Fianna Fail defies odds with by-election good news
Meanwhile, the larger government party, Fine Gael, has been left with little to smile about, writes Willie O'Dea
Published 30/10/2011 | 05:00
If you told me a month or two ago that Fianna Fail would come second in the Dublin West constituency I would have thought you were mad.
In fairness, I would have had some evidence for that belief.
Back at the general election in February, the late Brian Lenihan came fourth behind Labour, Fine Gael and Joe Higgins's Socialists. The party share of 16.6 per cent won by Brian was well above the vote achieved by other party stalwarts across the city.
It was a vote that as much expressed the personal affection and admiration his constituents had for him as a person as it did for him as a Fianna Fail politician.
Even coming fourth in Dublin West in February was a rare good moment in a political tsunami of disappointment and anger that swept over the party.
The opinion polls since have brought precious little comfort either. Most have showed us slipping nationally, with the party's standing in the capital looking particularly bleak.
Yet, as the boxes were opened last Friday it quickly emerged that the young and very determined candidate we selected to carry the flag in Dublin West, councillor David McGuinness, had achieved what very many of us thought was an almost impossible ask.
Only eight months after our worst-ever defeat, he has recorded a five per cent swing to the party and taken us back to second place in this very early test of public opinion.
As I reported here last week, it is not that the public were welcoming Fianna Fail to the doors with open arms, but they were, for the first time since early 2010, prepared to engage with us and hear what we had to say about the problems facing us all.
It would, of course, be giving hostages to fortune to read too much into one by-election campaign, but the demise of Fianna Fail that had been much anticipated by Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Fein has most certainly failed to materialise.
In a reversal of fortunes that almost mirrors the one we saw in February, Fianna Fail's small advance on the path to renewal comes as Fine Gael sees its vote slump.
Its candidate in Dublin West saw the vote there fall by over 12 per cent.
Across the country Fine Gael strategists would have given their eye teeth for so minuscule a swing. Though I could sense that the presidential campaign was never going Gay Mitchell's way from the first day, I still thought the polls were understating his support across the country. Clearly, I was wrong.
It does lead me to wonder what has happened to the massive Fine Gael organisation and campaign teams we saw only a few months ago.
Gay was, after all, the democratic choice of the party. He was selected by an electoral college of Oireachtas members, councillors and party executive. Could they have got it so badly wrong?
The Taoiseach's handlers and his loyal ministers can spin as much as they like how Gay was not really Enda or Phil's first choice, yet he was the candidate they selected.
If they knew back then that his candidacy was so doomed to failure, why did they allow it to proceed?
But the problem runs deeper. Heaping all the blame on Gay Mitchell is a way of pretending that the Fine Gael result in the presidential race would have been considerably better with another unspecified candidate.
Gay Mitchell did not let Fine Gael down, the party let him down.
Blaming Gay is part of a despicable process to take the focus off the fact that Fine Gael had a number of disastrous results on one day: in the presidential election, the by-election and the referendums.
The results across all the elections last Thursday raise questions not just about the Fine Gael organisation, but about what it stands for and its view of how to conduct its business.
The ramifications will be felt for some time to come.
Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City