Dr. Theresa Reidy, University College Cork
Bye-elections are odd political events. The likelihood of a single vote having an impact on government survival is marginal, even in the relatively tight arithmetic of the current Dáil. And in some way, voters seem to know this. The four bye-elections in Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-west and Wexford held on 29 November 2019 arose from the election of four TDs to the European Parliament in May of this year. The contests conformed to many of the trends associated with bye-elections in Ireland (see Gallagher, 1996).
Turnout fell to a new low with average turnout at the four bye-elections reaching just 29.4% (See IrishTimes.com for full results). The previous low watermark for turnout at a bye-election of 27.9% in Dublin South Central in 1999 was surpassed in both Dublin Fingal (25.6) and Dublin Mid-west (26.6).
The received wisdom of bye-elections is that they are difficult for government parties and this was clearly the case for Fine Gael. The party failed to win the seat previously held by former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-west and none of the other three Fine Gael candidates looked likely to challenge for a seat at any point. Moreover, the party had a poor campaign with the offensive comments of Verona Murphy and the announcement of the departure from politics of absentee Cork TD Dara Murphy overshadowing much of their media coverage and placing the party frequently on the defensive. The fallout from the poor performance has made a rigorous review of the candidate slate for the upcoming general election the first item on their agenda.
Some small parties did well with the Greens taking their first ever bye-election seat in Dublin-Fingal. Sinn Féin claimed an unexpected victory in Dublin-Mid West with Mark Ward topping the poll. Fianna Fáil took two seats in Cork North Central and Wexford and the party’s candidates in Dublin Mid-west and Dublin Fingal performed reasonably well.
Extrapolating from bye-election results is inadvisable, especially at ones with record low turnouts. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Greens will all have been reasonably happy with their performances and will no doubt claim a degree of momentum as they face into an imminent general election. The results are likely to embolden some Fianna Fáil backbenchers in their calls to expedite the end of the confidence and supply agreement, although Michéal Martin is unlikely to be swayed off his stated course of a late Spring/early Summer 2020 election.
The Greens will need to look carefully at their candidate selection for the coming general election. They are well place to be in a competitive position in several areas. They need experienced candidates, with roots in their constituency, and cool heads for the inevitable media attention that will come their way.
Finally, Lorraine Clifford Lee (Fianna Fáil) and Verona Murphy (Fine Gael) were heavily sanctioned by their parties for their offensive comments about Travellers and migrants during the course of the campaign. Neither candidate was elected but both were close to the final shakedown for the available seats. The sharp improvement in Peter Casey’s vote share at the presidential election in 2018 was also attributed to his controversial views on Travellers.
It remains to be seen whether candidates at the upcoming general election will present exclusionary policies to the electorate but the experience of recent contests suggests that there is a small cohort of voters receptive to these messages.