Since the turn of the century, there have been 14 by-elections in Ireland to seats vacated in Dáil Éireann. This number will increase to 18 on Friday 29th November, when the 4 vacancies created by the recent European elections are filled. These by-elections are taking place in the constituencies of Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West, Cork North Central and Wexford.
The first rule of thumb is that Government parties do not win by-elections. Only once in the past 30 years has a Government party come out on top, when Fine Gael’s Gabrielle McFadden retained the seat following the untimely death of her sister Nicky from Motor-Neurone disease in 2014.
7 by-elections this century have been held to fill vacancies caused by the death of a TD. On 4 of these occasions the seats were retained by the incumbent party. In comparison in the 7 by-elections caused by resignation, the seat was only retained within the same party or organisation on two occasions. This illustrates that the circumstances do seem to have a significant impact on the result.
Independent Michael Fitzmaurice took the seat vacated by his ally, Luke Flanagan in Roscommon upon his election as a MEP. While in 2005 Fine Gael retained former Taoiseach John Bruton’s seat in Meath when he was appointed as EU Ambassador to the US. That particular by-election was effectively a two horse race between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. At that time Fianna Fáil were in Government and this didn’t help their by-election performance (despite the fact they would win the following General Election in 2007).
What this underlines is that history is not on Fine Gael’s side going into this week’s by-elections.
What will be key in this by-election is the level of the first preference vote secured. In a general election it is possible to come from an underwhelming, first preference result to still take a seat on transfers. But with only one seat available in by-elections, the process changes considerably.
In 10 of the last 14 by-elections, the candidate who topped the poll eventually held on to win the seat. In the other four elections the candidate who came a close second on the first count was ultimately victorious. This shows it is essential to get a very high proportion of the first preference, which traditionally has made it difficult for smaller parties and independent candidates to succeed. Being transfer friendly is good, but only if you can garner enough support to be competitive from the outset.
Another feature of by-elections is that they don’t garner that much interest among the public, leading to decreased turnout. In the 14 by-elections held this century turnout was an average of 15 points lower than in the General Election in those constituencies. This rises to a 19% turnout decrease when the by-election wasn’t coupled with either a referendum or local elections.
Given that this week’s elections are occurring on a stand-alone basis and with a general election expected in 2020, it is fair to speculate that there won’t be a lot of enthusiasm. In fact turnout could be comparable to the low of 34.5% achieved in the Dublin South West when Paul Murphy of the Anti Austerity Alliance replaced Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes following the 2014 European Elections.
The exception to the low turn-out rule was in October 2010 in Donegal South West where a stand alone by-election was held that saw Pearse Doherty elected to the Dáil for the first time. However the circumstances for that by-election were unique, with the voters in Donegal going to the polls only days after the Government had formally applied to the European Commission/ European Central Bank/ International Monetary Fund troika for a ‘bailout’. With public anger against the Government rising all across the country, that election saw a 57.3% turnout.
There is no similar catalyst on this occasion, so turn out is likely to be low.
A low turn-out will benefit established candidates and parties with a solid core vote, so Friday could present an opportunity for some of the larger opposition parties to make a statement in advance of the next general election. Of comfort to the winners is the stat that in 14 by-elections, only one winner failed to retain their seat at the following general election (Fine Gael’s Gabrielle McFaddden lost out in the 2016 General Election. While Fine Gael’s George Lee and Labour’s Patrick Nulty did not contest subsequent the subsequent general election following their own victories).
So who is going to take the seats this week?
As the largest Opposition party who have a relative a core vote in these four constituencies, Fianna Fáil are likely to feature in all four races. They’re certainly the favourites for the Cork North Central and Wexford constituencies. Fine Gael also have the benefit of that strong, core vote – but as the main party of Government they are fighting by-election history. Will their base be energised enough for by-elections which really won’t matter given a general election is just around the corner? This is also an opportunity for Sinn Féin and certainly party leader Mary Lou McDonald will be pressing for a good showing following the disappointment of the local and European elections. The Green Party will also be looking to prolong the ‘green surge’ enjoyed last May, while Labour will be hoping to go against the national polls and feature in these various races.
Here’s our constituency by constituency analysis.
Well known Cllr. Malcolm Byrne is very well placed in Wexford. Here the main challenge comes from political newcomer Verona Murphy, a Fine Gael candidate who can no longer be sure of fulsome support from her party base following a campaign in which anti-immigrant, anti-road safety and bullying allegations have been aired. It does not look like the Labour or Sinn Féin candidates will feature too highly.
Predicted result – FF win
Cork North Central
Fianna Fáil is also favoured to win MEP Billy Kelleher’s old seat in Cork North Central. This constituency was traditionally a Fianna Fáil strong-hold and they are running a strong candidate in local councillor Padraig O’Sullivan. The constituency also contains a significant left leaning vote and the main opposition here may come from Sinn Féin. In the 2016 General Election, Sinn Féin’s two candidates garnered almost 20% of the vote, putting the party in second place. Their by-election candidate Thomas Gould is also a well-known local councillor and that name recognition will help. However, Sinn Fein struggle to attract transfers so winning 50% of the the vote required for a by election quota may be a stretch in this race. Senator Colm Burke is the Fine Gael candidate and should secure a decent showing given the core FG vote in the area. But it probably won’t be enough to get him over the line.
Predicted result – FF win
Dublin Fingal has also been traditionally a strong constituency for Fianna Fáil. Their candidate here, Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee has also had a difficult campaign which has focused on controversial, historical comments posted to her social media accounts. Fine Gael’s Dr. James Reilly will not be helped by a winter election and his legacy as Minister for Health. A stronger challenge may come from Labour’s Duncan Smith who has been a local councillor since 2014. With Labour languishing in the polls it is hard to see them taking the seat, but they do have a traditionally strong base in this constituency, so it wouldn’t be a major surprise if they were to be in the reckoning. Another party which has also fared very well in this constituency over the years is the Green Party. This was former Green Party leader, Trevor Sergeant’s old stomping ground and following on from the strong party performance at the local and European elections, Joe O’Brien would seem very well placed.
Predicted result – Green win
Dublin Mid West
The final constituency facing a bye election is Dublin Mid-West. This is also a constituency with a strong left-wing vote delivering seats to both Sinn Fein and the AAA in 2016. There are two former TDs in the running here – Labour’s Joanna Tuffy and Independent Paul Gogarty. Cllr. Gogarty has significant name recognition and green credentials having served as a party TD for this constituency from 2002 t0 2011. While he is no longer a member of the Green Party, he had a strong performance in the local elections where he ran in two different electoral areas. He topped the poll in his home base in Lucan and also narrowly failed to be elected in the Palmerstown-Fonthill. Of the four by-elections, this constituency probably represents their best hope. This was former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s seat and Fine Gael are very strong locally. They also have a very credible candidate in Cllr. Emer Higgins. But I think it will be difficult for them to overcome the history factor.
Predicted result – Independent win