Although mid term by elections are notoriously unreliable indicators of national trends, the voting patterns in Dublin West and Donegal North East serve to underline the increasing volatility of the electorate. Fianna Fail will no doubt be heartened, and not a little relieved, by its success in both contests. But, like the other main parties, it will know that the main message coming through from these by elections is that the public is cynical about, and disaffected from, the political establishment.

The remarkable performance of the Militant Labour candidate, Mr Joe Higgins, in Dublin West who came within striking distance of taking the Fianna Fail seat was not just a Vote against water charges it was a protest vote by those people in the constituency who suffer at the hands of a grossly unfair and inequitable tax system, who have gained little from the economic boom and who feel betrayed by Labour in government.

Neither can the political establishment take any comfort from the fact that only some 44 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote in Dublin West, despite weeks of intensive campaigning and national media coverage. indeed the turnout in areas of poverty and deprivation like Neilstown and Cherry Orchard was even lower. The message is a stark and bleak one: a sizeable proportion of the electorate no longer believes that the main political parties can change their lives.

Fianna Fail's success in securing both seats, and thereby ending a long losing streak in by elections, will provide a fillip for the party leader, Mr Ahern. Ms Cecilia Kavanagh's achievement in winning the Donegal North East seat, despite the strong sympathy vote that helped Mr Harry Blaney, was especially noteworthy. in Dublin West, Mr Brian Lenihan's ability to garner a huge proportion of transfers will also encourage party workers. That said, the small print of these results is less encouraging for Fianna Fail. The party vote declined in both constituencies, but especially in Dublin West where it tumbled to just over 24.6 per cent. There is little to justify the confident claims of those like the party whip, Mr Noel Dempsey, who said that Fianna Fail is poised to sweep up in Dublin at the next general election. Mr Ahern, like Mr Reynolds before him, is still battling to halt the erosion in the party's core vote.

For the main Government parties the message is a mixed one. If Fine Gael is not being blamed by the electorate, neither is it getting much credit for the country's strong economic performance. The implications for the Labour Party are altogether more serious. The party's vote collapsed from some 22 per cent at the last election to less than four per cent in Dublin West. In Donegal, Senator Sean Maloney of Labour was the only candidate to enjoy the advantage of a Letterkenny base and the only one who had contested the last election. But his performance was still a major disappointment . . .

There are lessons here for Labour which no amount of flannel from the party's expensive any of handlers and advisers can obscure: many of those who voted Labour at the last election are dismayed and disappointed by the arrogance that the party has exhibited in government. For many Labour voters, the recent fund raising controversies, which reflected so poorly on the party's political judgment, was clearly the final straw.