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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 10 December, 2019
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A Fine Gael flop, a mini Green wave and nine other things we learned from the by-election results

The day also brought a surprise victory for Sinn Féin and success for Fianna Fáil.

It was a disappointing day for Fine Gael.
It was a disappointing day for Fine Gael.
Image: Niall Carson/PA

AFTER A LONG DAY of counting, we have four new TDs in the Dáil. In Dublin Mid-West, Sinn Féin’s Mark Ward pulled off a surprise victory, while in Fingal Joe O’Brien won the Green Party’s first-ever by-election. 

In Cork North-Central and Wexford, Fianna Fáil’s Padraig O’Sullivan and Malcolm Byrne both took seats. 

But with a general election on the horizon, all parties will be looking at trends in yesterday’s results to see what any nationwide poll could hold in store for them. 

So what do these by-elections results actually tell us? 

Disappointment for Fine Gael

Fine Gael went into the by-election campaign with low expectations, hoping to get one seat out of four.

Things didn’t go to plan.

Verona Murphy, their Wexford candidate quickly landed herself in hot water as a result of a series of controversial comments about asylum seekers, creating pressure on the leadership to withdraw its support for her campaign. 

In Dublin Mid-West Emer Higgins – on the face of it an uncontroversial, polished young professional – was forced to backtrack on previous comments about a Traveller housing scheme. 

The results were worse than expected for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Losing Frances Fitzgerald’s former seat is a blow for the party, while falling into third place in Cork North-Central and Wexford were both disappointing showings.

And while questions over candidate selection will inevitably focus on Murphy, the party may also consider whether Colm Burke is the right person to contest the general election in Cork North-Central.

For a sitting senator (who, by the way, contested his first by-election in the constituency in 1994) to be beaten into third would certainly suggest a re-think might be needed ahead of the general election, where Burke is among the candidates on the party’s ticket. 

A similar point could be made about former minister James Reilly in Fingal – although the former FG deputy leader insisted after failing to secure a seat that he was not “past it” and intended to run in the general election. 

Varadkar did try and put a brave face on the day. In count centres and in a post on Twitter, he insisted that if the results were repeated in a general election all four candidates would have been elected. 

Nonetheless, while by-elections are always difficult for governments, yesterday will be seen as a missed opportunity for Fine Gael. 

Joy (and relief) for Fianna Fáil

It was a good showing for Fianna Fáil, with Micheál Martin stressing the value of winning by-elections when he talked to the media yesterday. 

It’s still hard to say whether this means the party is set to make major gains in a 2020 general election. Cork North Central is about as safe a Fianna Fáil seat as it gets. Situated in the heart of Jack Lynch territory, it would have a major embarrassment to have lost it. 

Similarly, while success in Wexford for Malcolm Byrne – taking the seat vacated by Mick Wallace in May – will be a boost for the party, the Gorey councillor is coming off the back of a successful European election run and will have benefitted from the resulting name recognition. 

The turnout – although higher in Wexford and Cork than in the Dublin constituencies – makes it very difficult for the party to predict how it might fare in a general election. 

Green wave isn’t over

The Green surge in the local and European elections in May hasn’t dissipated.

Joe O’Brien’s victory in Dublin Fingal – a large constituency with plenty of leafy, middle-class enclaves – will inspire hopes that his success can be replicated in other parts of Dublin and other urban areas in a general election.

Yesterday’s result will also do little to dampen speculation that the Green Party could end up becoming a major player in any coalition talks after the next election. 

Lessons learnt for Sinn Féin

Mary Lou McDonald will be relieved that the party has good news to celebrate after its poor showing in May. It wasn’t just the surprise win in Dublin Mid-West, but placing second in Cork North-Central was also a positive result when Sinn Fein’s focus might reasonably have been on elections in the North.

It’s no guarantee of a real electoral recovery, but it’s certainly a much-needed morale boost for the party.

Perhaps most importantly of all, as McDonald stressed yesterday, it shows that the party is trying to learn lessons after that dismal local and European election showing. 

MALCOM BYRNE ELECTED 758A8463 Malcolm Byrne celebrating his victory for Fianna Fáil in Wexford. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

New Labour

Brendan Howlin will be another party leader relieved about the result. The fact that two candidates vaulted over government candidates in Dublin Fingal and Wexford might seem little to brag about for an opposition party, but Duncan Smith and George Lawlor both produced more-than-respectable results. 

Notably, in Dublin Fingal, the party’s share of first preferences was well up on the number received in the same constituency back in 2016 -  a sign that some kind of recovery might be on the horizon after months of lacklustre polling.

Social Democrats 

The party wasn’t in contention for a single seat, even in Dublin. After gaining media attention for its no-confidence motion in housing minister Eoghan Murphy (due next week), the Social Democrats might have hoped to reap the rewards. 

It seems that party members hoping for some kind of electoral breakthrough will have to wait a little longer. 

By-the-by election 

By-elections matter, but it’s dangerous to read too much into them.

Typically seen as less pressing by voters anyway, these by-elections were also marked by a dramatically low turnout - meaning that we can’t draw too many reliable trends from yesterday. 

Turnout

We’re going to hear a lot about turnout – why it reached a record low and what it all means. Over the last 24 hours, people have blamed apathy towards politics and the cold and even the fact that the vote fell on the same day as the Late Late Toy Show. 

It could be a combination of all three, added to the fact that by-elections often attract little interest anyway.

The low turnout certainly makes it harder to predict what might happen in a general election, set to take place in springtime. 

This changes nothing

The impact on Dáil arithmetic is minimal. Fianna Fáil doesn’t look set to pull the plug on the government, and Fine Gael are on course to survive the vote of no confidence in Murphy next week.

Put simply, no one wants a late December election and this by-election shouldn’t bring us back to the polls anytime soon.

Gender balance 

Not a single woman won a seat. Instead, both Clare Daly in Dublin Fingal and Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West will be replaced by two men. Gender balance in the Dáil just got a little bit worse. 

Kicking Bishopstown up the…

Bishopstown in Cork North Central got a bit of a bashing on social media yesterday after election staff opened a ballot box from the area without a single vote in it. 

While it’s not exactly a good sign, as various election experts attested, Bishopstown is not particularly north nor indeed central. 

The area is actually in the south part of the city, so being designated Cork North Central is perhaps a sign of bad boundary drawing – which may have had an impact on the apparent lack of interest in the by-election. 

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