Wednesday 19 June 2019

John Downing: 'Four by-election losses is no way to warm up for the real thing'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

By-elections are extraordinary political animals that have had a huge impact on Irish public life, even at times influencing our history. Leo Varadkar - contemplating four by-elections this autumn - knows this.

Go right back to 1828 in Clare and you find that giant of Irish history Daniel O'Connell entering the stage via a by-election. Stay in Clare, and almost nine decades later, a man called Éamon de Valera is introduced to a wider public via another by-election win in July 1917.

Looking randomly back at by-elections, we find that defeats in two on the same day for then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch, in his native Cork in November 1979, hastened his departure and the arrival of Charlie Haughey. An earlier by-election in Mayo West in November 1975, heralded the arrival of a future Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and guaranteed Liam Cosgrave's wafer-thin majority, keeping him in power for 18 more months.

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Two by-election results in Cork on the same day in November 1994 made important changes to the Dáil arithmetic. This helped embattled Fine Gael leader John Bruton emerge Houdini-like from an extraordinary series of events to head a rainbow coalition, leading to the only change of government in Ireland without a general election.

A good by-election, it must be said, can add to the gaiety of the nation. But governments almost never win by-elections. Going back nearly 40 years and two exceptions stand out from that rule of thumb: in July 1982 Fianna Fáil's Noel Treacy won in Galway East; and in October 2011, Patrick Nulty of Labour won in Dublin West.

It's a very tight call for the Taoiseach. In the good old days, he could have delayed beyond the agreed deadline of next summer for the general election. But a successful High Court case taken by Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty in November 2010 has led to a legal obligation to hold a by-election six months after a vacancy arises.

From July 2, when the new European Parliament formally opens its doors, four new MEPs - Clare Daly (Dublin Fingal); Frances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid-West); Billy Kelleher (Cork North-Central); and Mick Wallace (Wexford) - will cease to be TDs. Count on six months, and you're talking about the four by-elections being held before January 2.

Signals from Government Buildings are that Mr Varadkar is minded to have them all in November. His lieutenants and advisers will ponder how the loss of four by-elections at one fell swoop will condition the public mood months ahead of a general election.

Surely, would it be more tempting to have the general election first?

Well, there are arguments for facing the music and dancing into those murderous by-elections. The impact on Dáil numbers need not be catastrophic. But having the look of a loser, facing into a subsequent general election, has few attractions.

Irish Independent

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