined sharply since going into Government.

In the 2011 election, outgoing Green Party TD and minister of state Mary White secured just 2.8 per cent of the first preference vote, and the party’s byelection candidate, Kilkenny councillor Malcolm Noonan, will be attempting to rebuild its vote.

The other declared candidates are the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s Conor Mac Liam, People Before Profit’s Adrienne Wallace, Identity Ireland’s Peter O’Loughlin, National Citizens Movement’s Elizabeth Hourihane, and Independents Noel G Walsh, David Holohan and Breda Gardner.

The campaign is being conducted on traditional lines, with the Opposition highly critical of the Government’s performance nationally and locally. Government candidates are pointing to the economic progress achieved so far and what could be done under the Coalition in the future.

The tone was set by Martin, who is involved in an intensive canvass, when the byelection writ was moved in the Dáil.

He said the last thing one should do in the constituency was mention Hogan, who introduced water charges, on the doorsteps.

However, Hogan is remembered by many locally as somebody who carefully nursed the constituency during his years in the Dáil.

Coalition Ministers are beating a path to the constituency to support their respective candidates.

The timing of Phelan’s recent announcement of a €17 million social housing programme for Kilkenny, creating an estimated 40 jobs, has not gone unnoticed.

The issues centre on the economy, jobs, emigration, taxation and the difficulties faced by small businesses and farming. There is a strong emphasis on regional development.

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