Daniel McConnell: Byelections 2019 fallout sees Martin on the move with Varadkar stuck in reverse

It's a wrap. Political editor Daniel Mcconnell runs the rule over Byelections 2019 and reflects on the likely fallout.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael candidate Dr James O’Reilly at the Fingal count centre yesterday. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael candidate Dr James O’Reilly at the Fingal count centre yesterday. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Back in September, the big question was would we have byelections or a general election before the end of the year.

Amid heightened talk of a potential early general election prior to Christmas, the question kept surfacing.

Even when it became clear that a general election was not a runner, I kept asking myself - why would Leo Varadkar run the risk of running four byelections only to lose them all?

I said such an eventuality would be a disaster for him.

Firstly, losing is never a good position to be in and while Fine Gael only lost one seat (Dublin Mid-West), drawing a blank in all four further weakens the entire ship.

Secondly, with the way the numbers are stacked up in the Dáil, even with Fianna Fáil support, the Fine Gael-led government can no longer get its legislation through without the help of independents.

Thirdly, with Fine Gael down about nine seats through retirements, departures and sackings come the next election, the loss of the Francis Fitzgerald seat only compounds the amount of work the party will need to do merely to stand still at the next election.

Fourthly, as a political leader, you are always better to seize the initiative rather than merely appearing to be reacting to events.

Varadkar had a golden opportunity to grab ownership of the political cycle and capitalise on his Government's apparent success with Brexit.

But, he pulled back from the idea of a snap general election and he got his answer in emphatic terms on Saturday.

Following a campaign where race and tolerance were centre-stage, Varadkar and his top team found themselves all at sea when it came to their byelection candidate in Wexford, Verona Murphy.

Her repeated comments about migrants needing to be “de-programmed” and children as young as three or four being manipulated by Isis led some to believe that this was a deliberate strategy by the party to play on rising fears about migration.

Malcolm Byrne, who was elected in Wexford, congratulated by Fine Gael candidate Verona Murphy. Picture: Patrick Browne
Malcolm Byrne, who was elected in Wexford, congratulated by Fine Gael candidate Verona Murphy. Picture: Patrick Browne

While she performed a swift u-turn and apology, her own director of elections Charlie Flanagan was forced in the Dáil to “categorically disassociate” himself from his own candidate.

Then Varadkar was accused of seeking to bypass the media when going on canvass with Murphy in Wexford, whereas all other by-election candidates had had press released walkabouts.

Then there was her last-minute campaign video, shared on social media, which alluded to a media-led smear campaign, which again was subject to criticism.

Even this weekend, after her defeat, Fine Gael ministers were at odds as to what happens to Murphy now.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan suggested she would be Fine Gael's candidate in the general election but his comments were quickly countered by the Taoiseach and by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe who said all tickets in all constituencies are “open to review”.

Flanagan denied claims made by Murphy that she was the subject of a character assassination.

It was Verona’s Murphy first election campaign. She wasn't accustomed to what is the rough and tumble of an election campaign. Elections are not for the faint-hearted.

“This was a turbulent campaign. The Fine Gael campaign, in particular, experienced some difficulties. I don't believe it would be reasonable or fair to define any candidate on one issue,” he said.

Speaking on Newstalk Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said that Verona Murphy was not the victim of a character assassination and that the mess is “of her own making”.

Doherty also said she “doesn’t subscribe” to Flanagan's view that the media giving Gemma O’Doherty a free pass.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney did his best to put a positive spin on the weekend washout for his party.

He said the poor result for Fine Gael should not be exaggerated.

There wasn't an expectation that Fine Gael would win seats. Government's don't win byelections.

“Yes, we of course would have liked to have won a seats, based on the results, the Fine Gael candidates will be very well placed come the next General Election. Let's not pretend that yesterday was a good result, but it was a very average one,” he said.

In addressing the Verona Murphy issue, he said the Taoiseach in speaking to him and others “had a decision to make” as to support her or not.

He said it is clear she made a mistake but said “she has had a very tough time”.

“She made mistakes, she has learned some very valuable lessons. You cannot speak about vulnerable communities the way she did and she apologised. She was absolutely wrong in what she said.

“She got a reasonable vote but it was a difficult campaign for her,” he concluded.

But for all of the apologies, it has been a torrid few weeks for Fine Gael and their party structure is under strain.

They had placed their hopes on Cllr Emer Higgins on winning a seat but she too had her own controversies after expressing delight at a decision not to proceed with a traveller housing scheme in her area.

Looking ahead, Varadkar, Coveney and Donohoe have a big job of work to seek to regain the political initiative.

This campaign has only served to reinforce the perception that the game is getting away from them.

For Fianna Fáil, the weekend was a satisfactory return with the holding of the seat in Cork North-Central and the gain in Wexford.

As Coveney alluded to above, if government's don't win byelections, then the opposition does.

If Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has genuine ambitions to be Taoiseach next time around, then winning two of the three was the bare minimum.

Newly elected TD Pádraig O'Sullivan and Fianna Fáil Micheal Martin TD pictured at the Cork North Central Byelection count centre. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Newly elected TD Pádraig O'Sullivan and Fianna Fáil Micheal Martin TD pictured at the Cork North Central Byelection count centre. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Having been written off so many times, Martin is increasingly looking like a Taoiseach-in-waiting, even if questions persist about the team around him.

Unlike Fine Gael, which appears to be flagging, Martin has momentum behind him and his party has been riding a high since their strong local election performance in May.

Sinn Féin will be more than relieved with their win in Dublin Mid-West. The election of Mark Ward was somewhat surprising but will ease the pressure on President Mary Lou McDonald somewhat following her party's poor showing in the summer.

Whether the election of Ward is a signal of a more meaningful recovery is questionable, especially when you see how poorly some of their other byelection candidates performed.

For its part, the Labour Party was seeking to see the positives in their weekend.

Duncan Smith's third-place finish in Dublin-Fingal would show there is a seat there as is the case with George Lawlor's second-place finish in Wexford.

As Ged Nash commented on Saturday, “there is life in the old dog yet.” That might be true and the demise of the country's oldest poltical party is not nigh.

However, it would seem that Labour needs to retire some of its old dogs and make room for the newer breed if the recovery is to take hold.

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