Ireland’s two largest conservative parties battled it out yesterday in a by-election count which saw the left-wing vote decimated and Fine Gael ultimately hold onto a seat thanks to a wave of sympathy for a grieving daughter.
There were howls of derision when it was announced that the Labour candidate had secured below 5% of the vote. The result has increased pressure on Labour leader Eamon Gilmore to abandon his party’s coalition with Fine Gael.
As was widely predicted, the election became a two horse race between Fine Gael and a resurgent Fianna Fail. In the end, however, sympathy among both political supporters and opponents ensured Mr McEntee’s daughter retained her father’s seat for Fine Gael.
She won 38.5% of the first preference vote (to 32.9% for Fianna Fail) and the lion’s share of second preferences, securing her seat on the third count with the help of Sinn Fein transfers.
The late Fine Gael Minister of State Shane McEntee died tragically by his own hand in December, paving the way for the poll in a constituency now dominated by Dublin’s commuter belt.
Labour were the clear victims of the byelection, beaten into 5th place by Sinn Fein and the little known ‘Direct Democracy Ireland’ party. They secured only 4.6% of the vote, compared to 13% for Sinn Fein and 6.5% for DDI.
After an early appearance at the count centre, Minister for Communications and Labour TD Pat Rabbitte faced a barrage of questions from journalists over their disastrous performance.
He said Labour had “taken the brunt of the negative reaction. Labour voters didn’t come out. They are making a protest. We have to listen to what they’re saying, but we inherited the biggest mess left to a government since 1922,” he said.
He played down the growing expectation that his party could soon be facing the same fate as the Green Party, the junior coalition partners in the previous government who were wiped out at the last general election.
While rumours of a heave against the Labour leadership immediately gained traction, previous mutterings among the party’s ‘traditional’ wing have also failed to see any result.
Despite the surge of support for the two main conservative parties, Sinn Fein were not entirely displeased at securing third place, increasing their first preference vote from 8.9% in 2011 to 13%.
Up-and-coming candidate Darren O’Rourke could well fancy his chances of a seat in the next election. Party leader Gerry Adams said O’Rourke had secured a clear third place in the three-seat constituency “from a standing start”.
He said he did not think Fine Gael could “take succour” from the vote, given the circumstances in which the byelection took place.
“We’re very, very, very satisfied with the vote that we took. This is the largest vote that we have ever taken in this constituency,” Mr Adams said.
Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said Labour’s poor result was what happens when “promises are made and broken”.
Heavy snowfalls and unseasonally cold weather contributed to a low turnout, with only 38% per cent of eligible constituents voting, a record low for the constituency. But anecdotal evidence also suggested a high level of frustration at the choice of parties available, as evidenced by the sizable vote for the maverick ‘Direct Democracy Ireland’ group.
DDI’s main goals are to hold a referendum to “re-introduce” provisions for direct democracy (government by direct public vote) into the Irish constitution, as well as to suspend the terms of the bailout of the 26-County by the EU and the IMF.
Candidate Ben Gilroy said he has delighted to beat “one of the big four” in contesting an election for the first time “in front of the people”. He said his party was now planning a national recruitment drive to place candidates in constituencies across the State.
The following is a full breakdown of the vote (and the change from the general election in 2011 in brackets):
McENTEE, Helen (FG) 38.5% (-2.4%)
BYRNE, Thomas (FF) 32.9% (+13.3%)
O’ROURKE, Darren (SF) 13.0% (+4.1%)
GILROY, Ben (DDI) 6.5% (+6.5%)
HOLMES, Eoin (LAB) 4.6% (-16.5%)
O BUACHALLA, Sean (GP) 1.7% (+0.7%)
McDONAGH, Seamus (WP) 1.1% (+1.1%)
MARTIN, Mick (IND) 0.8%
KEDDY, Charlie (IND) 0.5%
O’BRIEN, Gerard (IND) 0.3%
TALLON, Jim (IND) 0.2%