Government willing to take byelection flak


Party considerations are driving attitudes in the Dáil on the calling of byelections, writes NOEL WHELAN

OVER THE course of a long political career, the late Fine Gael TD Jim Mitchell served as a minister in several government departments, was chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and ultimately deputy leader of his party.

He was also something of a byelection specialist within the Fine Gael organisation. He was credited, for example, with masterminding Liam Skelly’s victory in the 1982 Dublin West byelection which denied Charles Haughey the additional seat his minority government had assumed it would win on giving the European commissioner’s job to Richard Burke.

In November 1998, Mitchell agreed to pen the foreword to a book I had written on electoral law. In it he argued that a particular weakness in our system was the uncertainty and short-termism of our politics. The dangers of a government falling suddenly was a constant concern and this, Mitchell argued, led to “an aversion to taking long-term decisions necessary in any society which might be temporarily unpopular or which, at least, might not yield immediate political benefit”.

This effect, Mitchell felt, was heightened whenever local elections, European elections or byelections were pending.

Among the dramatic proposals Mitchell suggested to alleviate this problem was that casual vacancies in the Dáil should be filled by co-option rather than byelection.

Inevitably, when a politician suggests that byelections are a bad idea, they leave themselves open to the accusation of being scared of the electorate or being anti-democratic. I was struck, therefore, that in this reflective piece Mitchell offered relatively radical views on the issue.

A range of strong arguments can be advanced to say that byelections are the wrong way to fill Dáil vacancies. They distract both government and opposition from governing, policy-making and parliamentary activity.

They are, in fact, undemocratic and their outcomes unrepresentative because they give voters in a particular constituency a distorted electoral impact.

The pattern of Irish byelections in modern times suggests that the system operates strongly against whichever parties are in government, thereby causing even greater instability and short-termism.

Anyone seeking a more recent, calm debate on the merits or demerits of our byelection system should look to an exchange initiated by the Trinity political scientist Michael Gallagher on the website a couple of weeks ago. He asks: “Should byelections be abolished” and in subsequent posts he and other political scientists consider the alternatives, including substitute lists as used for European elections and the Maltese “count back” system where ballots cast for the deceased or resigning member at the last general election are re-examined and the replacement chosen on the basis of those voters’ preferences.

The primary concerns of the online contributors were the need to ensure more democratic representation and/or more prompt filling of vacancies. Gallagher himself comes to the conclusion, paraphrasing Churchill, that byelections are the worst possible method of filling casual vacancies with the exception of all others methods.

By comparison, the debate about byelections in the Dáil and the media this week is not shaped by considerations of democratic theory or political systems design. The attitudes of both the Government and the Opposition derive purely from party political considerations.

The current situation is almost unique. We have a two-party minority government at a time when there are simultaneous vacancies in three different Dáil constituencies. In addition, Fianna Fáil has little prospect of winning any of them in a byelection. The timing of these byelections is, therefore, likely to impact significantly on the duration of the Government.

On those occasions that all TDs manage to turn up and press the right button, the Government has a de facto Dáil majority of about five votes when one includes Fianna Fáilers not currently under the party whip and Independents who regularly support the Government. The cumulative impact of three simultaneous byelection losses and the arrival of three new Opposition deputies would be particularly destabilising for a two-party government with such tight numbers and a Dáil in the last third of its term.

Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin are pushing for the byelections not only because they know they could each win one but because a six to eight-week media focus on a three-way byelection campaign would be as intense as midterm elections. Given the poll trends, this could only do the Government harm.

Government reluctance arises not only from the fact that it faces likely defeat in all three constituencies but from the fact that holding byelections while grappling with a banking crisis and a currency crisis and simultaneously seeking to frame another €3 billion in cuts and initiate a debate about the need for radical welfare and tax reform would make their political position even more difficult.

The Government is likely to face repeated and increasingly intense political, media and maybe even legal pressure to hold these byelections as the months pass. The longer they leave it, the more unsustainable their position becomes. They seem prepared, however, to take the heat.

For now, at least, they see it as the lesser of two evils.