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Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland
Column The Meath East by-election is small-scale but still has lessons for politicians
While the by-election will have no immediate impact on the arithmetic of government, the results demonstrate that Labour and Sinn Féin need to take stock of their approaches, writes Eoin O’Malley.

BY-ELECTIONS AREN’T REALLY very important. There is a flurry of activity, and people like me get momentarily overexcited, but a few days later the flurry has calmed and when we observe the political landscape, nothing has changed.

There have been a few by-elections that seemed to matter. In 1979 a by-election defeat for Fianna Fáil led to Jack Lynch resigning as Taoiseach. But that was probably just the proximate cause. Charles Haughey would have succeeded in removing him anyway. A series of by-elections in the mid 1990s meant that the Rainbow coalition could take office in late 1994, a possibility not there after the 1992 general election. And another series of by-elections that were to take place in 2011 would have spelled the end of the Fianna Fáil-Green government had it not collapsed anyway.

The Meath East by-election has no immediate impact on the arithmetic of government, but it might have some lessons for the government and for us as political observers.

Don’t read too much into by-election results

We should be careful not to read too much into by-election results. These are second order elections; elections in which the government is not chosen or government policy is not being set, so voters tend to behave differently. Fewer people bother to vote and those that do tend to vote for parties or candidates that they wouldn’t normally support and are unlikely to support in the next election.

So let’s not get too excited by the reasonable showing of Direct Democracy Ireland, or even Labour’s poor vote. What we should look for are aspects of the result we wouldn’t normally expect and there are some things that are surprising and so might allows us learn some lessons.

The first surprise might be Fine Gael’s strong performance. It’s a government party and the government is not very popular – 73 per cent are dissatisfied with the government according to yesterday’s Sunday Times poll. Yet the main party in government topped the poll and drew transfers from other candidates. Some might consider that it represents a sympathy vote for the McEntee family, but I’d be sceptical that this can account for all of the strong vote. It might show that those who voted for Fine Gael are reasonably satisfied with what it has done in governments, and perhaps this is even a reward for what some might see as successes: in the deals on the promissory notes and the Croke Park II deal (remember for Fine Gael voters cutting public sector pay might be a success).

Woes for Sinn Féin and Labour

The other surprise is the Sinn Féin didn’t do better. This is a protest party, and the only biggish party that opposes the current austerity policies. It should be the natural home for voters unhappy with the current government. Yet most people who didn’t support a government party voted for Fianna Fáil, a party that does not really oppose the government/Troika policies and is inextricably linked to the economic crisis.

That Sinn Féin could not do better in these circumstances shows that, at least in some parts of Ireland, it is not seen as a viable alternative and not even an acceptable protest party. While the party has seen a steady, if slow, rise in support, it might now want to reconsider its positioning itself so far to the left or whether Gerry Adams is a suitable leader for the electorate in the South.

The other ‘story’ of Meath East is Labour’s vote collapsing. It was an awful result, but one that polls had led us to expect, and one that political scientists could predict. Small parties tend to get the blame in government, usually because it’s supporters are more ideological and more disappointed with deviations from party policy and the inevitable compromise of government. And it was Labour that broke its promises on child benefit, tuition fees etc. while FIne Gael has broadly delivered on its promises.

But the result has led some to speculate that there be a leadership challenge against Gilmore. It’s unlikely as this creates too much uncertainty; even if a majority in the Labour parliamentary party want him to go, the same majority won’t agree on who should replace him.

In any case, what could a new leader do? Would he or she pull Labour out of government at a time when it’s so low in the polls? Labour’s problems stem from having promised what it couldn’t deliver, and a new leader won’t be able to deliver either.

But it will put pressure on Labour to be more aggressive in government. It should mean that Labour backbenchers, fearing losing their seats, will get more vocal in opposition to unpopular government policies.

Autumn reshuffle would relieve pressure

A way of assuaging this would be to have a reshuffle in the Autumn. One has been promised, but Irish reshuffles tend to be conservative affairs. Labour can’t afford to be conservative. A promised reshuffle will keep some backbenchers loyal for the next few months. If Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte were retired it would allow younger TDs get experience in cabinet and more become junior ministers. Younger ministers might be more pushy in government and in public debates. This is essential for its longer term recovery.

In the medium term it can expect a poor result from the local and European elections next year. Labour’s only hope is for an economic recovery which allows it to deliver on some promises by the next election.

Eoin O’Malley (@AnMailleach) is a lecturer in Irish politics at School of Law and Government, DCU. To read more articles by Eoin click here.

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