#MHE: the devil will be in the detail

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This Wednesday voters go to the ballot box in the Meath East by-election. With a large government majority (albeit as a coalition), the outcome of the by-election will have no functional impact on the Dáil arithmetic. Given the circumstances of the by-election, which has arisen due to Fine Gael TD and junior Minister Sean McEntee taking his own life, it seems quite likely that his 26 year old daughter, Helen, will take the seat.

His death prompted Fine Gael TDs to blame social media criticism either due to the initial shock, or in an utterly cynical exercise attacking social media platforms (see the #oirsocm tweets for an illustration of how little most politicians know or understand about social media). His daughter, Helen, has subsequently dismissed those claims.

Despite the strong tradition of electoral dynasties and the obvious emotional pull that his daughter will have on voters, the evidence from past by-elections suggests that Fine Gael should not take a win for granted.  There have been twenty four by-elections to the Dáil since 1982. Of those, only 13 even returned party colleagues or like-minded independents. Seven of the last eight government seats to become vacant (in that time) were also lost in the by-election. Indeed Patrick Nulty’s win for Labour in 2011 was the first government gain in a long time and he lost the party whip almost immediately.

The by-election tickets give an idea of how often dynastic considerations have been to the fore in candidate selection, with relatives of the previous TD running in 12 of the 24 by-elections. Half of the relatives successfully retained the ‘family seat’ for the relevant political group. Where non-relatives stood, only one third of the seats were successfully defended, though. Sixteen of those 24 by-elections were due to the death of the TD, with ten of the sixteen being contested by relatives, four of whom were unsuccessful. The most obvious comparison, though, lies with Hugh Coveney, also a Fine Gael TD and Minister who took his own life in 1998 and was replaced by his son Simon who was comfortably elected for Fine Gael in a constituency where Fianna Fáil was normally well ahead on first preference votes.

There are eleven candidates in the #MHE field, with only McEntee and Senator Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fáil given a realistic chance of taking the seat by many commentators, ahead of Sinn Féin’s Darren O’Rourke and Labour’s Eoin Holmes. In many ways, most politicos appear more interested in the various subtexts here. Obviously, a victory for Fianna Fáil would give some substance to the recent proliferation of opinion polls (and Fianna Fáil’s hack are ‘quietly’ telling everyone they think Byrne is going to win). Byrne, as noted by Pat Kenny on this evenings Primetime on RTÉ, was a visible defender of the last government’s economic policies and has been having to remove videos of himself and Bertie Ahern from the web over the last few weeks. In the 2011 Presidential election, Fianna Fáil Indepedent candidate Sean Gallagher took 32.2% of the vote here.

The real basis of any Byrne victory, though, will be in attracting transfers and he has called for Sinn Féin voters to transfer to him, a call rejected by Gerry Adams. In reality, though, the second preference request was an unsubtle attempt to establish that Byrne, not Darren O’Rourke was main challenger to McEntee. With no reciprocal call to Fianna Fáil voters to transfer to O’Rourke and no apparent policy differences between the government and the party, much will be read into the pattern of transfers in the event that Byrne or O’Rourke is eliminated. Having invested so much in Byrne, Fianna Fáil will lose significant face if it is not substantially ahead of Sinn Féin after the first count, either.

At the very least, Sinn Féin may be content to improve considerably upon Martin McGuinness’s 11.7% vote in the constituency in the Presidential election with a view to a challenge for a seat in the next general election. The relative turnout in the rural and urban areas of the constituency and which voters are energised to come out may conspire to push O’Rourke into the running with Byrne and McEntee. For Labour, with sitting TD Dominic Hannigan topping the poll in the last election with 21% of first preferences and Michael D taking 38.1% of the Presidential election vote, a poor performance, such as coming in fourth, may put further pressure on the party leadership to develop an exit strategy from the coalition. Ironically, Labour transfers may have a big say in the elimination of other candidates, particularly if the gap between McEntee, Byrne and O’Rourke is small.

As the constituency includes both a large rural and urban component and by-election turnouts can be somewhat unpredictable anyway, the result is somewhat harder to call. With Seamus McDonagh of the Workers Party and six independents also standing, eliminations in the early counts may even have some impact on the running order of the four leading candidates. Since Meath East was one of the few constituencies to return a Yes vote to the Lisbon referendum in 2008 and it’s referendum voting has been otherwise uneventful, the chances of a radical result seem unlikely.

But for many, the devil in Meath East will be in the detail of the counts, rather than the eventual winner.

(Thanks to @GombeenPolitics for the feature image)

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