Two shock results in the latest by-elections, prostate one by a small party and one by an independent, recipe have left the larger parties reeling as the presumptive winners both failed to pick up sufficient transfers. Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Ming Flanagan backed Independent councillor Michael Fitzmaurice beat Sinn Féin’s Cathal King and Fianna Fáil’s Ivan Connaughton respectively to earn their way into the Dáil.
In the Dublin South West by-election, former MEP Murphy ran a campaign centred on opposition to water charges, with posters lining the constituency urging the electorate to “Make the real change” in contrast with Sinn Féin’s “Make the change” posters. Despite receiving 700 votes less than his main opponent King, Murphy managed to slowly cut the distance between the two by around one hundred votes each count before sweeping up Independent Ronan McMahon and Fine Gael’s Cait Keane’s transfers to leap over King. The general consensus post-election was that the Sinn Féin party put questions on their anti-water charge credentials by not telling people to refuse to pay as Murphy did, and were hence over-taken by a more radical left wing candidate. Many would also point to the level of transfers picked up by Murphy from right wing candidates such as McMahon, formally of Fine Gael and loosely affiliated with Lucinda Creighton of the Reform Alliance, and Keane as a sign that middle class voters were ultimately happier with a smaller party like the AAA getting into the Dáil, rather than allowing Sinn Féin to gain momentum coming towards the general election.
Meanwhile in Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fáil Connaughton topped the poll, over a thousand votes ahead of Galway farmer Fitzmaurice. Despite this, the feeling around the count centre was that this lead would not be enough to beat Fitzmaurice’s transfer potential. So it proved to be as the day wore on, as Fitzmaurice picked up far more transfers than Connaughton, especially from high profile independent candidates John McDermott and Emmett Corcoran. Fitzmaurice, who is the current President of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, will now face a far easier time getting re-elected, as the constituency boundaries are to be redrawn for the next election to include parts of Galway, include the Tuam ward where he was elected on the first count in the local elections.
For the larger parties questions will now have to be asked about their respective performances. For Fine Gael the outlook is not overly bleak, as they polled strongly in Roscommon-South Leitrim with Maura Hopkins and did about as well as they would have with Keane in Dublin South-West, since McMahon was always going to split their vote. Bearing in mind that they came third following transfers in both elections they won’t be overly pessimistic, especially when that is coupled with the fact that they have won 2 out of the six by-elections that have taken place with 2011. Sinn Féin will also be largely positive as they can console themselves in the knowledge that Dublin South-West would have been a certain victory if Murphy had not run and that they will be on course to take two seats in the general election when the constituency goes from four seats to five seats, be that with King or with another popular local councillor like Máire Devine or Louise Dunne. They can also take heart that they increased their vote significantly in Roscommon-South Leitrim, with Martin Kenny increasing his vote to 17.7%, having gotten 9.8% in the general election.
Labour meanwhile will simply have had their fears confirmed, as John Kelly admitted getting less than 7% in the election in Roscommon-South Leitrim was the worst day of his political life. However they can take heart in the performance of Pamela Kearns in Dublin, who sat in and around the other parties and went over Fianna Fáil on transfers. The party will probably be fairly optimistic in keeping one of its two seats in the next general election, especially with the constituency increasing in seats. Independents and smaller parties will also take a lot of heart from the performance, not just because of where the seats went but also because of the strong performance by the other non-establishment candidates. Time will tell whether McMahon’s performance will encourage Lucinda Creighton to push ahead with the Reform Alliance.
However the big losers of the day were certainly Fianna Fáil, a party that threw all of its eggs into the Roscommon-South Leitrim basket. Having expected to clean up in the constituency, the party found itself instead outdone by its inability to transfer well. This result, when coupled with John Lahart’s disappointing display I Dublin South-West, has served to highlight the larger issue for the largest party in opposition. Since they lost their place in government, the Fianna Fáil party has failed to win a single by-election, having come second in Longford-Westmeath, Meath East and twice in Dublin West. While the case could be made that this too is the case for Sinn Féin since 2011, that would ignore the fact that that party are clearly in the ascendency, having begun to take in voters that either would have voted for other parties before or simply not voted at all. Contrast this with Fianna Fáil, a party who have been in government longer than any other party in the history of the state, and one can see a clear distinction. While Fianna Fáil will argue that they are still the largest party in local government, this would ignore the fact that the local elections only delivered them a slight increase in votes over the last local election, which had been considered a disastrous result at the time.
What the results from these elections, and from the latest opinion polls, seem to show is a clear shift in Irish politics away from voting on traditional and civil war lines and towards a clear ideological split, with Fine Gael as the conservative party and Sinn Féin as the social democratic party, at least in theory. What we are also seeing is a Fianna Fáil party that are getting ever more squeezed out by the two, as the party’s traditional working class base shift to Sinn Féin and the party’s middle-class voters put their lot in with Fine Gael. The idea that Fianna Fáil voters only loaned their votes to the government parties in the last election is looking evermore like wishful thinking and the electorate are not coming back any time soon, especially not in Dublin. Fianna Fáil and their leader Micheál Martin will certainly have a lot to ponder for the next general election if they are to ensure the party’s slide into obscurity does not continue.