Pat Leahy: Why the four byelections matter more than most

If he loses all four, Varadkar will start the new year under serious pressure

Fine Gael election candidate Verona Murphy (C) canvassing in New Ross, Co Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Fine Gael election candidate Verona Murphy (C) canvassing in New Ross, Co Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

This day next week the votes will spill out of ballot boxes at the count centres in Dublin Mid-West, Fingal, Cork North-Central and Wexford, and the byelection candidates will learn their fate.

The results will be pored over and pondered and pronounced upon. But here’s a few things to consider before everyone gets too excited.

Political junkies love byelections (guilty, m’lud) but they often over-interpret their national significance. It’s not that they don’t matter – they do – but they often matter in ways that are not immediately apparent.

It would be folly to ignore next week’s byelections. Lots of people will go to vote. Four new TDs will be elected

The results are almost always a surprise. That’s because nobody really does any polling in advance to frame expectations. It’s also because the party organisation is often disinterested or divided, with sitting TDs rarely if ever displaying any enthusiasm for their party’s candidate. This has a significant skewing effect – Irish elections at constituency level are dominated by big personalities, and none of them will be on the ballot paper next week. The one-seat contest is also completely different to the multi-seat arithmetic of a general election.

Nonetheless, all those caveats having been entered, it would be folly to ignore next week’s byelections. Lots of people will go to vote. Four new TDs will be elected. The results will tell us some things and will matter in three principal respects.

The first is the results will have a major effect on the prevailing political narrative. If Fine Gael fails to win any of the contests – and a week out, that seems entirely possible – it will be a significant blow to the Taoiseach, because it will alter his political trajectory to one of decline. His already skimpy, shaky majority in the Dáil will have been further weakened. He will end the year on a note of electoral failure. Any Brexit bounce from the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement with Boris Johnson will be flatlined.

No amount of whining about byelections being impossible to win for governments will be able to disguise the fact that voters have rejected Fine Gael candidates.

Shaken confidence

The political nerds among us will crunch numbers, and advise qualifications. Yeah, but, no, but. Most people will just see: Varadkar lost. He lost all four. That will be bad for him, and it’s good for the Opposition. It will shake his party’s confidence in him, and it will shake his own self-confidence – a vital ingredient in any successful Fine Gael campaign next year.

If he loses all four, Varadkar will start the new year under pressure and desperate to avoid an early poll, hoping that something turns up. Losing all four byelections is a serious blow to Varadkar, perhaps the most serious in his time as Taoiseach. Conversely, if Varadkar wins one – or more than one – of the contests, he avoids most of the above.

The second way the results will matter is in the performance of the two candidates around whom such controversy has swirled for the past week. Both Lorraine Clifford-Lee and Verona Murphy have apologised profusely for their comments about minorities, particularly Travellers and immigrants – as the rules of the modern media pile-on require. Having prostrated themselves suitably, they have been allowed to proceed. But they said what they said.

If voters choose to ignore – or forgive, or endorse – them, candidates running in next year’s elections will take heed and learn. Murphy seemed genuinely ignorant of what she was talking about, while Clifford-Lee seems to have spent longer than most being young and foolish. But if the pair prosper, others may not share their apparent lack of malice.

There is a strong argument that says we cannot make subjects like Travellers and immigration out of bounds in political debate. Suppressing people’s views will only see them emerge in ugly and unpredictable forms. There is also a strong argument that says we need to look around and be very careful about how we conduct those discussions.

Media scrutiny

If the two women – probably favourites for the seats were it not for the late unpleasantness – are beaten, it will promote the practice of aggressive scrutiny of candidates by the media. General election candidates, if they haven’t done so already, will be scrubbing their social media accounts clean of any past indiscretions. Fair enough. Interrogation of the candidates is part of the media’s job in any election.

Next year is shaping up to be the biggest Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil head-to-head since Garret FitzGerald versus Charlie Haughey

The third and final thing to assess after next weekend’s count is what the numbers tell us about some of the questions we have ahead of the next election. This will take careful filtering of local and candidate effects. But we should know more about whether the surge in support for the Green Party evident in the last local and European elections is likely to be sustained next year. In general elections, people vote for candidates but they vote for parties too – and this is especially true of the Greens. Next weekend’s numbers will help us figure out if the party is on course for a major breakthrough.

It will also tell us if Labour really is in recovery, a trend that was evident (though not much commented upon) at last year’s locals. The performance of Sinn Féin’s Johnny Mythen in Wexford will be an interesting test of that party’s prospects.

But it is the big two that will make the running and the headlines. Next year is shaping up to be the biggest Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil head-to-head since Garret FitzGerald versus Charlie Haughey. If we look carefully, we will know next week a bit more about how that contest stands.

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