The Oireachtas by-elections: #Seanad, #DSW, #RSL

The end of this week sees three Oireachtas by-elections being completed, two for the Dáil seats vacated when Brian Hayes (FG) and Luke Flanagan (Ind) were elected as MEPs, and, the third a Seanad seat vacated by Deirdre Clune (FG), after she too was elected as an MEP. Given that the two Dáil seats are in constituencies that are re-drawn for the next general election, the result of the embarrassing #McNultygate Seanad by-election is likely to attract most comment.

Given that there are claims that many on the government benches had already voted for the Fine Gael candidate, John McNulty, there is a very distinct possibility he will be elected. The irony here is in the backstory of allegations of how cronyism and political skulduggery enabled McNulty to stand in the by-election. These allegations led to McNulty himself withdrawing his candidacy and the Taoiseach saying he didn’t vote for him and encouraging others not to do so either. There are two other candidates in the Seanad by-election, Gerard Craughwell and Catherine Seeley. Craughwell, a former TUI President who had pushed for more transparency in how the Seanad vacancy was filled and demanded a chance to stand, was nominated largely by Fianna Fáil Oireachtas members but denies that he is, effectively, a proxy candidate for the party. Seeley is the Sinn Féin candidate in the by-election and came to prominence when she had to leave her job in the Belfast Boys Model School after being targeted for sectarian abuse.

While you’d assume that, being told not to vote for McNulty, government TDs would do their political maths and be more likely to vote for Craughwell (who already has Fianna Fáil backing), that would put him in the driving seat over Seeley. However, to the Oireachtas members had already voted for McNulty, it is possible to add anyone wanting to vocalise some dissent within Fine Gael or Labour who might choose to vote for McNulty anyway and prolong the discomfort for the Taoiseach over the whole affair. Indeed, other voters, including from Fianna Fáil and the independents might decide to vote for McNulty for the same reason.

Whatever the end result, the main outcome is going to be the degree of discomfort the Taoiseach gets from either losing the Seanad seat (and overall control of the Seanad) if Craughwell or Seeley win, or the intense embarassment of what to do if McNulty is elected.

The two Dáil by-elections provide the quirk of using single transferable vote to elect a single candidate. Recent history has tended to see government candidates winning by-elections, bucking a longer term trend (see more detailed analysis here by Adrian Kavanagh). Since the Dáil arithmetic is not precarious, and the constituencies will have changed by the next general election, the results are likely to provide specific health checks for different parties (a lot of which are outlined here by Odran Flynn for RTÉ).

Basically, the candidates for Dublin South West are Cáit Keane (FG), Pamela Kearns (Lab), John Lahart (FF), Cathal King (SF), Francis Noel Duffy (Greens), Paul Murphy (Socialist Party running as an Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate), Nicky Coules (PBP) and four independents Declan Burke, Colm O’Keeffe, Tony Rochford and Ronan McMahon (a former PD). Based on the local elections, the largest vote will go to Cathal King of Sinn Féin who is likely to be elected unless transfers solidly fall in behind another candidate. Paul Murphy’s campaign team have been trying get traction with the idea that he is a serious contender even though he is not from the constituency and did particularly poorly, as an incumbent, when he lost his MEP seat earlier this year. If he is in contention, that will only be known after not just the first count, but also the rate of transfers becomes clear. Labour will be desperate for some form of good news, while Fianna Fáil are also running a candidate from outside the current constituency with an eye on the enlarged constituency at the next general election.

The other by-election, in Roscommon South Leitrim is largely a similar story. The candidates are Maura Hopkins (FG), Senator John Kelly (Lab), Ivan Connaughton (FF), Martin Kenny (SF) and six independents Emmett Corcoran, Tom Crosby, Michael Fitzmaurice (endorsed by Luke Flanagan), Des Guckian, John McDermott and Gerry O’Boyle. The bookies have it as Connaughton’s to lose after a strong Fianna Fáil result here in the local elections. But with opinion polls suggesting a stagnation in support for Fianna Fáil (also see Mick here), the strength of Fitzmaurice, Kenny and Hopkins votes, and (more significantly) where they transfer, might cause the odd nerve before the result is announced. Off the back of the latest opinion poll, failure to win the seat might put pressure on Michael Martin.

Whatever the actual outcome of the two Dáil by-elections it appears there will be two more opposition TDs but that will not, in the main, cause much more discomfort to the government. The outcome of the Seanad election is either an embarrassing McNulty win, bringing a new set of dilemmas, or the failure of the government to retain an official majority in the Seanad.

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