A shock to the political system

Voters in the Dublin South West and Roscommon-South Leitrim byelections have delivered a shock to the established parties and a warning to Sinn Féin that reflects a widespread and growing disenchantment with mainstream politics. That mood was also evident in Dublin on Saturday when tens of thousands of people from all over the country protested against water charges, in one of the biggest demonstrations in years.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour secured only a quarter of the first-preference votes between them in Dublin South West. In Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fáil's Ivan Connaughton was defeated despite the party's massive operation in the constituency aimed at securing the seat. The Coalition parties won less than one-fifth of the votes in Dublin South West and less than a quarter in Roscommon-South Leitrim.

Representatives of both Government parties have been quick to dismiss the byelection results as unrepresentative, pointing to low turnouts and voters’ perception of the contests as a cost-free way to punish unpopular politicians. Come the general election, the Government hopes, voters will return to their senses and to the traditional consensus.

Such optimism may be misplaced, as the byelection votes are consistent with the results of last week's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, which showed the Coalition parties commanding the support of just one-third of voters, compared to 20 per cent for Fianna Fáil and almost 50 per cent backing either Sinn Féin or Independents. The situation is more dramatic in Dublin, where Sinn Féin is now the largest party in the polls and left-wing groups such as the Socialist Party and People Before Profit have established a significant and growing presence.


Dublin South West also sent a warning to Sinn Féin, however, as its candidate saw his lead in first-preference votes evaporate during later counts as transfers favoured the winner, Paul Murphy. Despite its recent success, it is clear many voters still dislike or fear Sinn Féin sufficiently to place a barrier in the path of the party's progress.

Fianna Fáil’s failure to win the Roscommon-South Leitrim byelection must raise questions about the party’s ability to capitalise on disenchantment with the Coalition and may give rise to internal concerns about Micheál Martin’s leadership.

Both byelections and Saturday’s demonstration in Dublin are evidence that the much-trumpeted economic recovery has yet to lift the fortunes of many citizens. The introduction of water charges, a necessary measure on fiscal and environmental grounds, has been handled clumsily and the Government must take seriously the depth and extent of popular opposition, perhaps by reviewing and expanding the waivers available to those on low incomes.