The Meath and North Kildare by-elections on Friday brought bad news for the government and good news for the opposition, particularly Sinn Féin.
Councillor Joe Reilly’s share of the vote in Meath rose by almost 3 percentage points, from 9.43 per cent in the 2002 general election, to 12.25 per cent.
The by-election was “probably the most critical election we have fought in 20 years” according to a delighted Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.
“This is an absolutely remarkable result given the fact that we have been through an almost unprecedented campaign of demonisation and vilification against Sinn Féin in recent times and the credit is due to an excellent candidate in Joe Reilly, our workers and most of all to the republicans of Meath.”
Sinn Féin’s vote had been expected to crumble following weeks of media accounts of the party being “in crisis” and “in freefall”.
The Fianna Fail vote slipped badly, while their smaller coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats were embarrassed in both constituencies.
Scooping the seats at the end of the day were socialist independent Catherine Murphy in North Kildare (which Sinn Féin did not contest) and Fine Gael’s Shane McEntee in Meath.
Fianna Fail was blaming its own failings for the low turnout of voters. Internal party bitterness over the treatment of the outgoing incumbent, former Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy, was being blamed for a lack of effort on the ground.
By contrast, every Sinn Féin voter in Meath appears to have responded to the work put in by the party against a major campaign to demonise and criminalise them.
Mr McGuinness said it was the most critical election “simply because of the circumstances under which the election was fought and the fact that there was massive targeting of Sinn Féin by our political opponents and by the media”.
He said the people of Meath had shown that “they think more of Sinn Féin and Joe Reilly than they do of Michael McDowell and the PDs”. The party had shown itself to be “very strong indeed”.
The vote was being seen widely as a springboard for the party for further gains in the British general election.
Labour leader Pat Rabbitte criticised what he called “a protest vote” for Sinn Féin’s good showing.