Warning signs starting to flash for Government parties

If all expected byelections are held on the same day it could be dangerous for the Coalition, as history has shown

Happier times: Labour candidate Patrick Nulty (right) celebrates his position in the lead in the 2011 Dublin West byelection. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Happier times: Labour candidate Patrick Nulty (right) celebrates his position in the lead in the 2011 Dublin West byelection. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times


The shock resignation of Independent TD Patrick Nulty could prove dangerous for the Coalition as it will trigger a byelection in Dublin West that will be a crucial test of both Government parties.

The fact that it may be just one of a clutch of byelections held on the same day in the autumn will only add to the danger.

If Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes is elected to the European Parliament in May, a byelection will be required in Dublin South-West and if, as expected, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan is appointed as Ireland’s next EU commissioner, another will be needed in Carlow-Kilkenny.

The prevailing wisdom in Leinster House is that all of the byelections will be held on the same day but that could be a risky proposition for the Coalition.

Past byelections
In the past, byelections have shown a capacity to undermine governments and leaders at regular intervals.

Back in 1965, the victory of Labour’s Eileen Desmond in the Mid Cork byelection prompted Fianna Fáil taoiseach Seán Lemass to call an immediate general election rather than attempt to continue on as a minority government.

In November 1979, Jack Lynch’s authority as taoiseach was fatally undermined when the Fianna Fáil government lost two byelections in Cork on the same day. The failure of Lynch, the only Corkman to ever hold the office of taoiseach, to win even one of the byelections in his native county spelled the end of his leadership and he resigned a month later even though his government held a huge majority in the Dáil.

In 1994, Cork featured again in a series of byelections that played a part in bringing down the Fianna Fáil Labour government that had come into power two years earlier with more than 100 TDs, amounting to a record majority.

In June 1994, Fianna Fáil lost two seats in byelections in Dublin South-Central and Mayo West, caused by the resignations of Dr John O’Connell and the departure to Europe of Pádraig Flynn.

Then on November 10th, when the coalition was already under severe stress, the curse of Cork byelections struck again with Fianna Fáil losing out in two held in the city on the same day.

The combined results of the four byelections changed the balance of power in the Dáil and enabled Labour to ditch Fianna Fáil and form a new government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

More recently, the Donegal South-West byelection of November 2010 had a dramatic impact on the fate of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government and hastened its downfall as well as giving Sinn Féin a massive boost in the run-up to the general election of 2011.

Another factor in Irish politics is that byelections tend to go against the government of the day. In fact, for the 30 years before 2011 no government party succeeded in winning a byelection.

The pattern was actually broken by Nulty in October 2011 when he won the Dublin West seat left vacant by the death of Brian Lenihan.

Now, with Nulty’s sudden resignation, it is anybody’s guess who will win the seat. Fianna Fáil’s David McGuinness came second in 2011 and it will be a critical test of his party to see if he can win the seat this time. The party does not have a single TD in the capital and a win for McGuinness would be a huge morale boost for the party.

Stiff competition
However, he will face stiff competition for the seat. Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party was not far behind him in 2011 and will fancy her chances in a constituency where her party colleague Joe Higgins is a TD. Fine Gael had a poor showing in 2011, with some people in the party blaming sitting TD Leo Varadkar for it. There is speculation in the party that Senator Eamonn Coghlan, the former 5,000 metres world champion, will be the candidate.

Labour will have a battle to get a respectable vote even though the constituency TD Joan Burton is one of the most popular figures in the Government while Sinn Féin will fancy its chances of increasing its vote in the constituency with candidate Paul Donnelly.

While it is expected that the byelection will take place in the autumn along with the other expected contests, there is an argument for moving quickly and getting it over for better or worse.