Labour braced for by-election defeat

The Labour Party is bracing itself for a bruising defeat in Wednesday’s Meath East by-election.

The junior Coalition partner privates accepts it will bear the brunt of the Government’s unpopularity but still hopes its candidate, Eoin Holmes, will do enough to stay ahead of Sinn Féin.

The contest is boiling down to a battle between Fianna Fáil’s candidate, Senator Thomas Byrne, and Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee, whose father, Shane McEntee, held a seat here from 2005 up until his tragic death before Christmas.

The 26-year-old is trying to strike the balance of capitalising on her father’s popularity while convincing voters she is more than just a name. She is promising to continue the work of her father while, at the same time, being a “young, fresh voice”.

In a final push for votes, she will be joined by her father’s close friend, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today on visits to some of the main towns in the constituency.

Mr Byrne, who has already served one Dáil term, is tapping into anger about the property tax and the mortgage crisis in a bid to build votes in a constituency which saw the largest growth of housing in the boom years.

Mr Byrne, 35, dubbed “Bertie’s man” in the 2007 general election, will have to battle with his own past as a member of a government whose policies resulted in the problems acutely felt by the large commuter belt areas in the south of the constituency.

The vote for Sinn Féin’s candidate, Darren O’Rourke, will be closely watched, with rivals suggesting the party will significantly increase the 8% vote it secured in the 2011 general election.

If he manages to secure more votes than Labour — whose candidate Dominic Hannigan topped the poll in 2011 — it will mark an important moment for the party’s turbulent tenure in government.

It was hardly a huge vote of confidence when a Labour junior minister Sean Sherlock told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics yesterday: “When you are in Government — and the Labour Party has ministries that are taking very tough discussions — then it is likely that where those decisions affect people in their homes, it is possible that there will be some backlash against the smaller party in government.”

One of those ministers in a difficult brief, Joan Burton in social protection, will join Mr Holmes in Ashbourne today.

A Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post put Labour at 13% support — significantly below its general election support of 19% but an improvement on another poll last week.

Support for Sinn Féin was at 14%. Fine Gael was steady at 28% while Fianna Fáil dropped two points from the previous poll to 24%.

The main contenders vying for Dáil seat

*Fianna Fáil candidate Thomas Byrne was elected to the Dáil as a TD for Meath East in 2007, and lost his seat in the 2011 general election. He was subsequently elected to the Seanad. He has put in a strong campaign, taking advantage of anger with the Government on issues like mortgage arrears and property tax. But the emergence of a video showing him being endorsed by Bertie Ahern at the 2007 general election is likely to cause damage.

*Labour candidate Eoin Holmes is a film producer and a councillor since 2007, who also runs a small coffee shop business. He has pressed the Government to introduce abortion legislation in line with the X case ruling and joined TDs and senators from his party in Ashbourne to launch a bill on same-sex marriage.

*Fine Gael candidate Helen McEntee is contesting the seat her father held until he died last year. She completed a degree in economics, politics, and law in DCU and then went on to complete a masters in media and communication. Although she is expected to benefit from a sympathy vote, she is insisting that she is running as her own woman.

*Sinn Féin candidate Darren O’Rourke, a biomedical scientist, began working as a policy adviser to SF health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in 2011.


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