Food for thought from the recent by-elections

Dep Fitzmaurice after his victory.

Dep Fitzmaurice after his victory.

It was all about by-elections last weekend - two Dáil by-elections being watched closely with a view to gauging the mood music of the electorate; a Seanad by-election generating an inordinate amount of interest as the Government inflicted an unnecessary wound on itself; and two parliamentary by-elections in England which may yet prove to be of some interest this side of the Irish Sea.

Seanad woes

Almost one year to the day from its unlikely reprieve, Insider derived some amusement from the sight of the Seanad totally overshadowing the Dáil in terms of the recent by-elections. Ordinarily a Seanad by-election is a political non-event with the Government being assured of winning as the electorate is confined to Oireachtas members.

For the Government to lose such a contest – and in the process leaving itself in a minority in the Seanad – was careless. The manner in which this was achieved was even more damaging and possibly had a follow-on impact in the shape of poor performances by the Government parties in the Dáil byelections. It showed An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in a very poor light and also reinforced the view that the new Arts Minister Heather Humphreys has been over-promoted, or at the very least, prematurely promoted.

Insider recalls a comment being made in the run-up to the 2007 General Election that whatever about its competence in governing, the FF/PD coalition was excessively bad at ‘politics’ with unnecessary cock-ups and poor communications giving it a glow of incompetence. In thinking about the McNulty affair recently, coupled with the run of unforced errors in the build-up to the Local and European elections last June, Insider could not help but feel that the same thing could be said about the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

Dáil by-elections

Tasty and all as the Seanad starter might have been, the main course was very much last Friday’s Dáil byelections. In the end both provided much food for thought after somewhat unexpected results.

In Galway we were keeping a close eye on the Roscommon/South Leitrim seat. Could FF frontrunner Ivan Connaughton pull it off or would the recent trend towards Independents hold sway? If so might Galway’s own Michael Fitzmaurice be the man to capitalise? Mr Fitzmaurice is a formidable operator and a fine campaigner but surely it would be too much to expect a Galwegian to cross the county boundary and win. Most people probably felt he was using this as a dry run ahead of the next General Election when a large tranche of East Galway will join Roscommon in a new three-seater.

Two critical things went in his favour however and enabled him to claim a decisive victory. First of all the endorsement of MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan established him as clear frontrunner from what might loosely be called the ‘non-establishment parties’. In turn - and this is ominous for Fianna Fáil - this marked him out as ‘the man to vote for if you want to stop FF’ (and the Government parties too ).

His victory highlighted some of the issues that are of concern to many rural voters. While the link to MEP Flanagan has been overplayed, it is fair to consider Dep Fitzmaurice’s success in conjunction with Ming’s win in the European elections in May. Perhaps the best way to sum this up is to say there is a sense of detachment from the centre of power in many parts of rural Ireland; a sense their way of life is under threat – the turf-cutting issue being something of a headline issue but again one that is perhaps overplayed; a knowledge that these areas are being ravaged by emigration; and a sense that those at the centre of power and in the media are unaware of or disinterested.

Water water everywhere

Then there is the issue of water. Not simply water charges per se (many parts of rural Ireland already pay water charges ) but rather a sense of dismay that in areas where the water is not even of drinkable quality – as summed up in his own colourful way by MEP Flanagan in the Dáil in the recent past – charges are being received.

The Government will claim that such charges are required in order to bring the water up to standard – however many citizens can only see their money going to highly-paid consultants and are highly sceptical that they will lead to an improved service.

If water was one of the issues in the Roscommon/South Leitrim by-election, it was the issue in Dublin South West. In this campaign, the eventual winner, The Socialist Party’s Paul Murphy (a former MEP for Dublin but with strong Mayo connections incidentally ) focused his entire campaign on the issue. Intriguingly he managed to outflank Sinn Féin and scored an unexpected victory over that party’s candidate Cathal King, who had been the hot favourite.

That by-election offered some fascinating insights. On a simple level it emphasised the importance of political messaging and communications – quite simply Mr Murphy’s opposition to water charges was utterly unequivocal. By contrast, SF seemed to waiver when asked if this was a ‘red line issue’, and several TDs admitted they themselves would pay the charge. This also illustrates the changed circumstances in which SF find themselves – 30 years ago or less they wanted to destroy the institutions of the State, now they want to run them.

Another interesting development was that while the real battle between the two parties raged in the core working-class end of the constituency, Dep Murphy polled very well in middleclass areas where it seems the message on water charges resonated. On hearing this, Insider recalled some controversial remarks made by the late Jim Mitchell back in 1996 when Joe Higgins very nearly won a by-election in Dublin West on an anti-water charges platform. Mr Mitchell remarked that the biggest complaints came from people who were well able to afford the charges! Might it be that water charges could yet be the biggest political headache to face both Government parties?

A sign of things to come?

In terms of what happens next it is an old adage that we cannot read too much into by-election results. Nevertheless, the result of the Roscommon/South Leitrim by-election does throw up some interesting possibilities and will be perused closely by Galway politicians.

With Independents polling almost 40 per cent of the vote (coupled with a strong SF vote ) and both FF and FG on less than a quota, it opens up the prospect of two Independent seats with FF and FG fighting for the last seat. Insider feels that in a General Election some people may gravitate back towards the major parties and that two Independent seats would be an exaggeration. If one looks at the personalities involved however, both Dep Fitzmaurice and the ex-FG TD Dennis Naughten would each be strongly fancied and both will benefit from the addition of parts of East Galway next time. Might Cllr Tim Broderick also fancy another run in this new constituency?

Independents and smaller parties are likely to feature in a big way in the next General Election and are likely to make significant gains. The Government parties will be hoping that two things will conspire in their favour – an improving economy and an argument that only FG and Labour can provide a stable government, a point Michael Ring was trying to make at the count centre on Saturday. The problem for Dep Ring and others however is that as one shopkeeper in Roscommon put it “You just can’t seem to trust the old crowd anymore.” Dep Ring himself (perhaps unlike many of his colleagues ) will be acutely aware that there is great disenchantment in rural areas.

Movement across the Irish Sea

Insider has alluded previously to the need to keep a close eye on events in the UK, in particular the debate that is raging about EU membership. The rise of UKIP – as evidenced by their winning a first Westminster seat in last week’s Clacton by-election, coupled with giving Labour a scare in another contest in its northern heartland – is being seen by some as a sign of things to come and an indication that Britain may be moving inexorably towards the EU exit door.

Insider thinks the impact of UKIP is overhyped – after all, it only won its first seat last week – but does not think that the volatility around EU membership is overstated. There is a clear change in the mood music in the governing Tory Party and across the UK as a whole on this issue. Such an event would have profound implications for Ireland. It should really be one of the dominant issues in the next Irish General Election campaign. We should watch closely how it all plays out in next year’s UK General Election.

There is much food for thought for all parties. The Government will hope for an improving economy – and FF, however cheekily may try to claim credit for this too, on the basis that it largely devised the plan followed by the Government in recent years – but will be well aware that such is the level of volatility out there, that the economy is likely to be a recurring theme that will not go away ahead of the next General Election.

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