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Jody Corcoran: 'Varadkar loses lustre as FG's uneasy poll position revealed'

Real elections with real voters have seen Fine Gael underperform compared to its ratings, writes Jody Corcoran

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

In the months and weeks before these by-elections Leo Varadkar sought to play down Fine Gael's expectations. Indeed, he set the bar so low that a contortionist snake would have struggled to crawl under.

The intention was to retain the party's one seat up for grabs and get the equivalent of "something close" to a Dail quota for each of the four by-elections.

And as he deliberately lowered his party's expectations, he had a go at the Green Party in particular and also Fianna Fail.

You may recall what he said at Fine Gael's Presidential Dinner in October: the Greens wanted to repopulate rural Ireland with wolves, he said to a roomful of eye-rolls and - cue joke at Fianna Fail's expense - knowing guffaws.

Well, it hasn't quite worked out so well for the Taoiseach. Not only did Fine Gael fail to retain Frances Fitzgerald's seat in Dublin Mid-West, it has also struggled to get close to a quota in another constituency - Dublin Fingal, where James Reilly, the former Minister for Health is still knocking around to no great effect.

And not only that, and not for the first time, Fine Gael has also massively underperformed in these by-elections compared to its opinion poll rating. So much for ratings as high as 30pc in recent weeks: tallies and early counts show the main Government party to be winning between 15-23pc of the vote.

Here is my takeaway from these by-elections: the Greens are eating Fine Gael's (organic) lunch in the more comfortable middle class areas around the country, such as Malahide in Dublin Fingal; and there is no substitution for a good, hard working candidate on the ground, as Fianna Fail has shown again, after its success in the recent local elections, particularly in Wexford and Cork North Central, where it will win two seats.

As for Sinn Fein - well, this may seem a good result, but really it more confirms that Eoin O Broin has a strong organisation in Dublin Mid West, but remember this: Sinn Fein holds one seat in three of the four by-election constituencies and if the results were to be replicated in a general election, the party would actually lose one of those three seats - so long, Louise O'Reilly. Still, the results this weekend will come as something of a relief to Mary Lou McDonald - for now.

But that's the other thing, isn't it? The turnout was relatively so low, well short of half of what it would be in a general election, that it would be foolhardy to over-interpret these results.

That didn't stop the Taoiseach, however. He has said that if the by-election results were repeated in a general election, all four Fine Gael candidates would be elected.

But let's take Wexford, for example: Verona Murphy drew a lot of criticism for her views in this campaign, but she still took around the same share of the vote that Fine Gael won in the last election, a result that returned two TDs - the final two TDs elected, however, and the last of which was just 52 votes ahead of the Sinn Fein candidate.

So, Varadkar may look for silver linings where he feels he can find them. In Cork North Central alone, Fine Gael spent an enormous sum on Facebook ads to promote its candidate there, Colm Burke, who put in a reasonable performance. Overall, though, there is still no sign of that Leo bounce you keep hearing about (everywhere but here).

Now there will be a lot of talk about government parties never, or seldom, doing well in by-elections, which is only part of the whole story. There is more going on here. We are less than six months from a general election, perhaps as close as three months away. Fine Gael would have wanted, expected to do far better than this. What's more and this is the real unstated reality - Enda Kenny was ousted during this Dail after Fine Gael's relative failure in the last general election and replaced by Leo Varadkar who was supposed to be electoral gold.

But he has not delivered, not really, where it counts, in the local elections and now these by-elections, including in Dublin where the party's opinion poll numbers far outstrip the reality on the ground.

Sunday Independent