THE winners of last weekend’s four Dáil by-elections, necessitated by the previous incumbents being elected to the European Parliament in May, are destined not to get too comfortable in their seats as a general election is likely soon after Easter next year, at the latest, and they will find themselves back out on the campaign trail again trying to retain them.
They could have been out a lot sooner had the motion of no confidence by the Social Democrats in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy not been defeated in the Dáil on Tuesday night last. By-elections are notoriously difficult for governments because they tend to be used by the electorate to give them a bit of a kicking, so candidates from the parties in power – no matter how good they are perceived to be – often get punished for the sake of it.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had briefly contemplated going for a general election here last weekend if Brexit had been done and dusted, but the ‘flextension’ to the end of January put paid to that idea. As things transpired, the government suffered a nett loss in the four seats up for grabs with the most high-profile seat, that of Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West, going to Sinn Féin’s Mark Ward – albeit not the huge renaissance of electoral fortunes his embattled party leader claimed it was.
Closer to home, the seat vacated by Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher in Cork North Central was convincingly taken by party colleague Padraig O’Sullivan. The seats that had been held by the two Independents 4 Change (I4C) members Clare Daly in Dublin Fingal and Mick Wallace in Wexford went, respectively, to the Green Party’s Joe O’Brien – the party’s first ever by-election win – and Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne building on his European elections performance in May.
In gender terms, there is a nett loss for the women, as the outgoing two male and two female TDs were replace by four males. The results are not going to have any significant effect on the minority government led by Fine Gael and propped up by Fianna Fáil, but the by-elections will have provided a barometer of the how people are thinking about the government and opposition and will give all sides food for thought as the battle lines are drawn for Election 2020.
After Fine Gael’s failure in 2016 to accurately gauge the mood of the people and the resultant loss of seats, a lesson should have been learned – not just by them but by all other parties as well – never try to patronise voters.