Shock by-election results show us that old political rules no longer apply

It's time to throw our political rulebooks out the window. According to conventional wisdom, Enda Kenny's Government should be entering recovery mode just like the Irish economy.

Instead, the weekend by-elections sent out a very different message - voters are so fed up with economic austerity that not even a giveaway budget tomorrow may be enough to appease their anger.

For once, even the bookies got it wrong. In Dublin South West, Sinn Fein were the unbackable favourites but got outflanked by the even more left-wing Socialist candidate Paul Murphy.

Over in Roscommon-South Leitrim, meanwhile, Fianna Fail's expectations of victory were dashed by the turf-cutting Independent Michael Fitzmaurice.

One thing at least is clear. Politics in this country is becoming more fragmented, volatile and unpredictable than ever.

An electoral earthquake is taking place beneath our feet - and nobody can be sure what the landscape will look like afterwards.

Needless to say, Fine Gael and Labour were simply not at the races in either by-election. If Enda Kenny (left) and Joan Burton wanted to know why, all they had to do was take a stroll through Dublin city centre on Saturday.

When roughly 50,000 people give up a sunny afternoon to march against water charges, they cannot be dismissed as just the usual suspects. In reality, this was a sign that Middle Ireland has been squeezed beyond endurance - and will make its voice heard on the streets as well as in the ballot boxes.


Dublin South West also showed why we are now into a new political ball game. Sinn Fein are officially opposed to water charges, but last Wednesday Gerry Adams fudged the awkward question of whether or not his TDs were actually going to pay them.

By stark contrast, Paul Murphy's call for a boycott was crystal clear - and he won by hoovering up protest votes, even in middle-class areas such as Templeogue.

If even Sinn Fein are now regarded as too mainstream by a huge swathe of the Irish electorate, then obviously the old rules no longer apply.

This also explains why a recent upturn in our economy is having precious little impact on the Government's popularity. Positive tax takes and GDP growth predictions are all very well - but they butter no parsnips for people who have yet to see any improvement in their own living standards.

Sadly, too many Leinster House luminaries seem locked into an old way of thinking. Joan Burton made a bad blunder last Thursday when she sneered that water charge protesters seem to have plenty of money for expensive camera phones.

This not only suggested that the Tanaiste does not know much about modern technology - it left the marchers feeling patronised, misunderstood and more determined than ever to whip up trouble.

Looking at the by-election results yesterday, ex-Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said bluntly that he fears for the future of Irish politics. His old colleagues in Government Buildings know exactly what he meant.

If Friday's votes are repeated in the next general election, they will create a Dail with around 40 Independent TDs - making it virtually impossible for any combination of parties to form a stable coalition.

Tomorrow could well be the Government's last chance to learn from its mistakes. If Michael Noonan's budget does nothing else, it must offer some water charge discounts to people who are genuinely struggling.

That, however, is the easy bit. Noonan also has plenty of more fundamental challenges - to convince Ireland's squeezed middle that the austerity era is over, to prove that payback time is here and to tell us what this Government would actually do with a second term.

No pressure, Michael.